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By Nathan Gogoll

I was lucky enough to travel to Mildura last week at the invitation of the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show. The committee had stretched their first fellowship program to include a ‘VIP media backstage pass’ so I got to be there as well as the actual ‘fellow’, sommelier Sarah Limacher.

So this is how I ended up on a solo roadtrip from Tanunda to the Grand Hotel in Mildura, about 320km away. Along the way my little Ford Focus zipped past famous wineries; about a quarter of all the winegrape vines planted in Australia; and past a big percentage of the Booth Transport semi-trailer fleet.

The trip required three different TripleJ radio frequencies. I resisted the temptation to stop at the Monash ‘adventure’ playground, but only because it is far less adventurous these days compared to my childhood memories of maniac metal contraptions.


A quick coffee stop in Renmark. 187km down. 138km to go.

I rolled into Mildura a little earlier than I officially needed to; meeting with Ben Manfield and Malcolm Douglas from Australian Tartaric Products (ATP) for a story you’ll be able to read later this year in the magazine. A three-block walk from the Grand Hotel, where I was staying, to the ATP office featured a surprising number of pubs.

The town is a lot like New York someone told me. Which I should probably clarify… the street names have some ideas in common with the Big Apple. I was staying on Seventh Street. The numbered streets all run parallel in a north-west to south-east direction. This had me stumped, because I’m used to the way Colonel Light set things out in South Australia – streets run more militarily north-south and east-west where I’m from. So, for the first couple of days in Mildura I only had a vague idea of which direction west was, thanks to afternoon shadows. Anyway, the streets in number order intersect with roads named Lemon, Lime and Orange Avenue as well as my personal favourite; Shillidays Lane.


My itinerary… lots of dinners.

On my first walk around Mildura I thought I had spotted, in the distance, the doppelgänger for a couple I know from the Barossa, but when I arrived at the first official appointment on my #AAVWSVIPMedia itinerary (an art exhibition opening) I happily confirmed it was actually a couple who lives down the road from me in Tanunda.
I also got to meet Kim Chalmers for the first time at this art exhibition. Turns out she was one of the collaborating artists for the ‘Reflections’, now showing at Gallery 25. Mildura has a small artistic community that punches above its weight.

From the art gallery to the Mildura Settlers Club Courtyard for the ‘Terra Australis’ Chalmers Wines event, attended by people closely connected to the AAVWS and the Chalmers family. I received the ‘introduction of a lifetime’ to Jane Faulkner… I don’t think anyone has ever been as excited to meet me, her reaction was priceless. I got to know the kids (grown-up kids with beards and tattoos) of some of the movers and shakers involved in this year’s show and could not get a word in with local Mark Golding, who’s married to another of the contributing artists from the earlier exhibition launch.

My personal highlight of the night was getting an opportunity to talk to Bart van Olphen. I’ve recently interviewed him over the phone and together with his sister-in-law, Tennille, he was the Grapegrower & Winemaker cover star for November. The food and the company was terrific.

I also got zapped by the bundle of energy that is Sarah Limacher, group sommelier for The Keystone Group in Sydney and the recipient of the first AAVWS Fellowship. She’s infectious. She’s enthusiastic. She loves clapping because it’s fun, free and full of encouragement. And she has a great laugh. I stayed out later than I should have. I blame Mark Golding. I could not get away from his classic Sunraysia stories, and I didn’t want to either. He also had some industry news for me, so it wasn’t all beer and skittles.


Record entries meant a record pile of boxes.

On Friday morning I visited the venue for the show judging – the Mildura Demons Football Club. The club wanted to put new carpet down in time for this year’s judging. But they were asked not to, because ‘new carpet’ aromas would put the judges off. I don’t imagine new carpet will be laid any time soon, I can almost hear the club treasurer saying ‘if it’s good enough for those winos, it’s good enough for our Demons’.

The 2014 show set a new record for the number of entries (716) and the lineup of wine spread across the footy club dance floor was impressive. The judges began the final taste off and I snuck out the back with the stewards and a Riedel. Votes for trophies were cast by show of hands. It’s the most-relaxed I’ve seen this done and I would have happily kept on tasting and listening in, but there was a vineyard to visit.


More than 700 wines were entered in this year’s show. A new record.


Wine show judging at the Demons footy club.

I had an entertaining and educational drive to Merbein thanks to my passengers, Mike Hayes and Sarah. Mike makes wine in Queensland and he’s super keen, he had prepared to attend the wine show by making up a spread sheet of every variety entered matched with information on ripening, flavour profile and disease susceptibility.

Our destination was Stonnington, the home of Bruce and Jennie Chalmers and their vineyard which has more than 40 alternative varieties. The locals call the lawn out the front the Merbein cricket pitch and the property is as pretty as a picture. There’s a palm-lined driveway, a big Mulberry tree (I snuck a couple of ripe berries), an impressive Jacaranda, a big crop of figs this year and some happy, noisy guinea-fowl (who might have kept their distance if they had understood Sarah say ‘yum’ when she first spotted them).


Under the back patio at Stonnington. The property is home to Bruce & Jennie Chalmers.

On our vineyard walk Mike ran around tugging on tendrils and measuring leaves, he did some digging and ate dirt. Bruce and Bart did a great job of explaining their vineyard practices and what they were learning about all their different varieties. Bruce said the dirt smelled good, but he wasn’t a dirt-eater. He loves worms, though, and the cow poop compost they use has done wonders for attracting “nature’s gardeners”.

Bart explained the Chalmers #bucketwine project, which you can read about in our November edition. I’ve never seen people better dressed for a vineyard tour. Bart and Sarah should have won awards for their efforts. I think people thought I was a bit weird, because I was wearing shorts and an old pair of Blundstones.


Bruce Chalmers. The expert ‘in his field’.


Flowering is almost complete in Mildura by early November.


Single row of Nosiola, all on the same rootstock.


A peek through the vines.


Sarah Limacher (centre) claimed the ‘best-dressed’ title for the vineyard tour.

After walking in and out of the vines we retreated to the shade of an old shed, converted to a great entertaining area and re-named the Stonnington Tavern. There were two ancient amphora at the doorway – we had an impromptu lesson in these big jars from Lado Uzanashvilli, from Georgia. The Georgian’s call them Kvevri, they’ve been making wine in them for thousands of years and Lado says we shouldn’t call them amphora, because they don’t have handles.

Inside the door there was a squashed-flat sleepy lizard nailed to the wall.


Refreshments were served at the local.


Loved this divine tilly.

A whirlwind café lunch separated the morning’s excitement in the Stonnington vineyards from the afternoon’s Talk and Taste action at the Mildura Workingman’s Club. The theme of ‘ancient in modernity’ featured two sessions: Georgia On My Mind with Lado; and Winemaking 101 – NOT, a panel discussion described as a “kick-arse session with cutting edge winemakers”, there was also an international wine journalist and even a sommelier-turned-distributor on the panel.

In the first bracket, Lado explained he wanted to re-introduce the “most pure” clone of Saperavi back to its home in Georgia. He found it in Australia. I’ll be exploring that story in more detail soon. He had eight examples of Georgian wine to help paint the picture of the winemaking of his homeland. He preferred not to talk about Russia, which he called the “big neighbour to the north”. Apparently Georgians win all the Olympic Judo gold medals. They’ve had thousands of years of experience defending themselves from their neighbour and fighting back. Lado concentrated on the winemaking.

There were scones with jam and cream for afternoon tea. The Workingman’s Club didn’t care there was a wine event on – they served up Blend 43 instant coffee just like they do for all the local union events. The winemakers all drank tea. Sarah Limacher said the mettwurst on offer had nothing on Linke’s garlic metty from Nuriootpa.

There were 14 wines and great discussions after the tea and scones. I somehow managed to write 15 notes for 14 wines and mucked up the order for poor Mark Lloyd, from Coriole, who I was sitting next to. Some winemaker thought it would be a good idea to grab the microphone and point out all the faults in the first wine of the second bracket. He interpreted it to be faulty, lacking in fruit and too hard for consumers to understand. His argument was defeated by the rebuttal. Clearly, the wine was rustic and sophisticated. I liked it, but I like semantics too. And I gave myself a gold star for picking up characters of flor a few wines later.

Somebody blamed the media for not being able to sell any Savagnin after they found out it wasn’t Albarino. I think there’s probably more to it than that.


Georgian winemaker Lado Uzunashvili was a highlight of the Talk & Taste event.

I walked back to the Grand from the Workingman’s Club, and took a couple detours. I stumbled across the local ABC station, there’s a tattoo parlour in the shop next door. It’s a very neat and clean town. But I think being able to get a tattoo next to the ABC station says a lot about it. I was particularly impressed with the conversion of the old movie theatre into the Mildura Brewery Pub.


Mildura is home to big palms and even bigger skies.

I was upstairs in the old theatre for tea, invited along to the judges’ dinner. I read my itinerary properly for the first time while getting changed and found out I was supposed to take a magnum of something interesting to share. I turned up empty-handed and apologised to a couple of people, but when I saw the collection of wine for the night I wasn’t so sorry.

We ate brilliant food and drank lots great wine (wisely and in moderation) but you’ll have to ask Stacey-Lee Edwards about it, she’s the sommelier at the Lake House and her wine knowledge blew my mind. I sat between keen surfer Brad Wehr from Margaret River and Corrina Wright from McLaren Vale, whose husband was away surfing at Cactus Beach. Sarah and Corrina got carried away and were crying with laughter at their own antics. Corrina has a crush on MoVida chef Frank Camorra. She was sitting next to him. That was all part of the commotion.

Apparently Corrina had cried earlier when the trophy wines were uncovered to the judges, too. One of her own wines was a winner. She used to live in Mildura and make a lot of Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay. They still make a lot of that wine. I wanted to visit the winery where it’s made, but I need to have a chaperone… a vintrepreneur from the Treasury Wine Estates group corporate affairs department. Nobody was available, so I couldn’t go. I met the winemakers and they said I could sneak in with them anytime I wanted. Nobody was available when I suggested Sunday morning.


Dining out in style with the show judges.

On Saturday I went to the exhibitor tasting with Mike Hayes – it’s great to taste with a winemaker, but he was a bit distracted because wines he made had won six gold medals. He was chuffed. He was wearing a pair of rainbow-coloured shorts and a Queensland state-of-origin jersey. He’s a huge character, so I’ll be writing more about him, soon.
I tasted everything from Gewürztraminer grown in New England to Teroldego from Margaret River. I tasted a lot of wines that had earned gold medals. Quality was good this year, so the number of gold medals was about 10 per cent of all entries.


Exhibitor tasting. Lots of wine to explore.

That afternoon chef Frank joined local legend Stefano de Pieri in the kitchen of a paddle steamer as the AAVWS Awards Long Lunch headed upstream on the mighty Murray. All the judges spoke to the crowd. Sarah did too. She gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard, which completely stole my thunder because she handed the microphone straight to me when she finished. I had to tell a joke just to keep up. Mike slapped me on the back and said it was a good one. Got to love a Queenslander.

International guest Walter Speller said Italian varieties have found a “second home” down under. Jane Faulkner declared the results “the best to date”.


The venue for the ‘long lunch’ and awards ceremony.

The trophies were handed out on board the PS Mundoo. Corrina almost managed to accept her trophies without crying. She thinks nobody noticed. But I did. I love emotion like that. They let Jane hand out a bunch of new trophies, apparently she adds to the list every year and joked about a Steve Pannell perpetual trophy for 2015.

Louisa Rose, the president of the show, said the results reflect a “coming of age” for alternative wines and vines. “The vines are getting older. The winemakers are more assured. We are 14 years into this show and the results reflect increasing confidence, attention and experience in the vineyard and in the cellar,” Rose said. “There is an amazing diversity of wines and it is so exciting to see such extraordinary vitality from the industry.”


My favourite dish of my time in Mildura – baby goat prepared by Stefano and Frank.

Steve Pannell claimed the best wine of show trophy for a fifth time. The full list of trophy results is at the bottom of this post. Jane said (with her tongue firmly in her cheek) she had to work hard to keep control of three panels of judges – this was the first year three panels were required. I know they all worked hard, but I think they had fun, too.

The boat trip was warm, the temperature topped 38 in Mildura that afternoon, so when we docked one group of judges got their togs on and went for a swim in the Grand Hotel pool. They drank vintage Champagne out of plastic cups after the pool boy threatened to confiscate the stemless Riedels (trophies won by Corrina).


Under the bridge. The Victorian side of the Murray River in view.


The Murray River Flag.

A bigger group of committee members, sponsors, judges and the whole Chalmers family made a beeline for the Mildura Brewery Pub. Most of the hospitality staff from the boat were doing a double shift. I bought Walter a Negroni and I had one of Stefano’s beers. Two drinks for $29. I know it’s an artistic town, but that’s pretty rich for a country pub. Lucky it was the only thing I paid for in four days.

When the pub shut, the after-party attracted almost 10 people. What it lacked in number it made up with diversity, Stefano was there but he wasn’t very impressed. He said you can’t judge the success of a party by how annoyed the neighbours get. I loved it. I loved my whole Mildura experience. I was sad to leave, but I had to get back to the Barossa and catch up with an old mate. I dragged him out to a cellar door where I knew I could buy him an alternative variety. We shared a Graciano blend in the sun.

I hope I get back to the AAVWS in the future. If you’re even half interested in alternative varieties, you have to get there. Meet me in Tanunda the day before. I’d love some company the next time I drive across.


Your 2014 AAVWS judging team.

Show results….

The Dr. Rod Bonfiglioli Best Wine of Show
S.C. Pannell Wines 2013 S.C. Pannell Tempranillo Touriga
Sponsored by Chalmers Wines Australia

Trans Tasman Award for Best New Zealand Wine
Waimea Estates 2014 Waimea Gruner Veltliner
Sponsored by Riversun Nursery

Best Red Wine
S.C. Pannell Wines 2013 S.C. Pannell Tempranillo Touriga
Sponsored by Mildura Brewery

Best White Wine
Oliver’s Taranga 2014 Oliver’s Taranga Fiano
Sponsored by Jamesprint

Best Red Italian Varietal
Hither & Yon 2014 Nero d’Avola
Sponsored by Orlando Wines

Best White Italian Varietal
Oliver’s Taranga 2014 Oliver’s Taranga Fiano
Sponsored by One Idea

Best Spanish Varietal
S.C. Pannell Wines 2013 S.C. Pannell Tempranillo Touriga
Sponsored by MoVida

Chief Judge’s Wine to Watch
Davis Premium Vineyards 2013 Rogue Series Hunter Valley Vermentino
Sponsored by Yalumba Nursery

Best Blend
S.C. Pannell Wines 2013 S.C. Pannell Tempranillo Touriga
Sponsored by Casella Wines

Best Commercial Volume Wine
Yalumba Wine Company 2013 Yalumba Y Series Tempranillo
Minimum 5000 cases
Sponsored by Morellofert

Best Rosé
Nova Vita Wines 2014 Firebird
Sponsored by Tasco Inland

Best Nebbiolo
2012 T’Gallant Odysseus (Mornington Peninsula)
Sponsored by Riedel Glassware

Best Murray Darling Region Wine
2013 Calabria Private Bin Vermentino
Sponsored by Sunraysia Cellar Door

Stewards Choice Award
Beach Road Wines 2013 Fiano
Sponsored by Macquarie Agricultural

Best Organic Wine
2013 Whistling Kite Biodynamic Montepulciano
Sponsored by Mangan Group

Best Fortified
Stanton & Killeen Rare Topaque
Sponsored by Paul Danenberg Dental

International Judge’s Wine to watch
2012 Beach Road Aglianico
Sponsored by Danenberg Dental Surgery

Best Label Artwork
2013 Next Crop Graciano Tempranillo
Sponsored by Healy and Daughter