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The Rise of Balgownie Estate

  • 440778-stuart-anderson

Snippets from "Memories to Savour"

Taken from an article in The Australian Titled "Memories to Savour". Written by Max Allen on 14th May 2011.

EVERY wine cellar is stuffed full of stories; behind every bottle there's a yarn to be told. Stuart Anderson's cellar boasts more stories than most.

He was the founder, in the late 1960s, of Balgownie Estate, a small vineyard that helped inspire Australia’s boutique wine boom. He’s still a mentor and inspiration for a new generation of Victorian winemakers. Over the past half-century he’s collected – and drunk – some of this country’s greatest wines. But there’s one particularly special wine he’s searching for today. “Here we are,” he says, blowing some dust from the bottle he’s now gently cradling in his hands. “It’s hard to read the vintage now but it’s a Bendigo red. From 1880-something.”

On its own, this unbelievably rare bottle would send shivers of excitement down any wine- and history-lover’s spine. But there’s an added thrill here: this is the last remaining bottle from a collection that helped inspire Anderson to plant his first vineyard.

Back in 1959, Anderson was working – like his father and grandfather before him – as a pharmacist in Bendigo. His forebears had migrated to the Victorian goldfields from Balgownie, in Scotland, in 1852, and he was acutely aware of the region’s 19th-century reputation as a quality wine district.

He had fallen in love with wine himself as a student in Melbourne in the early ’50s. “I drank all the great Hunter wines made by Maurice O’Shea,” says Anderson. “That was at the Oxford Hotel, one of the few great dining rooms of Melbourne, which was a gastronomic desert at the time.”

Travelling to Europe with his new wife Shirley in 1955 cemented the passion, and by the time he returned three years later, he says, “there was this nagging thought in the back of my mind that perhaps I could plant some vines myself.

“Then one day an old woman brought a leather shopping bag into the pharmacy and she said, ‘I think you might be interested in these.’ There were six – full – bottles of Bendigo wine going back to the 1880s. I was very aware of the history of the place through the family, and when I saw these wines I thought: if it was done last century it can be done again.”

A small plot of vines went in at Kangaroo Flat, south of the city, in the early 1960s, “but we had various problems with rabbits and lack of water and lack of time, so that just fizzed.” In 1968, though, he decided to get serious, and bought an old run-down farm at Maiden Gully, north of Bendigo. The next year, he planted four hectares of vines and called the place Balgownie Estate. It was the first new commercial vineyard in the region for 70 years.

The novelty wasn’t lost on the locals. “One of my new neighbours was an old bloke called Harry Smith,” Anderson recalls. “He’d been living there all his life and he came up one day, looked at us planting vine cuttings that were no more than sticks with roots. ‘What are you doing ’ere, then?’ says Harry. ‘We’re planting grapevines,’ I say. ‘Huh,’ he snorted, ‘I’ll drink all the bloody wine you’ll ever make off this place.’ Then he came back one day, after the ’74 vintage I think it was. There were barrels everywhere; the winery was stuffed full of wine. ‘Harry,’ I said. ‘Here’s a straw. You can start at that end. Away you go!’”

Disaster strikes
There’s a stash of those early Balgownie wines in his cellar. He opens a gloriously lively 1984 chardonnay for lunch, along with a cedary 1979 cabernet and a ’75 “Hermitage”, still thrumming with a distinctive central Victorian eucalypt twang. And then he tells the story of how it all unravelled.

“There was a fairly severe slump in the wine game in the early 1980s,” he says, slowly. “We’d had an appalling drought in ’82. Autumn rain didn’t come, winter rain didn’t come, but the 21 frosts did. The ’83 vintage was disastrous: instead of picking 85 tonnes of grapes we picked 5 tonnes and it wasn’t much good anyway. It cost us a huge amount of money – something you never make up.

“Then the government brought in fringe benefits tax and the effect was quite extraordinary. The big lunch trade disappeared. Restaurants stopped buying wine. Also there was no succession – none of our kids seemed interested in coming back and working at the vineyard.”

So in 1985, when the large wine company Mildara – which was on an aggressive acquisition trail at the time – asked if he was interested in selling, he reluctantly agreed. He stayed on for five years as a consultant but hated every minute of it; he couldn’t stand to see the passion drained out of his creation by the new owners.

“And it wasn’t just Balgownie,” he says. “It was all the others who got taken over, too. When they came under the corporate banner something happened. In every case, when the bean counters and the marketing people – the highly paid purveyors of bullshit – get involved, the wines go downhill.

“I’ve always believed that wine essentially is a cottage industry. It’s like making bread. It can be done on an industrial scale but it loses its identity and its interest and it’s all made to a recipe.” (It’s a source of great pleasure to him, then, to see Balgownie back in private hands: Mildara – now Foster’s – sold the winery to the current owners, Des and Rod Forrester, in 1999.)