THE VIRGIN HILLS STORY
It is a wonder that Virgin Hills exists at all. It certainly should never have become what some of Australia's most respected wine critics have nominated as their 'desert island wine'.
Virgin Hills was the creation of the eccentric Hungarian-born sculptor and restaurateur Tom Lazar. Arriving from Hungary via Paris in 1952, he found a country and a wine industry, very different to the one we know today.
Lazar was determined to change all that. He established the acclaimed Little Reata restaurant in Melbourne. Then in 1968, came his grand vision of Virgin Hills. Inspired, he bought 300 acres of rugged bushland high in the Macedon Ranges. Lazar saw an opportunity to expose Australian palates to something very different; black cherries.
After laborious clearing, the soil revealed itself to be quite poor for cherries.
Swiftly, Lazar had another grand vision. Decades before the term 'cool-climate wine' became popular, he abandoned the idea of a cherry orchard, planting Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir instead. He planned an Australian rival to the great Bordeaux wines he had grown to love in Paris. Lazar was prone to grand visions.
The land suffers from frosts and occasional snow at both ends of the season (budburst and harvest time). To this day, it bears the viticultural classification of 'marginal vineyard'.
Of course, we scarcely need mention that Lazar had no grape growing or winemaking experience whatsoever.
After spending a vintage in the Coonawarra under the instruction of Owen Redman, Lazar produced the first Virgin Hills vintage. A blend of all the varieties in the vineyard, it stood out among Australian wines as being uncharacteristically subtle.
Tom had great success with his early vintages, with the '74 Virgin Hills winning Gold at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, Bristol, UK, in 1981. This catapulted Virgin Hills into the spotlight. As Lazar refined Virgin Hills further, it rapidly won international acclaim and numerous awards. Judges worldwide rated it as a worthy competitor to the Bordeaux wines that inspired it. A marked contrast to the standard oaky Australian red, Virgin Hills won a devoted following, particularly in Victoria.
Only one wine has ever been produced under the Virgin Hills label. From the beginning, the blends have varied subtly from year to year, adding to its mystique.
In 1979 Marcel Gilbert bought Virgin Hills. During 18 years of ownership, his commitment to the integrity of the wine was legendary. Tom Lazar remained as winemaker until 1983, when the reins were handed over to Mark Sheppard.
In 1998, Virgin Hills was briefly acquired by a publicly listed company. It is now back under family ownership following its purchase by Michael Hope, a pharmacist turned vigneron.
Michael has been successfully producing premium wine in the Hunter Valley since 1997. He leads a talented team of people who cherish Virgin Hills' spirit of individualism.
The future is bright for a wine that has achieved greatness against the predictions of many.
Proof, more than three decades on, of the power of a grand vision.
"After more than 20 years of covering the wine beat, it takes a lot to get me gaga over a wine. It has to be either a tremendous bargain that I'm dying to share with you or a wine of such superb quality that just sipping it makes my nervous system tingle.
I'm gaga over Virgin Hills. This relatively obscure Australian gem may be the greatest red wine you've never heard of. Until recently, I had tasted it only once. I wrote a short blurb about it a couple of years ago, but there was little available for the United States. I'm delighted to report that decent quantities are finally here and you should move on it before it disappears. ."
Ben Giliberti, The Washington Post, October 1st, 2003