Geelong is Australia's "comeback kid" wine region. Swiss settlers brought their knowledge of viniculture and viticulture with them to Geelong and other parts of what is now the state of Victoria in the 1840s. Unfortunately, Geelong's vineyards were uprooted when phylloxera arrived in 1875. Almost 100 years later, Daryl and Nini Sefton brought winemaking back to Geelong when they established Idyll Vineyard (now part of Littore Family Wines), beginning a new tradition of family-owned vineyards and wineries that persists today. Emphasis on hands-on winemaking, coupled with the characteristics of Geelong's three distinct sub-regions, give this Australian wine region a character all its own.
According to local lore, David Pettavel was the first of Geelong's Swiss settlers to plant a vineyard in this part of Victoria, Australia, some time during 1845. Many of his expatriate countrymen followed suit, and Geelong's wine industry was born. As Melbourne attracted more and more residents, Geelong, along with nearby Yarra Valley, became a center of winemaking in Victoria.
In less than two decades, Geelong was the state's premier wine-growing region. Sadly, dreams of continued prosperity crashed when phylloxera found its way to Australia via Geelong in 1875. Every vine in the region was uprooted.
The wine industry in Geelong was reborn in 1966, when Daryl and Nini Sefton took a chance and started their Idyll Vineyard. Other growers and winemakers came to Geelong, and tradition was reborn.
Today Geelong is known for its cool-climate wines, primarily pinot noir, shiraz, merlot, chardonnay and riesling. Regional growers are more than willing to plant a wide variety of wine grapes, giving winemakers the opportunity to make the most of Geelong's sub-regional terroirs. In recent years, Geelong winemakers have begun to produce sparking and fortified wines as well as still wines.
Geography, Soils and Climate
Geelong is divided into three sub-regions: Moorabool Valley and Anakie, the Surf Coast and The Bellarine. Moorabool Valley and Anakie are located north and west of Port Phillip Bay. Soils here are mainly volcanic, particularly basalt, with some limestone. The climate is continental.
The Surf Coast lies southwest of the city of Geelong. Most of the vineyards here are close to the ocean, so the climate is tempered by the nearby water. Soils are primarily sandy loam. The Bellarine, which is part of the peninsula jutting south and east from the city of Geelong, features basalt soils over limestone and has a more moderate, maritime climate than the other two sub-regions.
Geelong's climate, ranges from The Bellarine's maritime to Moorabool Valley's continental. The average rainfall per year is 21 inches. January's temperatures average 66 degrees Fahrenheit. Geelong's winds, which originate in Antarctica, routinely threaten wine production, particularly during the spring and summer months. The Surf Coast, in particular, suffers from the impact of wind. Low rainfall can also be a serious problem, and many growers turn to irrigation during dry years. Growers must also contend with frost, extreme heat and the annual threat of bush fires.
Geelong Wine Grape Varieties
Geelong is particularly suited to cultivation of cool-climate grapes, but that fact has not stopped local growers from experimenting. As you might expect, chardonnay, riesling and gewürtztraminer top the list of white wine grape varieties grown in Geelong, but you'll also find viognier, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc.
Popular red wine grape varieties include traditional Australian favorites, such as pinot noir, shiraz and merlot, but you'll also find plantings of gamay, primitivo, lagrein and carmenere.
Because many of Geelong's wine producers are family-owned companies, experimentation is the order of the day here. If the grapes will grow in a cool climate, chances are that someone in Geelong will try to grow them.
Visiting Geelong Wineries
Geelong's 60-plus wineries tend to be very welcoming. There are 52 Cellar Doors in the Geelong wine region. Many wineries offer tours – typically for a fee – and some have built restaurants on their properties. Because Geelong is so close to the city of Melbourne, the area is a popular weekend and day trip destination, and winery owners offer not only traditional Cellar Doors but also unique culinary and cultural opportunities.
If you call yourself a "foodie," Pettavel Winery and Restaurant, owned and managed by the Fitzpatrick family, should be your first stop in Geelong. This winery, named for the region's first wine grape grower, offers wine tastings, cooking classes, lunches and a popular five-course Friday night dinner, which you must definitely book in advance. At Pettavel's Cellar Door, you can buy olive oils as well as Pettavel wines.
Scotchmans Hill, founded on a dairy farm property in The Bellarine, is one of Geelong's best-known wineries. The Browne family owns and operates Scotchmans Hill; they recently moved their Cellar Door to the historic Spray Farm. If you'd like a tour, contact the winery for particulars about the cost; the staff is happy to give tours with advance booking.
Shadowfax is another famous Geelong winery. The winery itself is located at Werribee Park. You can walk through the winery's gardens, take a tour (fee applies), enjoy light fare at the Cellar Door or take in a jazz concert. Shadowfax's musical events are offered on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Reservations are suggested; contact the winery for details.
Geelong's wine producers.Geelong's wine renaissance was a slow-spreading phenomenon. The Seftons began the Geelong tradition of purchasing vineyard property and keeping it in the family. Happily, Geelong is still known for its family-owned boutique wineries.
This is one part of Australia that has not succumbed to the mega-corporate winery model, and Geelong is in a good position to protect its heritage because it is so close to a major city. Wine tourism can – and should – become an additional avenue to prosperity for the region.
The biggest challenges facing Geelong's growers and winemakers come from nature itself. The vagaries of weather – drought, bush fires, wind and frost – are all present in the Geelong wine region. Irrigation can help mitigate the effects of low rainfall, but there is little any grower can do to prevent wind, frost or fire from threatening each year's harvest.
The current trend toward diversified plantings and experimentation should serve Geelong's winemakers well in the future; if one wine grape variety fails to perform in a particular year, winemakers can change course and bottle a new blend or varietal.