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Thursday 19 May 2016

The remarkable story of Best's Great Western and 150 years of winemaking

While other wineries are making a fuss about their 20th and 30th birthdays, Best's Great Western is celebrating a real milestone: 150 years of wine production. 

Over those 150 years, Best's has been owned by just two families, including the Thomsons for the last 96 years.

Best's held a tasting of some older vintages at Jimmy Watson's in Melbourne to celebrate on Wednesday - and also launch a book on the winery's history.

The Best's story goes back to April 18, 1866, when local butcher Henry Best was given permission to clear the land near Concongella Creek in western Victoria.
The site boasts some of the oldest vines in Australia because Best planted just about very variety he was able to lay his hands on at the time.
There are still 38 grape varieties in the what's known as the Nursery Block - including what are believed to be the oldest pinot noir vines in the world and a few that are unknown anywhere else.

The Thomsons family has run Best's since 1920, when Best sold up, and now produces around 20,000 cases a year. 
Best's Great Western has had many obstacles over the years - water is always an issue, as is the tyranny of distance. 
"You've got to remember these vines were planted pre-phylloxera [a pest that wiped out many vines in Europe in the 1800s] and it's likely we have vines here that don't exist anywhere in the world," says Viv Thomson. 
Being in remote western Victoria presents challenges. 
“We just don't have the population mass around us to sell our wines too, which means we just have to work that much harder,” says Viv. 

“We are trying to entice more visitors to the Grampians and Great Western - and the word is slowly getting out about the quality that people can find here; but we have to spend more time taking our wines out of the region and getting them tasted in the major capital cities.”

Viv, who has worked 55 vintages, and his wife Chris, still live in an old homestead adjacent to the winery, cellar door, and vines - and many of older buildings on site also date back 150 years.

“We like to think that the region is a well-kept secret,” Viv Thomson says. “We'd love that to change but it is one of the realities of farming in a country area.”

Several former Best's winemakers, including Adam Wadewitz of Shaw+Smith and Hamish Seabrook from Kirrihill, attended Wednesday's tasting and all told stories of the Thomson family with great affection. 

Viv Thomson says he regards his winemakers as "extended family". 

Among the star wines of the day were a pair of rieslings; the new 2015 Foudre Ferment Riesling, floral and delightfully citrusy, and the 1974 Great Western Rhine Riesling, made by Viv Thomson that still has life 40 years on.

Thomson related that Best's rieslings always retain some residual sugar "to add interest and texture".

Star reds included the 1967 Bin 0 Claret, almost 50 years old but still with depth and length; the 1981 Bin 0 Hermitage, made by the late Trevor Mast and a wine of impeccable pedigree and quality, and the spectacularly intense 2001 Bin 0 Shiraz.

Current winemaker Justin Purser, vastly experienced in France, also unveiled three new wines made in tiny quantities to mark the 150th birthday: the 2014 PSV Pinot Noir, 2013 Concongella 1868 Vines, a blend of pinot meunier, shiraz and dolcetto, and the 2014 Sparky's Block Shiraz.

All are sealed under cork and wax, will cost $150 a bottle and are probably sold out by the time you read this. They are available only at the Best's cellar door or online. 


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