Mudgee…unearthing nuggets from the dirt.

Mudgee…An up and coming wine region? In terms of age, hardly. Mudgee has old vines and wineries like Oatley’s historic cellar door at Craigmoor. So why is it now just starting to creep into the vinous lexicon as the “new Orange” or the “next big thing?”

I’ve lived in Sydney now for almost 6 years and whilst I love getting to wine regions and cellar doors, I had to ashamedly admit that I had never been to Mudgee. Yep…I’d been to Burgundy before I’d been to Mudgee. Patrick Haddock  has long espoused the region with a love of the wines from Lowe  but up till now, I’d only ever tasted a few of the wines from the area at Sydney Cellar Door during NSW Wine Week but not really concentrating on them. I have vague memories from my retail wine sales days thoroughly enjoying the old Rosemount Hill Of Gold Shiraz and Chardonnays in exceptionally distinctive bottles. So when a friend of my wife moved there, there was more than a pressing need to turn right at Lithgow instead of driving straight on towards Orange as we had done several times previously.

It started with a drive on a thundery and wet Saturday afternoon over Blue Mountains after my WSET wine school had finished for the day. We arrived late in the evening and proceeded directly to Roth’s Wine Bar for more than a little bit of local hospitality and colour. Roth’s is integral to the history of Mudgee wine with the original owner, Bob Roth having left Craigmoor vineyard in the 1920’s to start a general store in the now historic terrace building. Lovely tapas nibbles and a couple of bottles of the 2010 Bunnamagoo Merlot set the tone for the evening as the locals continued the Australian drinking tradition of “dancing” in a circle and “singing.” The Merlot was certainly one of the more sweeter edged red wines I was to find over the next couple of savoury days. Reading the winemaking notes in hindsight, the carbonic maceration probably played a helping hand there.

The following morning saw us hitting the road early as I had handpicked a few wineries I thought would show me Mudgee. I wasn’t disappointed…

Robert Stein

The family’s cellar door is made from the stone that surrounds the estate vines and hosts the Motorcycle museum which seemed to bring in as many visitors as those that came for the wines. Jacob Stein met us there and with a quiet hello and firm handshake looked a little sheepish & humbled at the extent of the labels under his direction. He is the current Gourmet Traveller Young Winemaker of the Year and deservedly so.

The view from Stein cellar door. Tough Office...

The view from Stein cellar door. Tough Office…

Starting with the Aromatic whites, the 2011 and 2012 Rieslings and the 2012 Gewurztraminer showing lovely lines of acidity with heady florals. Jacob has spent time in the Rheingau and the posters on the wall are a pretty strong indicator of how he sees the direction of the wines heading.

The large collection of Reds (predominantly Shiraz and Cabernets) culminates with the Reserve range. The 08 Cabernet (cork) had been open for 5 days and showed no signs of tired or exposed fruit. Powerful, dense, earthy tannins. The crowning glory however, was the Cabernet Shiraz blend. Andrew Graham of Oz Wine Review has recently reviewed the wine and I believed has captured the note perfectly, so I will defer to him here

After finishing with a hearty, warming Rum Port (you can buy it by the 10L drum if you really need that much of it, but get in quick as it’s a best seller), we had a pre-booked lunch waiting for us at di Lusso.

di Lusso

It’s all about the woodfired pizza and the Italians. Specialising in Italian varietal grapes, there’s not many wineries in Australia producing Greco, Picolit, Aleatico & Lagrein. We enjoyed a couple of deliciously thin and crisp pizzas (the fig, prosciutto and gorgonzola was magnificent) with the slightly lighter style 2012 Sangiovese’s acids working well on the rich cheese and meat. A quick tasting after lunch displayed just why the Italian varietals produce some of the most wonderful ageing wines in the world. di Lusso’s bottlings of these are certainly serious wines. The “Super Tuscan” in their range, the il Palio (named after the famous horse “race” in Siena) is a mighty beast. The current release is almost undrinkable. Yet to be ‘broken in,’ it is a wine of tannin, fruit, oak & acidity. All parts are yet to come together to make a smoother ride, however, the back vintage 2002 sings. Lovely medium body, spices almost aniseed and rosemary, hints of sweet cherry fruit. Potentially the most Tuscan tasting Australian Sangiovese I’ve had and invokes the memories of our recent visit to Italy.

Vinifera and Baker Williams.

From the Italian heritage of di Lusso, we were off to the Spanish influenced Vinifera. Jacob Stein has recently started making their wines and tasting back vintages compared with the current, they’ve definitely got a good hand directing the tiller. The Gran Tinto is a throw together of Garnacha (Grenache), Cabernet and Tempranillo, the 07 is the current release and the earthy tannins are just starting to blend nicely together. Red and black fruits with a savoury leather edge, this is good drinking now. The 05 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon has a very distinctive Eucalyptus line running in parallel with black fruits. Again the tannins! For my pick though, the dry Rose is one of those little nuggets shining amongst the dark earth. Savoury and serious, it shows that Rose made from good tannic grapes can be more than a summer lunch drink.

One of the best little unearthings was hidden out the back of Vinifera…a little distillery called Baker Williams. A family affair only a year old with a small range of products, there’s some real class in the booze. A little bit fun with the Coffee Liqueur and the Butterscotch Schnapps, the Wheat Vodka is one of the cleanest, purest Vodkas I’ve tasted. Not a mass produced swiller, I could lovingly sit and sip this all day. Light biscuit (water cracker) hints and no alcohol burn, this is a beauty. Named the “Pilot Edition” with Art Deco stylings, this was their first release and bodes well for a great future for a symbiotic point of difference on the Mudgee Wine Trail.

Flying Spirit, ready for take off...

Flying Spirit, ready for take off…

A quick call in to the Mudgee Brewing Company for a round of cleansing ales, the Pale Ale and the Porter the stand outs. Home cooked meal that night with our friends: Thai Chicken Curry with perfect counterpoint of the Stein Gewurztraminer. That night I pondered the wines I had tasted throughout the day, wondering if Mudgee had a “Hero” varietal, as the Barossa Valley has Shiraz or the Hunter Valley Semillon. I posted this thought on Twitter and received plenty of feedback. It seems I wasn’t the first for Patrick Haddock had written of the same thing for his article on Mudgee in the issue of Wine Companion magazine that I had brought with me but had yet failed to open! Certainly the reds had plenty of guts and a very distinct “earthiness” but were they the heroes? Certainly Jacob Stein admitted to making a lot of wines and they all were made well, but what was the focus? I was to get a bit more local intel on this query the next day…

Robert Oatley Vineyards

The power of social media is wonderful with Darren Jahn (twitter: @djsgoodlife ) arranging a visit to the historic Craigmoor cellar door for a tasting with cellar manager Amanda (where Darren is apparently known as “RazzleDazzle”). This is one of the historic hearts of Mudgee wine. No wine is made on site (all is made nearby at the old Poet’s Corner winery and bottled on site with a brand spanker state of the art bottling line), but the Cellar door is set in beautiful lush surrounds with a damn fine looking cricket pitch.

Not enough cellar doors with pitches!

Not enough cellar doors with pitches!

I requested a local flavour to the tasting (Oatley source fruit from WA, Vic and SA for some of their range too) so as to only experience the Mudgee wines and saw all price points, from the Wild Oats and TIC TOK entry levels (both over deliver for price) to the historic Montrose Labels and the stand out Finisterre range.

What struck me throughout each label and price point was the consistency of the Chardonnays. Certainly the Finisterre is an exceptional wine and just such a baby for the moment, but the Wild Oats label Chardonnays were also excellent examples of “new” Australian Chardonnay. More Chablis than Montrachet, they proved very smart drinking indeed. My personal little gems in the extensive range were the Italians under the Montrose Banner.

Barbera and Sangiovese...Tribute and Stone

Barbera and Sangiovese…Tribute and Stone

The 07 Pietra Sangiovese vibrant with cherries, herbs and cracking acidity. The 06 Barbera still in its youth under screwcap with savoury dark fruits and rocking tannins. Both wines complex and well worth putting away in the cellar for a lay down or served now with a side of roast beast…

I asked Amanda, a long term resident of Mudgee with a long history with the Oatleys, what she thought the Mudgee Hero was…”Chardonnay,” was her reply. Did I have my answer? I wasn’t sure just yet.

Lowe Wines

After the extensive tour of the Oatley Winery and bottling line, we were well behind on our schedule and interrupted the Lowe winery workers having their lunch. Lindl was kind enough to put her lunch aside for the moment and start our tasting with one of Mudgee’s loveliest cellar door and winery views…

Lowe Wines Sparkling Red & White...history aplenty

Lowe Wines Sparkling Red & White…history aplenty

The wonderfully labelled Gentleman’s Daughter Pinot Noir/Chardonnay full of crisp, clean light Orange NSW fruit and the Bobby Lowe Organic Merlot from the grapes grown on the front block of Lowe’s vineyard. These little beauties are a bit of fun on the packaging but well crafted and serious sparkling wines on the inside. Lindl had prepared a lovely tasting spread for us to enjoy, and the acidity cut through the meaty pork rillette. We had a handover at this stage to guide us through the rest of the wines, the effervescent Bettina tagging in so Lindl could finish her well deserved lunch. She gave a little local geography lesson with the laser-like Louee Riesling and tannic, acidic beast of a Nebbiolo from the Nullo Mountain vineyard at nearby Rylstone (one of Australia’s highest vineyards at 1100 metres); the “Tinja” range of  Preservative Free wines with its fresh, fruit driven Merlot and then culminating with the commanding Block 8 Shiraz and the flagship Reserves: Merlot and Shiraz from the winery home block on Tinja Lane.

Power power...the law of the land...

Power power…the lore of the land…

It’s about here that we were starting to clock watch, as we had a lunch appointment with our friends, but that’s when the enigmatic David Lowe appeared. Lean, willowy framed and farm-weathered, his enthusiasm is infectious, his smile wide and handshake firm. Not a man who, from outward appearances, would espouse the values of Biodynamics or following the astrological calendar with regard to his wines…

But when he literally drags us upstairs to the winery lab to taste freshly pressed Shiraz juice, picked on a Fruit day, it starts to give you a clearer picture of why he wants to see all his vineyards converted. These juices are the black/purple of a panther and just as powerful. Regrettably, we make our departure as David takes a phone call in his other guise as President of the NSW Wine Industry. Looks like it’s in safe hands…

After bidding our friends adieu with the promise of returning, we had saved a couple of cellar doors for the drive out of town, unfortunately Skimstone, a small but successful winery, was closed on the Monday, so best call ahead when you visit to make sure you see Josh and taste his prize winning Sangiovese & Barbera. So we crossed the road to the jaw dropping cellar door architecture of…..

Logan Wines

Award winning...deservedly so.

Award winning…deservedly so.

Logan have “dual citizenship” of Orange and Mudgee, making wine from both areas and blending where appropriate. This cellar door in Mudgee would have to be one of the best in Australia, with sweeping views, roaring fireplaces and warm polished concrete.

Polished Concrete & a view...

A couch, fireplace,wine & this view…just leave me here

The Apple Tree Flat range is their entry level made from predominantly Mudgee fruit with a bit of Orange fruit thrown in where required. Accessible and tasty, you’ll forget the price point as they deliver great value. The Weemala range aromatic whites excel with the Riesling taking out “People’s Choice” at the 2013 Summer Of Riesling launch at Fix St James restaurant earlier in the year. My final tasting of Mudgee wine was the comparative “Ridge Of Tears” Shiraz. Highlighting the premium Shiraz fruit from the same vintage of both Orange and Mudgee, the differences on the palate highlighting the two regions. Orange, more perfumed, red fruits and lighter in body…the Mudgee with darker fruits, earthy and gutsy.

With a little sadness we got back in the car, but the back full of great wines. Not a specific hero amongst them, but well made wines crafted by people who care. Mudgee, from the earth, the gold is starting to shine.

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