Flirting with Perfection - Giaconda
BY ANGUS HUGHSON | JANUARY 23, 2024
Blink, and you will miss Beechworth, a small yet grand inland Victorian
town with a history of gold and bushrangers. The wide main street, with its 19th-century
architecture, has an almost Wild West feel, coming as a welcome surprise as you
drive through the broad, empty plains and mountain landscapes of northeastern
Victoria. It is easy to imagine the region’s vibrant history—the streets full of
horses and gold prospectors searching for their fortune during the second half
of the 1800s. But today, this town prospers on new seams of gold as ground zero
for revolutionary Australian Chardonnay. At its epicenter is Giaconda.
Granite boulders were unearthed on the Giaconda Estate in preparation for new plantings.
Beechworth and the surrounding vineyards are a blip in the national crush,
totaling a mere 130 hectares under vine, a shade less than the small Northern
Rhône appellation of Condrieu. Yet despite its size, the unique terroir should
place it firmly on the radar for fans of ultra-premium Chardonnay. This small
and isolated outpost is a diamond in the rough, thanks to a freakish mix of a
highly advantageous climate, naturally low fertility and a complex mix of
granite and sandstone soils.
There is a distinctive intensity to the mid-summer heat in Beechworth—the
sun here is powerful and searing. But its proximity to Alpine influences, with
cooling winds and gentle elevation, also provides significant protection to carefully
chosen sites. It all adds up to impressive diurnal variation, so much so that Beechworth
is Australia's most continental wine region, even driving some growers to flirt
with Nebbiolo. The cycling from warm summer days to cool nights is at the heart
of the Beechworth wine style, yielding Chardonnays that marry raw power with
surprising detail and subtlety.
There is little doubt that the soils also play an important part in the
regional style. Hard and mean on the whole, volcanic granites dominate to the
north, in the form of a rocky base that helps to craft flavorsome wines. Here,
massive granite boulders pepper the landscape, and the use of heavy earth-movers
is often the only solution. Thankfully, there is also decent water-holding
capacity, as the granites have degraded over time into clay loams. To the south
of the region is a combination of more gravels and sandstones, with outcrops of
siltstone, quartz, silica and shale, which help to build more structural wines.
It is a testing environment, so much so that early grape growers abandoned
their plots. Only the hardiest vines can tolerate such demanding conditions. Beechworth
is a place where only the strong survive and few succeed, but that was exactly what
drew the eye of ex-mechanical engineer and budding winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner.
I remember my first meeting with Rick Kinzbrunner almost 20 years ago when Giaconda was already firmly on the fine wine radar. It was a nerve-wracking
experience as Kinzbrunner sat back in a rocking chair, surveying his prey. This
is not a man who’s one for small talk. He brings a searing intellect to the
table, coupled with a take-no-prisoners approach to the pursuit of quality. He
does not say much, but each word and action is carefully considered, an ethos
that carries through into the vineyard and cellar.
For an Australian winemaker in the late 1970s, Kinzbrunner had a
Rolls-Royce wine education. His first foray into wine was in New Zealand. “Chardonnay
in Australia fascinated me, so I made a little at home during my time in
Hawke’s Bay. After that, there was no way back, and life was wine, wine, wine.”
But it was in California that Kinzbrunner found mentors and inspiration. “I had
heard that Stag’s Leap was the place to be, so I went there looking for work.
This was all before the Judgement of Paris. Warren Winiarski was not looking
for help at that time, but he needed a new front gate, and if I could fix his
gate, he would hire me.”
Kinzbrunner’s degree in Mechanical Engineering unexpectedly came in handy
for his first steps in California. From 1976 to 1979, Kinzbrunner worked at
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and soaked up everything he could from the local wine
scene while simultaneously studying a couple of subjects at UC Davis on the
side. It was a time when the orthodoxy was being challenged with experimentation
and new ideas. Winemakers were making Chardonnays that borrowed from some
Burgundian techniques but also retained their own unique slant. Kinzbrunner
worked and swapped ideas with a cohort of talented winemakers, many of whom
went on to great things, including David Ramey, John
Kongsgaard, John Williams and Dick Ward, who all became, and largely remain,
The Giaconda Cellar was excavated by local miners using two and a half tons of dynamite.
“My time in California really set the groundwork for Giaconda.” He also had experience with the Moueix family at
Château Magdelaine and Château Petrus, but the California years were by far the most
The subsequent founding of Giaconda in Beechworth, Victoria soon after was
not part of some grand scheme; it was more the result of serendipity on a
number of fronts. Kinzbrunner had an old mentor with a vineyard in King Valley
in northern Victoria, which he returned to Australia to manage. But grape growing
was not Kinzbrunner’s specialty,
so he quickly moved into a winemaking role with one of the state’s largest
winemakers, Brown Brothers. Almost immediately, Kinzbrunner was captivated by
the place, particularly the town of Beechworth. “What a great place, I thought.
I want to live there.” At the same time, there was a little bit of noise in winemaking
circles that the local terroir might be right for premium wine production.
Now, Kinzbrunner’s experience in California would rise up through a desire
to make outstanding Chardonnay. Beechworth’s exposed hillsides and hard country
had scared off many potential suitors in the past, including Kinzbrunner’s own employer,
Brown Brothers, who had recently abandoned a site for its lack of economic
viability. But his education among some of California’s elite, with a serious
fine wine focus, provided a different outlook than many Australian winemakers
of the time, precious few of whom were really shooting for the stars like their
compatriots across the Pacific Ocean. Kinzbrunner zigged while others zagged,
which has been a constant theme. After taking on the role at Brown Brothers, it
did not take Kinzbrunner long to find his own piece of dirt. He didn’t spend
years studying the terroir looking for the best site—again, serendipity played
its role. “It was an accident, really; I knew nothing. One day, I was driving
to Beechworth, and a piece of land with a house was for sale.” He purchased the
first ten acres in 1981, with 40 adjoining acres added soon after. The California
experience clearly loomed large; in 1982, Kinzbrunner planted the land with 60%
Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Chardonnay. Both varieties grew well, but over time,
it became clear that not only was Chardonnay more successful on the site, but
it would also be easier to sell. Kinzbrunner had a very strong connection to
the variety. “I followed it around, and it followed me around.”
The harsh local landscape has its advantages, not only for wine quality.
The rolling, bony hills never attracted intensive agriculture, and before
Giaconda, the estate was used only for occasional livestock grazing. This saved
the site and much of the region from agrochemicals—herd manure was the only historical,
albeit occasional, input. The property had essentially remained the same for
around 400 million years. This suited Kinzbrunner’s general mindset in terms of
sustainability, well before it became fashionable, with the property
organically certified since 2018. While there have been flirtations with
biodynamics, for the moment, there are no plans to go down that path.
Some of the land had been cleared for grazing—that was where Kinzbrunner planted
his vines. Much of the Giaconda property was initially unsuitable for vineyards,
thanks to the many boulders on or near the surface and a lack of the
significant funds required to clear them. It is only in very recent times that
more of the land has been cleared for new plantings.
In viticulture, Kinzbrunner went against the grain. While northern slopes
were generally the prized sites in the Southern Hemisphere, thanks to their
advantageous sun exposure, Kinzbrunner chose a southerly-facing site for the
estate in a valley that funnels cooler air from the high country. A smaller
gully drains cooler air on the western side of the property. Once again, serendipity
played a role. The height of summer in Beechworth can be very warm, with an
abundance of light and heat. Kinzbrunner’s site selection, whether intentional
at some subliminal level or just plain good luck, helped to minimize the effect
of the heat on his vineyards and fruit. The site is largely surrounded by
untouched forests and national parks, promoting biodiversity, although high
fencing is necessary for protection from local pests—primarily kangaroos.
The Chardonnay vineyard was initially planted with the P58 clone, imported
by Penfolds in 1958 and said to have been sourced from Le Montrachet. Across Australia,
it has proved to be very successful. Kinzbrunner later planted some of the
Dijon clones, but over time, they were deemed less well-suited to the Giaconda
site and uprooted, although a small plot of clone 95 will be replanted this
year. While P58 makes up much of the vineyard, there is also a small amount of Mendoza
used for the Giaconda Estate Chardonnay.
Over time, other varieties were added to the Estate, with fruit also
sourced from a small number of local vineyards for other Giaconda labels,
including Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Roussanne and Nebbiolo. Today, Giaconda has
pulled away from buying fruit from non-estate vineyards, preferring to have
complete control over his wines. All are grown on the original estate, with the
exception of Nebbiolo, which is reared at a significant elevation on their other
Red Hill site overlooking Beechworth. There has also been significant recent
groundwork on the original estate to remove boulders from the soil for new
plantings in 2023 and 2024, totaling close to one hectare. This will see all
the suitable land on the estate planted, with the fruit from these new vineyards hopefully destined for the Giaconda Estate Chardonnay in the
next 15 years.
In addition to varieties, planting densities have also been regularly
evaluated. Giaconda had significant plantings at relatively high density, but
felt over time that they did not perform in the hard local soils, putting too
much stress on the vines. To remedy that, in some vineyards, every second row
was pulled out about eight years ago. The quality has never looked back.
For Chardonnay, Kinzbrunner eschews more modern techniques found in many Australian
Chardonnays, preferring a distinctly Burgundian angle. “If it ain't broke, don’t
fix it.” For example, the Giaconda Estate Chardonnay is one of the few local Chardonnays
to be basket pressed, before an overnight settle, a long barrel fermentation and
maturation in oak. The small basket press size does require an extended timeframe
for picking, which brings some risk, but the quality advantages are significant.
Fruit is also crushed, neither hard nor gentle, prior to pressing, which Kinzbrunner
firmly believes adds character to the wine and potentially enhances minerality.
That less protective handling can make the Giaconda Estate Chardonnay a little
shy, to begin with, but Kinzbrunner is far from concerned, as these are wines
deliberately built to age and age well. Giaconda continues to refine its house
style, in part as a reaction to global warming, bringing oak maturation down
from 20 to 12 months, 30% of which takes place in new oak. There is then an
extended settling in tank prior to bottling, so, ideally, the wines do not
require any fining and are never filtered. Oak choice is another feature of the
Giaconda style under constant review. The Kinzbrunners have a unique and close
relationship with the Sirugue French oak cooperage in Nuits-Saint-Georges as
the sole importer for Australia and New Zealand. As such, Kinzbrunner works
closely with the cooperage to create barrels that suit Australian wine and
conditions. Giaconda uses a mixture of Tronçais and Vosges wood, with a range
of toasts after three years of air-drying.
The maturation of these wines is also unique in a local context, taking
place in a granite-walled cellar that Kinzbrunner designed himself, built with the
assistance of 2.5 tons of dynamite. It illustrates that no effort or expense is
spared in pursuing quality. The cellar was designed with an eye on the
advantages of the humid, climate-controlled caves and cellars seen in many
great international estates. Deep in the granite hill, temperatures rarely
deviate from 16-17 degrees Celsius, with humidity over 90%. There is a rare
energy to the wines from Giaconda, and I cannot help but think this cellar is
an important part of the process. On what is a dry continent, the cellar’s mix
of constant low temperatures and high humidity (conditions that keep barrels tighter,
requiring less topping) keeps the resulting wines fresher and helps to retain
all the characteristics of the soil and terroir. The resulting slow alcoholic
and malolactic fermentations take between three weeks and six months to complete—never
hurried, which Kinzbrunner believes also keeps the wines fresher.
After almost 30 years at Giaconda managing all elements of viticulture and
winemaking, Kinzbrunner was joined by his son Nathan, who exited a corporate
career in 2007. Local viticulturist Casey White now assists them. While Rick Kinzbrunner
retains full control over key decisions, much of the day-to-day running of
Giaconda is now in the hands of a new generation. “I intend to keep working and
keep control, but take some time for pleasure, and potentially, we have a good
What was clear from the recent vertical tasting is that Giaconda has lost
none of its style over the last 12 years. In fact, it has seen a refinement of style,
and the wine has truly elevated to be among the world’s greatest for the
variety. Today production is 12,000 bottle per year, of which 25% are exported.
All the wines were tasted at the winery in November 2023.
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