Route Du Van is featured in The Age

August 2, 2011

Man with a Grand Van
by Jeni Port

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Tod Dexter is serious about keeping reds and whites enjoyable.

YOU have to be impressed by a winemaker who, amid a mighty downturn in the Australian wine industry, decides to hang the self-pity and have a bit of fun.

There are probably plenty of his fellow winemakers out there secretly wishing they could do the same. And, in keeping with the industry’s push to be sustainable, he’s having that fun with other peoples’ unwanted grapes.

Tod Dexter is a fiftysomething winemaker living and working on the Mornington Peninsula. Most of his professional winemaking life has been involved with peninsula-based wineries Stonier Wines and Yabby Lake. These days, he has his own label, Dexter, producing some serious chardonnay and pinot noir. But his latest venture, Route du Van, is a far cry from all of that – somewhat literally.

The idea was born about this time last year when he joined brothers Ian and David Bird at their summer digs (they have neighbouring houses) in the gorgeous village of Cordes-sur-Ciel, in the south of France. In between waving Australian flags on the sidelines of the Tour de France as it passed through, and touring ”la route des vins” of the Gaillac region, the three talked and talked about wine; not the great wines of the world but the kind of everyday wines they were buying and drinking on balmy afternoons on the Birds’ terrace.

”Those wines helped us in our direction,” Dexter says, ”in as much as, if there is such a thing as a typical European wine that is just drinkable, they were it … they’re just easy-drinking wines.”

”If I’m choosing wines myself I tend towards just easy drinking – they’ve got structure but [are] not so sophisticated, if that makes sense.”

It does. For 30 years wine has been his life, working each vintage not for mediocrity but something finer. Now Dexter is getting some of his wine life back. He sounds like a liberated man, or maybe it’s a mid-life crisis. ”Time,” he says, ”to broaden my horizons.”

So the Route du Van wine company was born. It’s a cute name, a bow to his French adventures with the Bird brothers and now his adventures here at home. Ian Bird, a former Melbourne-based sales and wine marketer, is a business partner in Route du Van, providing, according to Dexter, the continuing push and enthusiasm for the concept, and brother David is the financial partner.

Their first Aussie outing is the Man in a Van brand, another fun title with equally playful labelling and marketing. At first, I thought the label was the creation of those two young blokes Andre and Justin, who tour Australian wine regions in a beat-up Kombi for their blog, Qwoff ( The label has no mention of Dexter. It’s not about him, he says; it’s about the wine.

The Man in a Van concept is similar to the wine touring the men did in the Gaillac region last year. But on this occasion, the trio got in a car – not a van, as it happens; David Bird’s BMW, to be precise – and toured Victorian wineries looking at tanks of 2010 wine that were for sale.

They visited the Strathbogie Ranges, where they came across some viognier. A tank of chardonnay, a bit ”spritz and sugar”, was close by.

Then they drove a few kilometres down the road and dropped in at another winery, where the winemaker had 50 wines out on the bench for them to taste. ”The dolcetto stood out,” Dexter says. ”It was mostly from the King Valley but I don’t know whose vineyard it was from.” Some good Goulburn Valley shiraz was also on the bench.

Dexter doesn’t name the wineries – it’s not important, he says. He took the samples home and prepared some trial blends, a viognier-chardonnay and a dolcetto-shiraz. His aim was to create two wines to sell between $18 and $20. Drinkability was the only priority.

His idea to produce two blended, not varietal, wines is interesting. There are plenty of cheap blends about, especially involving chardonnay and shiraz, and quite a few of them have a quirky, Aussie sense of humour behind them.

They’re the kind of wines that got Australian winemakers into trouble in markets such as Britain and the US, because they were wines to enjoy and not to be taken too seriously. Today, the Australian wine industry wants to sell a serious wine message, with stories of serious winemakers producing wines of ”terroir”.

Dexter, a serious winemaker, poses an answer of sorts: ”I’m not sure that you can’t be serious and be fun at the same time.”

Why not, indeed? The Man in a Van 2010 dolcetto-shiraz is an absolute hoot to drink, much in the rich vein of good-drinking Australian wines of the past two years, such as Henschke’s Henry’s Seven and Yalumba’s Running with Bulls.

It’s pretty to look at, with a purple vibrancy in the glass that translates into a fleshy, jubey, spicy flavour with moderate alcohol (13 per cent) and just a smidge of sweetness.

Dexter says the reason for the shiraz in the blend was to fill a slight hollowness in dolcetto’s middle palate. While the dolcetto sings the brightest at 70 per cent of the wine, the blend works, fulfilling the brief set by the trio during their French summer break.

The Man in a Van 2010 viognier-chardonnay isn’t quite so outstanding or enticing. It lacks the eye-candy of the red wine and is pleasantly neutral in flavour with smart acidity, a textural grab and a fresh pear flavour. It’s highly drinkable, just not as memorable.

Route du Van’s next project will be another white. Dexter is itching to work on something with pinot gris in a blend, maybe with riesling, maybe chardonnay, maybe gewurztraminer.

And the boys are talking about a Route du Van French white wine from the Gaillac region. ”This might not be a politically correct thing to do, considering the state of the Australian wine industry,” Dexter says, ”but it does fit the story of education and discovery.

”Besides, we like to drink them!”

So Australian …

Man in a Van wines are available from Blackhearts and Sparrows. Source: Epicure

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