The little house with a peaked roof pokes up over the crest of the hill, and the vineyards in the back yard spill off to the north and west, like a silk wrap that is slipping off the shoulder. Despite the few acres of vineyards clustered around the newish looking house and barn, with a small patch of garden out back, you wouldn’t necessarily know that this was a winery from the dirt lane that connects the small farm with the paved country lane at the bottom of the hill. Indeed, as you open the iron gate at the end of the driveway with its hand lettered sign: “Please keep this gate closed at all times. Livestock is present even if you can’t SEE IT” your impression is one of a small family farm, rather than a winery.
And of course, that’s exactly what Julian Castagna wants out of his little homestead in the foothills of the Victorian Alps. He hates the term winemaker, and prefers instead “winegrower” which better describes both his aspirations, as well as the activities that play out on his small biodynamic estate, Castagna.
Castagna, in some ways, is one of the least likely people you’d expect to end up running a tiny biodynamic winery in the rural farm country of the Beechworth, a couple of hours from Melbourne. Fifteen years ago you’d have likely found him in a business class seat on an airplane, jetting between London, New York, and Los Angeles and working on the latest high-end commercial or film project for some major global brand. Castagna’s company produced and shot commercials for some of the world’s best brands in the Eighties and Nineties.
The link between this world of high class advertising and wine was simple: the expense account.
“I was in London a lot those days,” he says, “and it really was the world capital of wine. There’s just wonderful stuff in London, and I was buying it and drinking it. All my friends in the industry were buying flash cars and houses, and I was just buying wine. But I was never thinking for a moment that this would be my life.”
Castagna spent a lot of money drinking a lot of really amazing wine and fell deeper and deeper in love with it, even sneaking off on weekends to go visit wineries whenever he found himself near a wine region. And while he was there, he wouldn’t just taste, he would stay and help and watch.
But then something changed in his business. “The idea of what I was doing changed, somehow. The industry shifted. Suddenly everyone wanted me to prove that something would work, that an idea would sell. I’m not good at that. I found myself in board meetings trying to be cleverer than everyone else rather than trying to make the best stuff that I could make and I knew that it was a disastrous thing to do.”
Castagna and his wife had been flirting with the idea of bringing their kids up Australian, so this final straw made it easy to close up shop and find a little place in the country where they could have a horse, and a garden, and a few grapevines for Castagna to putter around with just for fun. He figured he could do some freelance work now and then to make a little money, and make a little wine, “nothing serious,” he said.
And so they ended up with a little house with a peaked roof and a small barn. They put a few acres of grapes in the ground in 1997, and then bought a little fruit that, with the help of neighbor Rick Kinzbrunner, of Giaconda, Castagna turned into his first vintage of wine in 1998.
Castagna quickly realized two things: that he was hooked on winemaking, and that he was good at it. Or as he puts it, “I realized straight away that I had strong opinions about things and how they should work.”
12 years in, Castagna seems like he’s truly hitting his stride. With his son Adam working with him in his tiny winery behind the house, and the farm settled comfortably into its biodynamic routine, Castagna seems focused on fine tuning his wines while at the same time playing around with the raw materials he has on hand, as evidenced by the dessert wine he has developed that is some crazy hybrid between Vin Santo and Sherry — a gift that he’s going to give to his most loyal customers.
Castagna currently produces two sets of wines. The Adam’s Rib label, featuring a red blend and a white blend, is run by his son as an odd hybrid between a second label (for slightly lower quality juice) and a separate project altogether. The Castagna line of wines contains a white, a rosé styled after the pink wines of Tavel, and several reds, including a Sparkling Shiraz, which is a style of wine that Castagna adores.
The winemaking at Castagna is pretty much what you would expect from a tiny biodynamic outfit that produces 1800 cases of wine across two labels. Everything is done by hand, with very little electricity. Hand harvesting leads to gentle crushing of whole clusters and some destemmed grapes. Fermentations take place at their own speed with native yeasts, pressing is done by hand with a basket press, and the wines are never fined or filtered. New oak is generally kept to a minimum.
The results of Castagna’s approach truly speak for themselves. The wines range from very good to tremendous, and clearly reflect both the soil and the season in which they are made as well as the vision of the person who has made them. Castagna is clearly making wines of philosophy and of place, and succeeding admirably, even as his wines defy the stereotypes of Australian wine as big, over-oaked, fruit bombs.
The wines are very difficult to obtain in the United States, thanks to a number of factors, not the least of which are the very limited quantities in which they are made. The only one I was able to find available for sale online is the Shiraz.
2007 Adam’s Rib “The White” White Blend, Beechworth, Australia
Light green-gold in the glass, this wine has a wonderful nose of lemongrass and cucumber with a nice floral overtone and a hint of nuttiness with more air. In the mouth it is beautifully floral with tropical fruits, hints of melon, and a wonderful apple quality borne on a base of nice acidity that morphs to slight spiciness in the finish. An unusual blend of roughly 70% Chardonnay, 30% Viognier. Score: between 9 and 9.5
2008 Castagna “Ingenue” Viognier, Beechworth, Australia
Light green-gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of peaches and fresh apricots with a hint of vanilla flowers. In the mouth it is fresh and bright, with wonderful peach and apricot fruit, bright acidity and a lovely grassy note on the finish. Excellent acidity and near-perfect balance allow this wine to dance a fine line between weightiness and delicacy. Score: between 9 and 9.5
2008 Castagna “Allegro” Syrah Rosé, Beechworth, Australia
Medium coppery, terra cotta red in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry. On the palate flavors of cherry, strawberry, and watermelon predominate. Silky in texture, with a light bitterness overlaid on a nice acid backbone, the wine is not quite as elegant as it could be, but is nonetheless quite quaffable. Score: between 8.5 and 9
2006 Adams Rib “The Red” Red Blend, Beechworth, Australia
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a bright floral nose of cranberry, cherry and violets. In the mouth it is juicy and spicy, with a light tannic structure and great acid. It walks the line between a light Syrah and a Pinot in a really wonderful way, borrowing raspberry and cassis from each respectively. Very interesting. 40% Syrah, 60% Pinot Noir. Score: between 8.5 and 9
2008 Adams Rib “The Red” Red Blend, Beechworth, Australia
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cherry and dried flowers. On the palate it is soft and delicate, with a very nice floral aspect and raspberry and cherry flavors with light tannins that emerge after several mouthfuls. At first I thought this wine was a bit simple, but the more I drink it, the more I think it is fabulously subtle and delicate. Really interesting. 70% Nebbiolo, 30% Shiraz. Score: around 9.
2005 Castagna “Un Segreto” Red Blend, Beechworth, Australia
Dark ruby in color, this wine has a nose of cherry, dark chocolate, and a nice sweet wood incense character. In the mouth it is bright and velvety with powdery tannins. Flavors of cherry, cocoa powder, raspberry and sandalwood linger in a long finish. An unusual blend of Sangiovese and Shiraz. Score: around 9.
2006 Castagna “Un Segreto” Red Blend, Beechworth, Australia
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherries and cinnamon, or some other pungent spice. In the mouth it feels broad with cherry and cocoa powder and nutmeg flavors that morph to a wonderful woody spiciness in a long finish. Muscular, well structured tannins linger along with the finish. A blend of Sangiovese and Shiraz. Score: around 9.
2002 Castagna “La Chiave” Sangiovese, Beechworth, Australia
Medium to dark ruby in color, with hints of brown at the edge, this wine has a wonderful caramel and cherry nose with hints of coffee. In the mouth it is gorgeously supple, with beautiful silkiness married to powdery, broad tannins. Wonderfully sweet cherry fruit (sweet in aroma only) backed by sandalwood and earth, along with that sweetness linger in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2005 Castagna “Genesis” Shiraz Viognier, Beechworth, Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of gorgeous cassis fruit wafting in a breeze of night blooming jasmine. In the mouth it is fantastically rich without somehow being heavy. Expansive, the wine spreads quickly across the palate and then hangs in a thrumming cloud of cassis, blueberry smoke, earth, and a delicate floral aspect that lingers with the finely powdered tannins in the finish. Score: around 9.5.
2006 Castagna “Genesis” Shiraz Viognier, Beechworth, Australia
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and and a lightly spicy aroma. In the mouth this wine has a wonderful cassis and mexican chocolate quality, with wonderful powdery tannins and a woody stemmy sense that lingers in the finish along with a sweetness that is charming. Rich without jamminess, powerful without being thick, this is a wonderful wine. Score: around 9.5.
2001 Castagna “Genesis” Shiraz Viognier, Beechworth, Australia
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of leather and dried cherries and dried flowers. In the mouth it is incredibly juicy and alive with bright fruit married to dried fruit and dried flowers. So beautifully balanced, and suffused with an aromatic sweetness, the wine is nearly impossible to spit out. Really delicious even minutes later as the powdery tannins linger with that juicy sweetness still on the palate. While the wine is clearly drinking well, it seems likely to last, if not improve over another 10 years. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $55 Click to buy.
2005 Castagna “Sparkling Genesis” Sparkling Shiraz Viognier, Beechworth, Australia
Medium garnet in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of cassis and rosewater. In the mouth it is juicy and bright but slightly restrained in its sweetness and fruitiness by a light earthy mineral quality. Fresh and fun, this wine would please many a person who thinks they don’t like wine. Score: between 8.5 and 9
NV Castagna “Acqua Santa” Viognier Dessert Wine, Beechworth Australia
100% Viognier, this wine is, according to Julian Castagna “made in the style of Vin Santo with some borrowing from Jerez with some borrowing from Alsace.” Light amber pink in color, this wine smells of dried mangos, candied orange peel, and vanilla sherry. In the mouth it is bright and delicious with dried tropical fruits, candied oranges and candied pineapple, and then all at once, a deep, rumbling vanilla coffee flavor that resonates for minutes in the finish. 1400 bottles made as gifts for Castagna mailing list customers only. Not for sale or available to the public. Score: between 9 and 9.5.