I’m an armchair student of geology. There was a time when I thought I was going to be a mineralogist. But then I discovered photography and filmmaking — and that was the end of my obsession with rocks. But I still have an appreciation, and an eye, for both small scale and large scale topography, which means that at least I tend to notice the geological features of the world around me. I know my synclines from my anticlines and can spot a terminal moraine, if you get my drift.
That’s why as I drove out of the Victorian Alps and across the widening mouth of the King Valley into the foothills of Beechworth, the sudden emergence of granitic outcroppings registered very clearly and distinctly on my consciousness. This impression of a fundamental change in the topography was followed just as quickly, as I rounded a bend in the road, by the appearance of a meticulously kept vineyard sweeping across the crest of the hill.
Nearly thirty years earlier, engineer-turned-winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner was making the same drive, and registering the same geologic change, but in a much more profound and subconscious way. But as he made the bend in the road, if he saw vineyards, they would have only been in his mind’s eye. What he certainly did see was a For Sale sign, and in a fit of impulsiveness that could easily be seen as prophetic, he drove up the drive and made an offer on the spot.
It was, he says, “quite by accident.” But he did need a place to live.
Kinzbrunner had just returned to his native Australia after a decade of wandering the globe, first learning, and then plying, his second career as a winemaker. Despite not having tasted red wine until he was 18, and never giving any kind of wine much thought before then, Kinzbrunner fell in love with wine as many young men do, while traveling around the world. At first, wine was only a vehicle for that travel lust. Kinzbrunner thought that a good way to fund his travels, as well as to explore new places, might be to get jobs working as a grunt at wineries around the world.
And so that’s just what he did, working in New Zealand, France, and for quite some time in the Napa Valley, where he spent 4 vintages at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Eventually, though, he returned to Australia where spent his first couple of months working yet another harvest at the historic Brown Brothers winery when they (to his surprise) offered him a full time job as a winemaker. After ten years of jumping from one wine region and winery to another soaking up all he could, Kinzbrunner had fallen in love with the countryside of Beechworth, so he accepted.
And it was driving the 20 or so kilometers that separate Brown Brothers from the little town of Beechworth that Kinzbrunner came across the parcel of land that would be his future home and one of the most unique vineyard sites in the area. He bought it on the spot, and began building a house, planting vineyards, and building a winery.
Whether a measure of his self-confidence or his powerful intuition I am not sure, but Kinzbrunner never took any soil samples. He never gathered any weather data or made any microclimate or precipitation studies. He just started pulling rocks out of the ground and clearing trees. The rocks he rolled to the top of the hill and placed, one by one, into the growing walls of his house. The trees he sawed into posts, and after paying someone $50 to dig hundreds of holes with him, he placed them into the ground in orderly vineyard rows according to where he saw the sun move.
It took him the better part of a year, but he was able to eventually plant about six acres to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Shiraz each vine placed b his own hand. And by the time the grapes were ready for harvest in 1985, he had constructed a rudimentary stone cellar for his few big wooden fermentation vats, and a small barrel cellar underneath his home.
After twenty-five years Kinzbrunner has about twice as many acres under vine and what may be the only underground wine cave in the state of Victoria, blasted out of the solid granite underneath his vineyards. Other than that, and the acclaim and demand for his wines that have funded these projects, very little has changed at the little estate that Kinzbrunner called Giaconda Vineyards.
With the recent plantings, Giaconda produces, or will soon be producing, a minuscule 2500 cases of wine, made up of Chardonnay, Roussanne, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Kinzbrunner has also recently begun making a Nebbiolo, and has also undertaken a joint venture with Michel Chapoutier. Together they are making a Shiraz under the name Ergo Sum.
The vineyards are still nearly dry-farmed with practices that lie somewhere between organic and biodynamic, the wines are made the same way they always have been — with no fining, filtration, or commercial yeasts, no steel, and only the force of gravity. Piles of rocks still linger, and the driveway is lined with ancient winemaking machinery as well as other odds and ends (like an old dentist’s chair) that Kinzbrunner collects as much for their sculptural quality as anything else. Kinzbrunner believes that cave aging will change his wines for the better, and insists that he is already tasting subtle differences in the first vintage that we tasted together out of barrels in the cool, narrow space clawed out deep underneath his vines.
The greatest wines in the world are united by one thing: the deep well of passion that lies beneath them. These wines result from intense human labor and thought and it is possible, when tasting them, to imagine that some of the dynamism of effort and the intent can be tasted. The wines of Giaconda clearly display a drive and an intensity of purpose that rank them among the very best of what Australia has to offer.
Note that most of these wines are brand new releases and aren’t yet available in the United States, though some can be ordered off Giaconda’s web site.
2009 Nantua “Les Deux” Chardonnay, Beechworth, Australia
7% Roussanne and the balance Chardonnay, this wine has a light yellow green aspect in the glass and smells of cold cream and buttercream frosting with the slightest hint of cucumber. In the mouth the wine is broad and expansive with cold cream and buttered sourdough toast flavors topped with a dollop of gorgeous lemon curd. A wonderful mineral quality underlies the wine and lingers in the finish. Nantua is sort of a second label for Giaconda. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2009 Giaconda “Aeolia” Roussanne, Beechworth, Australia
Greenish gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of peaches, white flowers, and sarsaparilla. In the mouth the wine is gorgeously textured with candied lemon peel, honeysuckle, pears, and a gorgeous minerally cold cream aspect that lingers in the finish. Delicate yet powerful, poised and beautifully balanced, this is a phenomenal mouthful. Outstanding. Score: around 9.5.
2008 Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay (Stelvin closure), Beechworth, Australia
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of cold cream and lemon zest. In the mouth it is elegant and poised, impeccably balanced and beautifully juicy. Lemon curd, grapefruit, and a fantastic crystalline minerality makes this a dead ringer for white Burgundy. The finish lasts beautifully. Based on my experience, which is far from comprehensive, this wine is easily a candidate for the best Chardonnay made in Australia. Score: around 9.5.
2008 Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay (cork closure), Beechworth, Australia
Light gold in the glass this wine has a nose of lemon curd and lightly herbal notes. In the mouth it is lean and bright with lemon curd and a slightly piney and nutty quality that its identical twin under screwcap most certainly did not have. This wine has a more savory quality than its twin, offering an almost saline note that is quite compelling. Phenomenal finish. Again, almost certainly one of the best, if not the best Chardonnay made in Australia. If forced to choose between the two different closures, I think this wine slightly edges out its twin. Score: around 9.5.
2008 Giaconda Pinot Noir, Beechworth, Australia
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cranberry and raspberry fruit with gorgeous dried herbal notes. In the mouth the wine is incredibly silky, roughened only by very faint tannins. Fantastic cranberry and raspberry fruit with a rich purity and a light woody quality dominate the body of the wine, which also incorporates mixed herbs and a beautiful red apple skin quality. Astonishingly long finish. A mix of fruit from the Yarra Valley and Beechworth, the former added to provide some cool climate brightness. Score: around 9.5.
2008 Giaconda “Warner Vineyard” Shiraz, Beechworth, Australia
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry and blueberry fruit with a light woodiness creeping in with more air. In the mouth the wine immediately impresses with its gorgeously exotic blueberry and cassis fruit that have a really haunting quality. There is this strange note in the chord played by this wine that is really difficult to pin down, a nutmeg kind of quality but not quite. In any case, a fantastically satin texture, lovely acidity and beautiful balance, incredibly well integrated tannins, and a gorgeous finish round out this stunning wine. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2008 Ergo Sum Shiraz, Beechworth, Australia
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and blackberry with a hint of white pepper. In the mouth it is beautifully structured with broad muscular tannins and cassis and blackberry fruit touched with a hint of white and black pepper. A gorgeous earthiness lingers through a long finish. Excellent acidity means this wine will age for a very long time. A joint venture between Giaconda and Michel Chapoutier. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2008 Giaconda Nebbiolo Barrel Sample, Beechworth, Australia
A cloudy medium ruby in the glass with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of cherries and violets. In the mouth it is exceedingly soft with velvety tannins and lightly bitter herbal qualities that sit underneath airy raspberry and cherry fruit. A lightly green herbal quality lingers in the finish. Quite an interesting and compelling wine. Score: around 9.
2005 Giaconda “Warner Vineyard” Shiraz, Beechworth, Australia
Dark garnet in color, and still holding on to the purple highlights of youthfulness as well as a cloudy haze, this wine smells of blackberries and leather with notes of wet wood and unopened dried salami. In the mouth the wine is lean and requires some air to open up before it offers flavors of dried cherry and dried blackberry mixed with a deep underlying earthy, woody quality that lingers into the finish. Even with some air the wine has a bit of tightness and tautness to it. After a time, delicate floral notes enter both the nose and the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $90. Click to buy.