Shelmerdine’s two Heathcote wine region vineyards are as far apart as Heathcote region vineyards can be. The Willoughby Bridge vineyard, at the north end of the Heathcote wine region, near Colbinabbin, is in Campaspe Shire. The Merindoc vineyard lies eighty kilometres south, at Tooborac, in Mitchell Shire. Lusatia Park, the third vineyard, is in the Yarra Valley wine region.
“My family has farmed at Tooborac since 1956,” says Stephen Shelmerdine. “My parents were then involved in family businesses in Melbourne but our weekends were spent at Tooborac. We all loved it. Every Friday evening we’d jump in the car, drive out past Essendon, stop at Bulla where there was a great pie shop, through Romsey, and then up the picturesque Lancefield-Tooborac Road.
“By the time I was at the University of Melbourne studying French, Japanese and History, my mother and father, in partnership with Colin Preece, were developing the Mitchelton winery and restaurant at Nagambie. I spent my holidays working in the vineyard. After graduating I spent some time travelling, then went to London to work for the Australian Wine Board.
“When I returned to Melbourne, I joined the Myer Graduate Program and spent ten years with Myer while assisting with the family wine business. In 1988 I left Myer to focus on Mitchelton Wines. I stayed on after Petaluma took over Mitchelton until 2001, when it was bought by Lion Nathan. We then decided to establish our own family wine business.”
“My interest in the wine industry grew through my study of history. My parents were developing the Mitchelton vineyards and winery on the banks of the Goulburn River where Major Mitchell had crossed the river in 1836. I did research on Mitchell as part of my studies and my thesis was on Victoria’s first aboriginal police force 1837-1851. Where Major Mitchell crossed the river was going to be the site of a town called Mitchellstown but a more suitable site was found further upstream.”
“Our Australian explorers were men in search of fame and fortune. They hoped to make exciting discoveries, write of their thrilling encounters and be set up for life. It was the equivalent of sending men to the moon. But in order to get started they needed the support of men of influence, one of whom was Lord Seymour.
“Major Mitchell decided to curry favour with Lord Seymour and he named the town at the new crossing site after Lord Seymour.”
“Mitchell was a fascinating character. He had been in the Duke of Wellington’s army, fighting against Napoleon. He had studied and written about the cultivation of vines, and he saw Australia as an ideal country for vines.” Between 1829 and 1837 Mitchell owned a vineyard as part of his ‘Craigend’ estate in Sydney’s Darlinghurst and he later grew grapes at his country estate at Camden in NSW.
Stephen has a rich family history. His maternal grandfather, Sidney Myer, built the Myer empire that established Melbourne as a retail centre. His maternal grandmother was Dame Merlyn Myer (nee Baillieu). His mother is Lady Southey, a recent Lieutenant Governor of Victoria. At 84 years of age, she continues to support the Australian Ballet and the Red Cross and enjoy time at the Tooborac farm. Stephen shares a maternal great-grandfather with Victoria’s premier, Ted Baillieu.
“In 1870 my paternal great-grandfather, Thomas Shelmerdine, left the UK family hat manufacturing business in Stockport near Manchester to set up a hat manufacturing factory in Australia. Stockport was then the capital of the hat world, using rabbit fur rather than wool in its hats. Thomas set up the first steam powered hat factory in Australia, on the Yarra River in Melbourne’s Collingwood.
“My grandfather, Edgar, died when my father, Ross, was only sixteen. To support his mother and younger brother Ross became a felter and hatter, he had to pay union dues to the hatter’s union before he was old enough to vote. When World War II started, he joined the RAAF and became a Catalina pilot. He never finished his formal schooling but returned to the hat business after the war.
“One morning some elderly uncles summonsed him to their office at the top end of Collins Street and told him to stand at the window overlooking Collins Street and tell them what he could see. He couldn’t see anything in particular until they pointed to the number of men in the street who were not wearing hats. ‘There’s one,’ they said, ‘there’s another one, and another, none of them are wearing hats’.”
The established habit of wearing hats when outdoors was necessary when men walked or rode horses, but was declining due to the increasing use of cars, trams and trains. Hat fashions were changing, with silk and lighter materials preferred. Ross moved into menswear, then into restaurants before establishing the highly ambitious Mitchelton Vineyard, Winery and tourism destination in the early 1970s.
“Like many of the young men who returned from the war, my father also became very involved with civic duties and public bodies. Dad became Chairman of CSL, was a Vice President of the Heart Foundation, and established the Winston Churchill Fellowship Scheme at the request of Prime Minister Menzies. He was at the Tooborac farm in December 1979, laying out a new lawn on a blazing hot day. My wife, Kate, and I left after lunch. Soon after that, Dad was on the way to hospital having suffered a stroke.”
History remains a passion for Stephen. “Back in the 1880s, rabbits from Tooborac and Baynton were being shipped by the truckloads to my great-grandfather’s hat factory in Collingwood, and now we are growing grapes in Tooborac.
We were aware that grapes had been grown at Tooborac since the late 1880s.
“In the publication ‘Tooborac – a history of the township and district,’ the editor, Robert Rainey, refers to an advertisement in an 1889 edition of ‘McIvor Times’ for William Freeman’s Tooborac Vineyard with Red Tooborac and White Tooborac vines selling at twelve shillings a dozen and Red Frontignac at eighteen shillings a dozen.”
Victoria has a long history of making quality wines. By the late 1800s, Victorian wines were winning awards in Europe. “At the very same time,” says Stephen, “Shelmerdine hats from Collingwood were winning hat awards in Europe.
“Back in Australia, the grape industry was facing the challenges of dealing with phylloxera, the cultural domination of beer and spirits, and changing laws in taxation of wine trade. It was the start of the 1960s before passionate people, like my father and mother and Colin Preece, foresaw a great future for wine in Victoria.”
When Stephen’s mother first planted grapes at Tooborac in 1994 there were seven years of good, normal rainfall prior to the drought from 2001 to 2009. The Merindoc Vineyard was planned as a grape growing enterprise rather than a commercial winemaking venture. Their land in Lusatia Park in the Yarra Valley was bought in 1989, and the Willoughby Bridge vineyard was planted in 1997. The entire harvest from Willoughby Bridge was contracted to Rosemount and Brown Brothers, who then set up their own vineyards around Colbinabbin.
When Lion Nathan took over at Mitchelton in 2001 the Shelmerdine label was born. “Our label has a historic link to the Shelmerdine hat making ventures. The font we have used for our wine label is the same font used in an advertisement for the Stockport Shelmerdine Hat Factory in 1802,” says Stephen. “The Tooborac Cellar Door, a converted tractor shed, has become the base for our wine enterprise. Shelmerdine wines from all our vineyards are available at Tooborac and we export to the UK, Ireland, Singapore and Hong Kong.”
The family business now spans three generations. Lady Southey, Stephen and his wife Kate, and their three adult children, are now involved. “Will, Matt and Lily all have good palates and a feel for fine wine,” says Stephen. “They have grown up on the farm and in the vineyard and know how much work is involved. They are all pursuing their own professional and tertiary ambitions. All three are interested in environmental sustainability and best practice farming.”
What about the future of the Heathcote wine region? “I sometimes think that we are in the land that time forgot,” says Stephen. “People thunder up the Northern Highway on their way to Echuca. We have to work on getting them to stay longer in the Heathcote region. There’s a need for more focussed Heathcote branding and we need more collaboration among wine producers throughout the year. We need to showcase the beautiful natural landscape, quality wines, and artisan food producers of the region. We’ve recently hosted a regional food producers market at our Cellar Door and plan to continue this initiative with the Food Fossickers Group.
“Tourism signage is a big issue we need to address. We have to make it easier for people to find their way around. Two things I’d like to see are a music festival and a film festival, using the public spaces like halls, churches and ovals that are dotted around the region. Ballina in NSW now runs a very successful outdoor film festival on its oval.”
In 2009 Stephen received the annual Victorian Wine Industry Association’s distinguished service award for his contribution to the wine industry at industry, state and federal levels. Stephen’s short acceptance speech acknowledged the long history of the wine industry in Australia : “… it’s very special to be recognised by industry colleagues and peers. I believe in the family wine companies and the wine regions of Victoria. We have a huge burden and opportunity, the responsibility of taking Australian wine into the future as we stand on the shoulders of those who came and dreamed before us.”
Cellar Door opening hours:
Thursday – Monday 10am – 4pm at Merindoc Vineyard
$22.50 in any dozen
$25.00 per bottle
Out of stock
A fine growing season yielded small parcels of intensely aromatic and succulent Viognier.
The inspiration for Dulcis is from the delicious, light-bodied, non botrytis-affected wines of the Southern Rhone Valley.
Perfumed, harmonious and delicious, Dulcis may be enjoyed as an aperitif, or the perfect accompaniment to any chilled fresh fruits, summer berries and magical with goats cheese.
$21.60 in any dozen
$24.00 per bottle
This Vintage was a challenging one with rain late in the season, close attention to disease management and sugar levels was required. A cooler growing season yielded small parcels of intensely aromatic and succulent Grenache, the hallmark variety of the Rosés of Southern France.
Traditional barrel fermentation of seasoned French oak has resulted in a savoury, dry and complex wine with a clean, refreshing finish.
$29.70 in any dozen
$33.00 per bottle
Out of stock
The fruit for this wine is grown at two vineyards at opposite ends of the Heathcote region; Merindoc Vineyard at Tooborac in the south and the Willoughby Bridge Vineyard at Colibinabbin the north. Merindoc vineyard, with gravelly, low fertility ironstone soils provides minerality, structure and a cooler climate. Willoughby Bridge Vineyard is planted on the revered Cambrian rich red dirt, one of the oldest soil types in Australia and renowned for the production of intensely flavoured Shiraz. Another warm and dry vintage gave low yields of concentrated flavours.