Heaven and Helicopters

  • Wednesday 17 September 2008

If you want to explore Victoria’s extensive wine country, there is no better way to do it than by air, says Sally Gudgeon

On a clear day, from the cockpit of a helicopter in north-east Victoria, you really can see forever. It’s a mesmerising view – over the bumpy hills and granite outcrops around Beechworth, across to the distant blues and mauves of the Australian Alps.

This is an ever-changing landscape, from the lush undulating paddocks where dairy cattle graze in the King Valley, to the rugged mountain slopes inhabited by wildlife that includes wallabies, quolls and brightly coloured parrots and cockatoos.

But there is more to a helicopter flight here than just panoramic views. It also gives an insight into the remarkable terrain that produces the wines in this area.

What’s more, the ride is smoother and more comfortable than a light aircraft. And you can fly sideways.

When I say ‘you’, I really mean Bright Helicopters, which offers charter flights from Albury airport, on the border of Victoria and New South Wales, over the former’s wine country.

However, for those who want the added thrill of actually flying the chopper, there is an option…

On arriving at the hangar at Albury, the pilot will discuss with you where you want to go. Before that, you need to choose your chopper.

There are a few different types of helicopter to charter. An R44 seats three passengers, while a Bell 206 JetRanger seats four. And for frustrated pilots, there is the dual-control Hughes 300 option, which combines a flight lesson with the scenic tour.

If you want to take photos, the pilot will remove the front passenger door, but be warned, it’s a little stomach churning when you first take off (vertically), and it gets a touch blowy in the cockpit. It’s also noisy, and, despite the headphones and mouthpieces, it’s hard to hold a conversation.

The first stage of the flight I chose took me from Albury to Beechworth, an initial journey of around 20 minutes – if you cruise along at a steady 110 nautical miles per hour.

Beechworth is on the site of an ancient volcano, hence the gold- and mineral-rich soils, granite boulders and outcrops that scatter the land. From the air, you can make out the rippling mounds that mark the sides of the long extinct crater; it’s as if someone has pressed their fingers into clay.

The view from above also shows how drought has scarred the land. Dams are dry and creeks have slowed to a sluggish trickle. Then, beyond the rolling expanse of brown, pock-marked hills, the poetically named Alpine peaks rise majestically; Mount Buffalo, Mount Beauty and, er, Mount Buggery.

One of the first places we touch down on the northern side of Beechworth is the Star Lane Vineyard. The neat rows of vines look like an ordered garden in a bumpy wilderness.

Don’t be surprised if you land next to another helicopter at their cellar door – it’ll belong to the owners. In this rugged land, a chopper is the way to go.

Tinkers Hill is on this side of Beechworth too, nestling in the Woolshed Valley. The cellar door, with the CirkoV wines available for tasting, make this an attractive pit stop.

The helicopter ride over Beechworth to the wineries on the other side is fascinating. You’ll have an eagle’s eye view of Lake Sambell and the town’s stately buildings.

The old prison and asylum (both listed buildings) dominate the edges of town, and then there’s a flash of blue where the abandoned Eldorado Dredge is moored. Once the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, it mined gold and tin between 1936 and 1954.

Castagna lies to the southwest of Beechworth. The distinctive straw bale buildings of the house and winery are imposing from above, and the vines and garden form a neat backdrop.

Giaconda is on this side of town, and it’s an impressive sight. The home vineyard curves gracefully against the hillside in the shape of an amphitheatre, and the vines bristle in the breeze of the chopper preparing to land.

On one side of the vineyard, there’s a deep chasm in the hillside, where owner/winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner is constructing a cave. Miners are blasting into the granite mass, so that once built, this subterranean cellar will house wines in barrel.

The Giaconda Chardonnay is already noted for its granitic minerality, and Kinzbrunner believes storing the barrels within the granite walls will enhance this character.

Flying away from Giaconda to the King Valley, the close-planted vines of the Savaterre vineyard cling to the hillside. Moving in closer to the ground, the granite boulders and rocks gleam in the afternoon sun, and the shadow of the helicopter tracks across the landscape.

Then the colours and terrain start to change towards Battely. Rocky granite outcrops give way to richer ochre soils.

This is the last winery on this side of Beechworth, heading towards Wangaratta. It’s a special piece of dirt too. It was the original Brown Brothers Everton Hills vineyard, a site noted for producing legendary reds.

Leaving Beechworth behind and heading to the King Valley, the landscape changes dramatically as the browns and greys soften to lush greens, for this is a region with much higher rainfall.

The land is flatter; a patchwork of fieldsforestry and olive groves. Black specks of grazing cattle scatter the landscape, and flocks of white cockatoos look like confetti. Below the dramatic tree-lined mountains, the King River cuts into the valley floor, a sluggish brown snake winding itself around the landscape.

You know you’re back in wine country when you see the expanse of the De Bortoli vineyards near the town of Moyhu. Compared to the small vineyards in Beechworth, the 202ha (hectare) block seems to stretch for miles. Sam Miranda and Brown Brothers also have large holdings that dominate the valley.

The King Valley lives and breathes all things Italian. Migrants from Italy originally grew tobacco here, or were involved in the forestry industry. The tobacco leaves are long gone, but the old, tin tobacco drying sheds remain, plonked haphazardly in the expanse of green, like ramshackle huts from a toy farm.

If you don’t want to make any lunch or tasting stops, the round trip from Albury, over Beechworth to the King Valley by helicopter will take about an hour. With tasting stops it could take a while longer – how long will depend on how well you tip your pilot. Just make sure he’s spitting the wine…

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