Visiting Lethbridge Wine in Geelong
Entering the winery at Lethbridge olive trees welcome you. The hardwood dots the property producing pressable fruit only every other year.
Lethbridge rests in Geelong at the Western reaches of Australia’s Southeastern province, Victoria. The area is aptly called a cool climate, consistently harvesting last among the mainland wine regions.
looking across the Lethbridge vineyards to the house
Together Ray Nadeson and Maree Collis established the Lethbridge Vineyards in 1996. The two both worked as academics in Melbourne at the time, Nadeson doing research and teaching in neuroscience, Collis in biochemistry.
Nadeson had an established love for wine, especially Burgundy. On days off from work, with a friend he would daydream about the idea of getting to make wine himself someday. Over time the brainstorm took hold till Collis and Nadeson together decided to research the possibility. They each completed programs in winemaking and spent time thinking through the principles implicit in a good vineyard site. Nadeson explained that they were determined to invest in a basic understanding of soil science, which led them to recognize the role of rocks in good vineyards around the world.
Ray Nadeson, and Maree Collis began Lethbridge in the 1990s. With the production of Lethbridge Wine having expanded over time, Alex Byrne now also helps with their winemaking.
The couple spent several years searching for their ideal location. They wanted proximity to Melbourne because of their day jobs, soils that would support but challenge the vines, and a cooler location. At the time they were looking, Geelong was primarily ranch land. The area had been a historically important wine region for Australia, with vines planted through the area in the 1870s by Swiss immigrants. But in the
early 1900s late 1800s, when phylloxera arrived on the continent, laws were enacted to pull all of the Geelong vineyards out.
To find a suitable site, then, Nadeson and Collis applied their research skills to land maps. They identified the areas within driving distance of the city, then overlaid soil studies and ownership parcels. Finally, after a couple years of looking they zoned in on two potential properties near the town of Lethbridge. The sites weren’t for sale, so they decided to knock on the owners’ door.
Touring the land that would become their Lethbridge Estate, the owner at the time finally asked if the couple could use any old vineyard equipment. He walked them to a tin sided shack from the 1880s full of vineyard and winery materials left there from that century. Nadeson and Collis made an offer and soon after moved onto the land.
Geelong sits in a region also known as the Golden Plains. The area is an old seabed full of limestone, but due to volcanic activity much of it is covered in a top layer of basalt. As a result, few trees show through the district, covered instead by surface crop, thus the grasses and flat land of the moniker.
black basalt soil at the base of the Shiraz vines
The land of Lethbridge falls on a divide with dark basalt soils covering most of the vineyard, cracking in the dry weather of the region, and lighter basalt falling over other parts. (These cracks are impressively deep. As Ray mentioned, you could lose your keys in there.)
honeycomb basalt rocks in the vineyard
The basalt is also dotted throughout with iron stone, or hematite. Only about six inches into the soil honeycomb basalt rocks begin to persistently appear resting atop a field of bluestone, a type of basalt boulder that was also harvested for government buildings in Victoria. Below rests the limestone.
8-year old vines at Lethbridge
The result of the soil and climate combination at Lethbridge includes miniaturized vines, and ultra low yields. The ironstone is palpable on the palate resulting in light bloody notes in the Pinot, and a long ferric finish in the Shiraz. The soil-rock combination of the site also creates impressive tannin structure throughout the varieties grown at Lethbridge. The tannin is assertive without being aggressive or harsh. It’s a structure Nadeson explains he prefers. Lethbridge also hold their top-tier wines several years in bottle before release to help prepare the structure for drinking. As an example, their 2009 Mietta Pinot Noir (grown on the Lethbridge vineyard) is only about to be released.
We tasted an older Merlot-blend that showed far more grip than would be expected from the predominate grape. When I asked Nadeson how much Cabernet he’d blended in (expecting that was the source of the tannin) he told me very little, then walked me out to the Merlot vines. Tasting the fruit of the vine that same tannin is apparent.
Lethbridge’s Mietta Pinot Noir Vines
The structural character of Lethbridge fruit is not only a matter of tannin, however. The cooler climate keeps excellent acidity throughout the wines. The depth of the vine roots, and the character of the soils generate a wonderful tension through the wine as well. It’s the same sort of description Chef de Cave identify as minerality in Champagne–a kind of flavor-muscular stimulation in the mouth. It pulls the flavors of the wine into unified concert with the structure of the wine by stimulating the tongue and creating an echoing tension effect. The flavors resonate, and the structure of the mouth literally responds long down the throat.
Lethbridge produces three tiers of wine. The Allegra Chardonnay, Mietta Pinot Noir, Indra Shiraz, and Hugo George Super Tuscan represent their top level wines, all meant to age and are held in bottle for several years before release. We were able to taste multiple vintages going back to the first on each of these wines. They carry a smart progression of drinking nicely on the older vintages while still showing greater focus and clarity on the newer ones–the sign of an evolving while consistent winemaker. I especially liked the Allegra Chardonnays. They offer that pulpy texture of just biting into fresh orchard fruit, while carrying a mix of citrus and light apricot flavors touched by a focusing line of reductive character. Impressively, the 2004 and 2005 were brilliant right now.
Lethbridge’s midlevel label, the Estate bottlings, offer still generously flavored and structured wines, that drink a little sooner and still do well with age. Where the upper tier wines are very structurally focused, the estate bottlings come in comparatively more relaxed line. Compared to the Indra, the Estate Shiraz offers a more approachable style that is still definitively Geelong for its distant desert spice and wound lines, for example.
The Menage label represents their younger, most affordable line, with a juicy Pinot Noir as the real show piece. Lethbridge also revels in trying various new projects alongside their central themes. We were able to taste a range of one-offs and side bottlings that show the playful side of the winemakers. My favorite of these was their Riesling and dessert Rieslings–brilliant acidity throughout.
post-edit: I originally said early 1900s for the arrival of phylloxera, but it came over in botany samples in the late 1800s. The response was to enact vine pull laws through parts of Victoria in an attempt to protect other areas with vines. If you’d like to read more on this history here is a nice post from Gonna Warra Vineyards: http://www.goonawarra.com.au/a-taste-of-history
The blog Betty’s Wine Musings briefly mentions something I’d been told while traveling through Victoria, that the vine pull scheme was likely motivated by more political reasons than scientific need. Her post can be found here: http://www.bettyswinemusings.com/australian-wines-from-devastation-to-deluge
Also, Australian wine writer, Max Allen, wrote to clarify that while Geelong is a cool climate, and does start among the last for mainland harvest, other areas in mainland Australia can harvest later. Here’s what he had to say in email:
“Geelong is definitely a cooler climate wine region, yes, but there are quite
a few others on the mainland that consistently harvest later (or at least
consistently finish harvesting later) – Orange, 1000 metres up on the slopes
of an old volcano in New South Wales, for example, and Henty, further out in
the widescreen country of southwest Victoria …”
Thanks for the information, Max. Always glad to get more clarification!
If you’d like to read more about Orange, here’s a good start from the Vignerons of the region: http://www.winesoforange.com.au/
And to read more about Henty, here’s a start from the Wine Diva website: http://www.winediva.com.au/regions/henty.asp
Thank you to Ray Nadeson and Maree Collis for hosting me. Thank you to Alex Byrne. Thank you to David Fesq. I very much enjoyed my time at Lethbridge and appreciate the generosity you showed. Thank you.
Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.