Hurdles cleared, Rock hard to beat - James Halliday writes about the first 25 years of Hanging Rock Winery.
WHEN John and Annie (nee Tyrrell) Ellis bought the Jim Jim property looking out to Hanging Rock in the Macedon Ranges in May 1982, they had little idea of the challenges ahead for them.
Given that John Ellis was Rosemount Estate's first winemaker (in 1967) and moved to the same role at Tisdall Estate at Echuca (but with the large Mount Helen vineyard in the Strathbogie Ranges), you might think it was simply a move from employee status to outright ownership of yet another start-up business.
Needless to say, it is one thing to create a branded winery for an owner with deep pockets and an altogether different story when every dollar spent has to be carefully weighed.
Bank managers must be treated with kid gloves in the good times and kept at bay when the economy begins to turn sour, as it did at the end of the '80s.
But an even larger hurdle for the Ellises was to overcome the transition from managing warm-region, reliably generous-yielding vineyards to a cool site with meagre soil and a never-ending battle to coax the vines to produce meaningful crops.
The first plantings of pinot noir in 1983 largely failed in the face of snow and frost; sauvignon blanc and semillon followed in 1984 (with replacement pinot vines), and an amount of semillon was picked in 1986.
While this was happening, a bore was sunk that to this day is the sole source of water and, in 1985, an old riverside grain silo was purchased, moved to Jim Jim and reconstructed as a combined winery and residence.
The year 1987 marked the first real (albeit small) vintage of pinot noir and chardonnay for sparkling wine (part of the original decision to move to Macedon) and semillon and sauvignon blanc for table wines under the Hanging Rock label. Of even greater significance was the leasing of a 40-year-old shiraz vineyard from Roger McLean, on the red Cambrian soil of Mount Camel, soil that has since established Heathcote as one of the greatest shiraz regions in Australia.
The wine (the first to be made at the new winery) went on to achieve great success at shows and critical acclaim from wine writers. But even then it was obvious the business needed substantial additional capital to fund expansion to a more economic size. It was decided to float on the stock exchange: one week after the prospectus was issued, the stock exchange collapse of October 1987 swept the world, crushing alike whales and minnows, such as Hanging Rock.
Businessman Bardie Russell came to the rescue and was present when Hanging Rock celebrated its 25th birthday last month. His financial involvement long since paid out, he is proud of the growth and strength of the business.
While a range of cheaper brasserie wines with imaginative labels and Riverland fruit was developed, the Heathcote shiraz sat alongside the emerging Macedon Cuvee sparkling wines as the flag-bearers.
Just when it seemed the challenges were over, the Mount Camel vineyard expired due to salinity problems caused by tree-felling further up the mountainside.
The 1992 crush was three tonnes. After that, the removal of the vines was inevitable. In 1994, another white knight in the form of Athol Guy (of the Seekers fame) appeared, and a new joint-venture vineyard was planted a little further north of the original site, producing its first wine in 1997, seamlessly picking up where the 1992 left off.
I was treated to a vertical tasting of all the Heathcote shiraz as part of the birthday celebrations. While vintage variation always plays a role (1989 was a terrible vintage in many places), the tasting consistently underlined the 20-year life span of the wines (longer in the best vintages).
My favourite wines were the '04, '03, '00 and '98, with the '02, '97, '92 and '91 only a whisker behind. Oh, and a sentimental vote for the '87, still holding on to life.
I'm sure John and Annie Ellis know there are many challenges still to be surmounted, but it may just be that on the score of climate change they have their chess pieces neatly placed.
A bit more warmth at Macedon would be no bad thing, and shiraz (especially grown on great soil) is both hardy and adaptable.