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Riverina Reconsidered Part One: Small Producers Finding the Sunlight in the Shadow of Giants

Updated: Dec 19, 2021

Small Producers Finding the Sunlight in the Shadow of Giants: Griffith’s Small Town Charm and Mino & Co

It took an hour and a half to fly from Sydney in a puddle-jumper (anything smaller than a jet and sporting propellers is a puddle-jumper in my books) across a landscape reminiscent of California’s Central Valley, and similarly known as the food bowl of Australia, to Riverina.

The landscape grew less flat, less brown, with more hills, more green as rows and rows of citrus trees and vineyards came into view on our approach to the tiny, and charming, Griffith airport where we were met by our host, Carrah Lymer of UnWined Riverina, who filled us in on some Riverina’s stats and history.

The Riverina: Australia’s Wine Workhorse

The Riverina Wine Region, known as ‘The Riverina,’ is the workhorse of Australia’s bulk wine production. It is the largest wine producing region in New South Wales, and the second largest in Australia, growing 15% of total Australian grape production (with so many trellised vines that they could wrap around Australia’s coast three times). The Riverina’s productivity is fueled by the the New South Wales State Government’s Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) project, which broke ground (or water!) in 1903 as an irrigation scheme designed to open up western New South Wales for farming and food production through dams, canals and weirs, sourcing water from the Murrumbidgee (Big Water) River, a major tributary of the Murray River and the second longest river in Australia. While some controversy exists around this water system (just as it does in the US’ Central Valley), in terms of agriculture, it has been wildly successful: In addition to its wine growing creds, it is the largest citrus region in Australia, grows 90% of Australia’s rice, and just planted one million hazelnut trees for chocolate producer Ferraro.

Although the region is perhaps most famous for that yellow-tailed wallaby (and, to the chagrin of its PR people, one of Australia’s most famous mafia murders), it is no johnny-come-lately to wine, producing wine for over 100 years and home to some of the oldest Australian wine families. The first plantings in the region were in 1913 by JJ McWilliam, and the McWilliam family remains in the region six generations later.

Photo credit: Riverina Winemakers Association

While it has its fair share of Irish legacy, the region is most deeply influenced by its Italian immigrants. Its Italian population, many of whom arrived after WWI, were initially employed to run steamboats on the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers, then as workers on the MIA, eventually spiking a post second world war wave of Italian immigrants in the 50s and 60s. Sixty percent of Griffith’s population claim Italian heritage and their impact on wine both regionally, nationally and internationally is profound.

And, as it is with Italians: in the Riverina family is everything – all the region’s wineries are family-owned. The Riverina’s Mediterranean climate, and access to irrigation, enables it to grow a whopping 62 varieties of grapes and, spurred by a new generation of winemakers and consumers, increasingly specializes in lesser-known (at least in Australia) Italian varieties (Fiano, Aglianico, Montepulciano). The humidity that envelops the area in late autumn also means that it is very hospitable to botrytis, leading it to produce some delightful dessert wines, including one of Australia’s most famous sweet wines, De Bortoli’s Noble One. Meanwhile, its new generation of winemakers are doing remarkable things with that dark, deeply structured French grape Durif (Petit Sirah), as they make a play for it to become the region’s specialty.

Griffith – Delightfully Stuck in Time and Wine

Main Street, Griffith

Griffith, population 20K, is full of Italian delis, cafes and restaurants, but also charming shops, and not a chain store in sight, which was so refreshing and reminiscent of Lodi. In fact, Griffith was designed by an American architect and built specifically for the MIA project in 1912.

As we drove into town, we had a good glimpse of Griffith’s annual orange festival, based on Menton France’s lemon festival – locals compete to create the best sculptures made out of over 100K oranges rubber-banded together by an army of 700 volunteers.

Over 70 larger than life three dimensional sculptures of everything from a kangaroo to a guitar to a cash register form a charming sculptural parade from one end of town to the other.

Our first stop was for a quick brekkie at Bertoldo’s Patiasticceria, a fourth generation Italian bakery that hisses with the sound of excellent Italian espresso, behind cases full of Italian pastries and Aussie pies. I went for one of their delicious Aussie savory pies and, at the insistence of one of my fellow Aussie journalists, had my first taste of chips encrusted with chicken salt.

Yes, that is right, chicken salt. As he informed me, no chicken lost its life in the production of said salt which is vegetarian and added a thirst-inducing, but addictive, umami vibe to those chips.

Chips and Chicken Salt

With the plate of chicken salt chips demolished, we headed to our very first winery, a smaller producer with an Italian pedigree.

It is easy to get distracted by the daunting bulk producers in Griffith, but, as we discovered on our first day, there are big things happening with the ‘little guys’ in Griffith as well. And, because the Riverina can grow just about anything, what it lacks in soil and micro-climate diversity, it makes up for in the range of wines and grapes produced.

We drove out of town, past the long parade of orange sculptures, along a few flat miles, chock full of rows of orange trees and vineyards that radiated a dusty heat, to Mino & Company, a boutique winery established in 1997 by the Guglielmino family – Domenic (whose father was part of the second Italian immigration wave in the 1950s ) and sons Nick and Alain. “Mino’ are the last four letters of the family name.

Like many of the wineries in the region, Mino & Co’s portfolio included a smorgasbord of grape varieties, across three distinct lines of wines. This is a deliberate strategy as the family is pushing against the conventional grain to produce wines for the more adventurous, younger, new wave wine scene.

Mino & Co’s three labels are: A Growers Touch, which reflects the debt wines play to grower and terroir, and focuses on more traditional, locally-grown varieties, featuring the actual hands of the grower on each label; Signor Vino, which showcases premium wines from Italian varieties grapes better known in Italy than Australia – and sourced from Mino’s vineyards in Riverina and outside, including Adelaide Hills and Riverland; and Little William, English for the family name Guglielmino, which bottles their high-end wines from vineyards outside Riverina.

It was relatively early in the morning, and a lot to taste through, with my palate still smarting from the chicken salt chips (which, I freely admit, may have impacted my first tastes of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon from the A Growers Touch line), but this broad line-up also included my first sips of the botrytized style the area is famous for and a version of the region’s aspirational flagship grape: Durif.

Not surprisingly, those two from locally-grown grapes were among my favorites, along with a voluptuous, peachy Fiano with a seam of citrus ore, vinified from grapes from McLaren Vale, a warm region just south of Adelaide, that benefits from cooling coastal influences — and the very lively and layered Little William Syrah, with fruit sourced from Mino’s Langhorne Creek vineyard (also just South of Adelaide), full of blackberries, coffee, spice and everything nice.

I also enjoyed tasting through the Italians – a surprisingly, although not disappointingly, soft, fruit-forward Aglianico; a respectable, and suitably pale, but structured Nebbiolo with silky tannins that may have lacked some of the aromatic depths and minerality of its Piemonte iteration, but made me crave a rich bolognese to pair it with, and a very quaffable Sangiovese crying out for a slice or two of pizza.

Generally, I am not part of the PS I love You Crowd, i.e. Petite Sirah has never been a favorite of mine, but in this first tasting of the Riverina iteration of the inky grape in Mino’s ‘A Growers Touch’ Durif 2018 – seen staining the hands of its grower on the label – I found much to like with its soft, but adamant, tannins, depth of black fruit, well-orchestrated oak, a touch of violets and even a sizzle of acid – making me understand why this grape is becoming a local hero. Our host explained that there is a concerted effort to make this the region’s new flagship grape, with branding discussions among the vintners association on which version of the name to go with, the slightly clumsy, but distinctive, ‘Durif’ or the more refined, but confusing ‘Petite Sirah’ (is it Syrah? is it Verdot?). Durif seems to be winning the day.

A Growers Touch Durif – label with hands of the grower

My final taste was of A Growers Touch Botrytized Semillon –– an explosion of marmalade and toffee. I am a huge fan of well-produced sweet wines and something of an evangelist for these much maligned (thanks in no small part to White Zinfandel and Blue Nun) and, often, deeply nuanced wines.

Botrytis, or noble rot, occurs when the fungus botrytis cinerea attacks the grapes, drying them out and concentrating their sugars, flavors and acids – the dessicated grapes are hand picked and then vinified into wines oozing with complexity. The weather conditions have to be perfect, which is why only a few regions, and not every vintage, achieves noble rot.

Mino’s golden, noble-rot-impacted Semillon (the star grape of Sauternes), rippled with honeycomb, orange rind, ripe nectarine, dried figs and a generous dollop of caramel. And yes, there was Semillon’s backbone of acid, perhaps not quite as supportive as it might have been, but overall a very good wine for the price. I couldn’t help but think how well that sweetness and heft might have paired with those chicken salt fries!

The Mino & Co tasting room, or as they call it in Australia, the Cellar Door, is a nicely designed space, full of polished old wood and wine in barrels – a corrugated ‘barn’ that looks out onto miles of vineyard plains.

With its deep Italian roots, diversity of varieties and limited production, Mino & Co is definitely worth a visit and was an excellent first look at the range and quality to be found in the Riverina. Reasonably priced, the wines are currently offered to locals in ‘isolation’ packs with contactless delivery to the door – but they are not, as of yet, available in the US.

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