Historic and Quality Wine at Best’s Great Western
The Gold Rush hit Victoria, Australia in the 1850s bringing incredible wealth through the region, as well as increased settlements and immigration. With the larger population other services were also required. Brothers Joseph and Henry Best worked as butchers, supplying meat to the region. However, as the gold supply started to wain, so did the demand for food businesses. Not everyone that rushed for gold stayed.
Joseph and Henry had befriended a French pair, Troutte and Blampied, growing vines sourced from the original Busby collection brought into Australia in 1833 from France and Spain. The Busby collection is considered one of the most diverse, and serious of the various waves of vine imports to the country. Turning to the offer of fate, the Best brothers decided to take up a new industry both to themselves and the region of Great Western. The district had had some small early success in planting vines, but it was not yet thoroughly developed.
In the late 1860s, each brother purchased property on which to root their vines. While Joseph’s vineyards later moved into corporate ownership (a small number of these original vines remain but they are blended in with other wine. Most were pulled for the sake of production levels.), Henry Best’s vineyards remain intact, owned by the same family, the Thompsons, that bought the land originally following Henry’s death in 1920.
In the 1860s, Henry planted 39 varieties over 22 hectares. The types were planted side by side on own roots, and left to discover which would best succeed in the conditions of the Best property. Incredibly, those same plantings exist today in what is known as Best’s Nursery Block. The winery also bottles both a white and red field blend from the Nursery Block, available at the Cellar Door.
8 of the varieties present in the Nursery Block remain unidentified. The Thompson family has allowed genetic samples of the original plantings to be taken in order to accurately name the grape types. However, even with extensive research and genetic matching attempts, eight of the vines remain unknown.
I find these 8 vines mind blowing–no one knows where they originated, or how prevalent they may have been elsewhere when first brought to Australia. They represent a small glimmer into the indiscernible element of wine’s past. The field blend wines from the Nursery Block are both strange and wonderful to taste, offering a lightness of foot while also hard to grasp flavors. In both cases, I enjoyed the delicate while rustic aromas offered through a lighter-side-of-medium bodied wine.
Today genetic researchers still regularly request cuttings and study of the Best’s Nursery Block, as the isolation of the plantings, as well as the integrity they show with age (pre-phylloxera plantings on their own roots) make them a unique library of information.
close up of vines from the 1860s Nursery Block
In 1867 and 1868 the Thompson Family Block was established, fifteen rows of dry farmed, own rooted Shiraz planted in sandy loam. Those plantings exist today and are still bottled, when possible, in a separate Thompson Family Shiraz.
Best also identified what are now known as Dolcetto and Pinot Meunier as appropriate matches to the region. As a result, the vineyards include a block of Pinot Meunier from 1867, also dry farmed. In 1971, cuttings were taken from the Pinot Meunier portion of this block and established as what they now call the “Young Vine” Pinot Meunier vineyard.
Going through the Pinot Meunier block, 15% of the historic vines turn out to be Pinot Noir. In 1868, some of the Pinot Noir was planted in a block now bottled as Best’s “Old Clone.” At the time of planting, the vine was simply understood as an unidentified Burgundian clone.
In 1869, a 12-row block of Dolcetto was also established, though the vine was not well known at the time, today still intact on their own roots as planted. However, the juice from these wines is generally blended with fruit from 1971 plantings established from the original vines.
a glimpse of the 1860s Nursery Block field blend–white in front, red in the distance
By 1870, the Best Vineyard had established 48,000 vines. The Thompson family has worked to preserve the genetic lineage of their unique site in multiple ways. Cuttings have been taken from each of the nursery block plants and established in a new location with the same basic layout. Similarly, young blocks of the original Pinot Meunier and Shiraz have also been established.
The vineyard plantings outside the Nursery Block are known as the Concongella Block, named for the river that neighbors the property. Best’s Great Western Concongella site showcases the characteristics of the region–a more continental climate, considered cool climate, but with warmer days, while still cool nights that allow both a ripeness of flavor and vibrant acidity, also allowing dry farming. The Eucalyptus of the region sneak their flavor into the reds but without being overwhelming. The soils help generate what I think of as melt away tannins–they are present in the mouth, and their effect is sustained on the palate, while being more crumbling than grippy or aggressive. This type of tannin seems characteristic of the Great Western district.
The Best’s winery site showcases its history as well. An old work building now serves as the tasting room, or cellar door entrance. The facility allows visitors to take a self-directed tour of the historic aspects of the winery as well, many of them still functioning.
In the underground sections older bottles line the walls. The facility includes a complete vintage library going back to 1960.
large size tanks throughout the historic cellars are used for aging reds before release
On the top floor of the historic winery a cap appears in the floor. When you then go downstairs the reason for the cap is revealed. The original cellar housed a massive, rounded room-size fermenter dug into the earth itself. A door has now been cut into the fermenter allowing it to be visible from below (there is no good way to get a picture of it). At the turn of 1800s into the 1900s, wine was made in the room-size fermenter by first lowering a man on a rope through the cap. He would use a large candle to line the entire room with wax. Then the grapes were put directly into the room to ferment in the massive vat underground. Standing inside of it, the room has intensely strange acoustics that make it uncomfortable to remain inside for very long. As a result, the fermenter is now used primarily for storage and display. Guessing, it was at least 20 ft deep, and about 15 ft across.
Inside the fermenter years ago some old bottles were found left there and forgotten about as storage materials. One of these was a 1976 Pinot Meunier made from the 1867 planting, which we were able to open. Later we also drank one from 2002, and tasted from the current vintages of Old Vine (planted in 1878), and Young Vine (planted in 1971) Pinot Meuniers. Pinot Meunier is one of my favorite grapes. These were lovely wines. (Thinking of them makes me feel dreamy.)
Best’s makes a range of wines, but their central focus is on Shiraz. The Bin 1 bottling serves as the labels work horse with the highest production level, and the greatest overall accessibility. It’s a wonderfully juicy, rich flavored wine. The Bin 0 brings together a blend of the older vineyards, including those planted in 1966, and 1970. The Thompson Family bottling is made from the 15 rows originally planted in 1867, when possible. On years when the fruit from these rows is not appropriate for single vineyard bottling it is blended into Bin 0.
The overall quality of Best’s Great Western wines is solid, with a healthy balance between interesting, pleasurable flavors, and fantastic structure. I like the ruggedness that can be found in the older vine bottlings, but the juicy freshness of Bin 1 is impressive and enjoyable. These are well priced, quality wines. It is also a genuine honor to first visit vines of such age and grace, and then drink their wines. Thank you.
Thank you to Jonathan Mogg and David Fesq.
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