While I’ve been lucky to taste a few good Australian wines, they have been big-ticket, well-known brands that consistently receive top critic scores and international recognition. But I realized I knew very little about Australia, its wine regions, and what makes it special. It’s also hard when many of the wines that make it to America do not come from family wineries and tend to have eye-catching labels with cute animals backed by a global conglomerate.
According to Wine Australia, there are 2,156 wineries and approximately 6,000 grape growers employing 163,790 full and part-time employees across 65 wine growing regions in Australia, contributing over $45 billion annually to the Australian economy.
I had a chance to chat with Darren Rathbone, the CEO and Group Winemaker of the Rathbone Wine Group, a family-owned Australian wine group based in Melbourne.
Darren received his college degree in chemical engineering, but when his father and uncle purchased 30 acres in 1995, he made the decision to go to UC Davis to pursue his master’s degree in enology. After receiving his degree, he worked for Spottswoode, Etude and Chateau Lynch-Bages and Domaine Moreau Bernard & Fils in France before returning home to work for his family winery in 2002. Darren is a winemaker with a passion for producing wines that show the uniqueness of Australia. He has over 30 years of experience in the industry.
The family made a quality-over-quantity decision, replanted the Yering Station (the first purchase), and decided to harvest fruit from estate vineyards and vineyards from well-known grape growers. In 2003, they acquired the Mount Lange Ghiran and Xanadu in 2005. They have since upgraded the winery facilities and planted new vineyards.
Darren told me that the goal of each place focuses on the unique flavors of the vineyard and the terroir with winemaking in the background.
The group’s portfolio includes three of Australia’s historic winery estates from distinct terroirs and regions that span over 3,000 miles:
- Yering Station in the Yarra Valley of Victoria. The Yarra Valley is located about 40 miles east of Melbourne and is Australia’s oldest wine region known for cool-climate wines producing grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
- Mount Langi Ghiran in Victoria’s Grampians region, known for its cool-climate wines along with cold winters and short, warm summers. It’s part of the Western Victoria region with a variety of climates. The name Langi Ghiran is derived from the local dialect of the Djab Wurrung people meaning “home of the yellow-tailed black cockatoos.
- Xanadu in Margaret River, Western Australia. Margaret River is in the southwest corner of Western Australia, and it is known for its maritime climate and rain. It is a Mediterranean climate, with cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. The winery makes Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from this region. When they acquired the property, they put the focus back on vineyard quality and took the production significantly down.
Each brand has its own winemaker and its own viticulturalist. Yering Station and Xanadu are known as great wineries along with tourist destinations with restaurants.
The Rathbone Wine Group also operates a bottling, warehousing, and logistics business servicing the wine industry called 14 Degrees based in Port Melbourne. They also have an import company focused on the US.
The Rathbone Wine Group is committed to sustainability and is continually measuring, recording, and adjusting practices to be better. The group is a member of the Sustainable Winegrowing Australia (SWA) and the Australian Wine Research Institution (AWRI). Darren talked about taking a strong scientific approach with the impact of knowing the impact actions have.
A perfect example is that every bottle is under a screwcap. This was originally the result of a severe cause of cork taint and the company made the move 20 years ago for all bottles. I asked Darren if consumers pushed back on the enclosures, and he answered in some markets it mattered more than others.
I had the chance to try wines across all the portfolios and was impressed the prices ranged from under $20 to up to $300 (converted into dollars):
- 2021 Xanadu Reserve Chardonnay – using the Australian clone Gingin this wine has notes of pears, nectarines, citrus, jasmine, brine, and grapefruit. Crisp and delicious.
- 2020Xanadu Cabernet Sauvignon – This wine has been embraced by the critics in Australia and the US. I tasted blackberry, bay leaf, Asian spice, dark chocolate, and violet. It was full-bodied but very drinkable.
- 2020 Yering Station Pinot Noir – notes of cherry, potpourri, strawberries, herbs, earth, and spice.
- 2021 Yering Station Pinot Noir Reserve – from a great year, a great wine was made. I tasted notes of cherry, cassis, earth, nutmeg, and herbs. It was complex and well-balanced. Darren was generous enough to let me take the bottle home and I enjoyed its development over the next two days.
- 2019 Yering Station Shiraz Viognier – a blend of 97 percent Shiraz and 3 percent Viognier that is co-fermented, the wine has notes of vanilla, blackberries, violets, spice, and pepper.
- 2020 Mount Langi Ghiran Cliff Edge Shiraz – notes of blackberry, spice, olive tapenade, licorice, and cherry.
- 2021 Mount Langi Ghiran Billi Billi Shiraz – a blend from four different regions in Central Victoria that has notes of plum, blueberry, black cherry, spice, and violets.
Darren ended our conversation by telling me about his passion for proving what makes Australia better by showing it in the glass.