Drinking Victoria: Christine Challen

Published on 27 February 2020

Photo: Christine Challen of Little River Wines

Your guide to what’s in the glass from the people in the trade.

Christine Challen has made wine with husband Philip on the northern end of Cathedral Mountain since 2001. Their winery, Little River Wines, is nestled in a part of north-central Victoria that’s home to forested mountains, a trout stream for which the winery is named and a community of producers who make honey and cheese, grow potatoes, raise pork and more. That produce will be the focus of a dinner at Il Duca Restaurant in East Melbourne, as the crew from Murrindindi Shire – including Christine and Philip – come to town for Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. Their event, Murrindindi Comes to Melbourne, promises Italian-style hospitality and top-quality Victorian produce along with plenty of stories from this small corner of the state.

When someone hands me a wine list in a restaurant, I get excited in anticipation.

The last two delicious Victorian things I drank were a Bonfire Station Belgian-style craft lager. It’s made in Taggerty and has lovely hop flavours. There there’s our own 2017 Estate chardonnay, classically elegant, full-bodied and a beautiful match with most foods. It’s set for release at our Murrindindi Comes to Melbourne dinner on 24 March.

As far as I’m concerned, the defining place to get a drink in Melbourne is Spencer & Co Wine Bar in Rathdowne Street, Carlton. They sell sparkling shiraz by the glass. Very cool!

If I were to choose a Victorian drink purely on the strength of its label, I’d go for the most descriptive. I love to read the story of the wine, something about its provenance and credentials, like our 2018 Forgotten Hero. Customers tell us all the time how much they love the label. I think they enjoy the tale of an underappreciated grape variety – petit verdot – finding its moment to shine and bask in some glory. We all like to cheer for the underdog and, let me tell you, when this little battler is good, it’s the most sensual and sensational of all the reds.

The Victorian spirit I’m loving the most right now is Sassy Sister, an exquisitely decadent blueberry liqueur created at Bilyara Springs near the Strathbogie Ranges. It’s gorgeous on its own or fabulous splashed into a glass of Little River Taggerty sparkling brut, with a few blueberries added for zest.

The best thing about making wine in Central Victoria is crafting a distinctive, cool-climate bottle of wine. It all starts in the vineyard, with healthy mountain soils which we maintain according to organic principles, plus we only harvest the grapes when their ripeness and acidity are in perfect balance. Our goal is always to produce eye-catching, aromatic, delectable wines that are competitively priced and consistent in quality.

If I could take one Victorian bar czar with me to a desert island, it would be the talented and renowned artist and super foodie, Marian Rennie of Rennies Gallery Restaurant in Acheron. She makes a mouth-watering cocktail with pomegranates and her own exotic mix of citrus and herbs. Wow!

There’s no better value on a Victorian wine list/in a bottle-shop in this state than… I can’t nominate just one. There are just too many top-quality, value-for-money Victorian treasures available. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, we are so lucky and spoilt for choice.

For me, the most inspiring person in the Victorian drinks world is my husband, Philip Challen. His career spans 50 years as a former chef, sommelier, restaurateur and general manager at venues including Victorian Arts Centre, hotels and lots of inner-city pubs in Melbourne including Nicholsons in Carlton, Customs House in Williamstown and Mt Erica Hotel in Prahran. As a grape-grower and winemaker his passion and flair in the hospitality is evident. He demands excellence from his endeavours and is dedicated to supporting Victorian produce and the many wonderful characters in our industry.

You can try Little River Wines for yourself at the cellar door by appointment (20 Sharrock Ct, Taggerty, littleriverwines.com.au) or at the Murrindindi Comes to Melbourne extravaganza on 24 March. Tickets are on sale now.