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Geoffrey Dean's tour of Australia takes him to the wineries of Victoria

Published:  02 January, 2013

Ever drunk sparkling wine out of a can? I can sense a pretty horrified reaction from many readers, but one Australian winery believes it is the first to sell bubbly in aluminium.

Ever drunk sparkling wine out of a can? I can sense a pretty horrified reaction from many readers, but one Australian winery believes it is the first to sell bubbly in aluminium.

Innocent Bystander, in the Yarra Valley, has just released its 2012 vintage of sweet sparkling Moscato (5.5% abv) in 25cl cans to target what they call the 'massive' 18-23 year old market.

Your correspondent was given a tasting out-of-can on a visit to the Victorian winery, and found the pink bubbles very quaffable. Although the residual sugar was inevitably high (90g/l) given the low alcohol, it was well balanced by the very high acidity, the fruit having been picked early.

"The key thing for us is that the wine tastes exactly the same as it does out of bottle," Phil Sexton, Innocent Bystander's winemaker, told Harpers. "You can't tell which is which when tasting the two blind. RTD - Ready to Drink - beverages are ideal for the 18 to 23s, and you can buy our cans in a pack of four for 20 bucks. Or individually at five or six dollars...about the same as an RTD. Ideal for nightclubs, airlines and picnics."

Sales have gone so well at the winery that Sexton predicts the 3,000-case production run (24 cans per case) will be sold out by the end of January. A much larger amount will be made in April/May after the next vintage, with exports planned to Singapore and United States. The UK is also set to import, although Sexton says he is waiting on advice from Liberty at present to work out the right size of can for the British market.

Another clever packaging idea has been dreamt up by the Mornington Peninsula winery, Ten Minutes by Tractor (named as that was how long it took the owner to drive to his vineyard sites). It started production in November of 60ml 'Wits" (from the trademark 'Witmaker'), which are glass phials, seven inches in length. Each contain about half a glass of wine. Ten Minutes make five different Pinot Noirs, from different vineyard sites, and each is housed in a five-phial pack costing around A$35.

"The idea has been embraced by the public," Jeremy Magyar, the Ten Minutes winemaker, told Harpers. "It's a lovely way to look at five very small production wines rather than have to buy five bottles at forty or fifty bucks each. The idea behind it was for trade mailings, but we made 3,000 packs and have almost sold out. We use a screwcap and are telling people to drink by the end of March. I think within six months will be fine, and possibly a year."

Throw in De Bortoli's use of Guala Closures' new screwcap for sparkling wine, and it is clear that Victorian wineries are the Aussie pacesetters when it comes to innovation. More significantly, perhaps, they are challenging South Australia for all-round quality of wines. Wine regions in Victoria are scattered around the state like confetti but they are yielding top-class produce across a wide spectrum of varietals.

In the Mornington, Yabby Lake, Kooyong and, indeed, Ten Minutes are making some outstanding single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but one Pinot specialist producer that really impressed is Hurley. Kevin Bell is as meticulous with his winemaking on this nine-acre plot as he is with his other job - a Victorian Supreme Court judge.

Some of the best Chardonnays in Australia are being made in the Yarra by Oakridge's Dave Bicknell, a cousin of former England cricketer, Martin. Dave, who came to Australia from the UK aged eight, crafts an exceptional range of wines, including sauvignon blanc, shiraz and cabernet, but his Chardonnays are his calling card. Disliking intervention, he does not rack his Denton Vineyard Chardonnay at all, even off the gross lees.

While much of south-eastern Australia struggled to make good (indeed any) wine in the rain-sodden 2011 vintage, the Yarra proved an exception to the rule, coming up with some excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. "Warmer years are not so good for those two grapes," Bicknell said, "but 2011 was cool with high acidity. Yes, the yield was low, but the wines were really good." His own Oakridge 864 single block Chardonnay is amongst the best New World examples of that cultivar, while Sexton's Giant Steps Pinot Noir from the Gladysdale Vineyard is also top-notch. Perfumed and fine-boned, this shows how elegant Yarra Pinot can be.

Equally refined is Ros Ritchie's superb Riesling and Gewürztraminer from Mansfield, 300 kms north-east of Melbourne. The former town may be better known for having housed Prince Charles for two terms as a teenager in 1956 at its Timbertop school, but the height of its vineyards (1,000 feet or more) allow a wide diurnal range that Riesling, in particular, thrives on.

Not far from Mansfield, in the Nagambie Lakes area, two adjacent wineries of note, Tahbilk and Mitchelton, are situated right on the banks of the Goulburn River. Both make fine Marsanne, the former from vines planted in 1927, but Tahbilk has a three-quarter acre plot with Shiraz vines dating back to the 1860s. Phylloxera ravaged the area but not this sandy enclave. Aged in 66% new French oak, this is the antithesis of the big bruiser of an Aussie Shiraz. Elegant, medium-bodied with soft tannins and a long finish, it is a true icon wine of Australia.

* Geoffrey Dean is travelling across Australia covering cricket for the Times and its different wine regions for Harpers as part of his studies for the second year of his Master of Wine.