"Planting your own vineyard and starting up a new wine label is like dancing on a flying carpet," says winemaker Tessa Brown. "There's so much at risk - but it's awesome. Awesome being up here, working for ourselves, working on the land, and feeling that we're part of an exciting wine community."
"Up here" is Beechworth, in north-east Victoria. Brown and her partner, architect Jeremy Schmölzer, moved to these foothills from the Mornington Peninsula (where she had been working as a winemaker) in 2013, after buying a property in the region. The couple have planted 10,000 grapevines on their land and, while waiting for those plants to start bearing, have been buying grapes from local growers to produce superb mineral-laced chardonnay, earthy pinot and pale, dry rosé under their label Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown.
It's one of a remarkable number of impressive new wine labels to have cropped up in Beechworth over the last five years. The small region is already home to a disproportionate number of well-known producers - Giaconda, Castagna, Sorrenberg, Savaterre - not to mention a clutch of well-established but lower-profile wineries and vineyards such as Fighting Gully Road and Pennyweight. But the energy and expertise of the latest wave of newcomers - not to mention the sheer quality of their wines - is set to take the region to a new level.
Not surprisingly, given the peerless reputation of Giaconda's chardonnay, many of the new ventures feature the great white grape: former Vue de Monde sommelier Rocco Esposito is producing a fine and fruity example under his Project 49 label; Daniel Balzer makes a textural, refined example under the Willem Kurt label; Adrian Rodda sources chardonnay from the old Smiths' vineyard (the first planted in the region in the modern era) for his A Rodda label; and Chris Catlow makes Beechworth chardonnay (as well as Yarra Valley and Macedon Ranges chardonnay) under the Sentiō label at his winery in a renovated hospital just outside town.
"I fell in love with chardonnay when I worked some vintages in Burgundy," says Catlow. "The grape has this amazing ability to express a sense of place. So I source grapes from the three very different regions and make them exactly the same way to highlight this expression."
Like Brown, Catlow was drawn to Beechworth from the Mornington Peninsula, where he'd worked for wineries including Paringa Estate and Kooyong. For him, though, it's a homecoming: he was born in nearby Wodonga and spent a lot of time during his formative wine years with Barry Morey at Sorrenberg.
"It's been a good move, coming back," he says. "I've been surprised at the number of young, talented producers here now. We all love wine and love making wine; there's a feeling of great promise and diversity."
Diversity is definitely the word that springs to mind when faced with the flood of great new reds emerging from Beechworth's many and varied soils and aspects: from the plum compote and spice flavours of Baarmutha Wines' shiraz to the intense, savoury quality of Haldon Estate's cabernet, and the elegant claret stylings of A Rodda's Cuvée de Chez red blend.
Pete Graham is a good example of a winemaker embracing this diversity. Graham worked at Giaconda for 13 years, and was involved in a joint venture vineyard (the old Nantua vineyard) with Giaconda's Rick Kinzbrunner and Rhône winemaker Michel Chapoutier until 2012, when he bought his partners out. He now produces a variety of different wines under three labels - Ergo Sum, Domenica and Two Cells - from this one extraordinary site, including a textural roussanne-marsanne and an entrancing peppery shiraz.
"There's been enormous change in Beechworth in the last five years," says Graham. "So many new people and wine styles. And while you'd think all these people starting a business would be competition, in fact it expands awareness of the region - which means we all sell more. We also push each other to make better wine."
Tessa Brown points out that the excitement in Beechworth can be felt in neighbouring regions. Indeed, Schmölzer & Brown, Domenica and Sentiō are part of a promotional group of like-minded winemaking friends called The Thursday Table that also includes relatively new, mostly young, producers, Scion and Simão & Co in Rutherglen and the Alpine Valleys, and Eminence Wines in the King Valley.
"I see what's happening as a broader community of new winemakers," says Brown. "It's a new Beechworth and a new north-east."