Bunnamagoo is a microcosm of what is wrong with Mudgee. The 2009 Bunnamagoo chardonnay (tasting) is delicious, and costs just $22, but who’s ever heard of it? It has a forgettable label and a silly-sounding name – why does it make me think of a cartoon of John Howard? The crazy thing is that this vineyard is owned by the Paspaley family, who sell pearls as everyone knows. If they called it Paspaley chardonnay, buyers would be breaking the door down.
Mudgee suffers because it’s never been promoted well. But things are changing. With the youthful Logan family – Peter and Hannah – and the canny and experienced Oatley family – founders of Rosemount – gearing up again, the Mudgee profile is rising. And with some smart young winemakers, such as Jacob Stein of Robert Stein Wines (tastings), Liam Heslop, the assistant winemaker at Lowe Wines (tastings), and Julia Conchie at di Lusso Estate (tastings), plus the aforementioned Peter Logan, there’s the sense of a new energy. It’s a shame Michael Slater, who was doing great things at Thistle Hill (tastings) and Erudgere (tastings), has left the region to work in the Riverina. But others are running with the Mudgee torch – people such as Des Quilty of micro-boutique Quilty Wines (tastings) and Stuart Olsen of the innovative Eloquesta (tastings).
Mudgee is also home to one of the most determined ‘alternative grape’ wineries, di Lusso Estate, where you’ll find vermentino, sangiovese, barbera, nebbiolo, lagrein, picolit, a dried-grape Vin Santo-style sweet wine – even greco di tufo – but no cabernet or chardonnay.
The region has been in the doldrums. Successive big wine companies including Orlando and Southcorp quit the region and in recent years the vineyard area has been slashed by 30 per cent. “It’s medicine we needed to take,” says David Lowe of Lowe Wines.
With the exception perhaps of Robert Oatley Wines (tastings), the region has retracted to a cottage industry of niche marketers. Hence their wines are seldom sighted outside the region. Lowe specialises in organic, low-preservative wines; di Lusso sells virtually everything it makes ex-winery and its eccentric (but well-made) wines make the most sense when drunk with a meal in the winery café, or enoteca. They grow olives and figs, press their own oil, dry their own grapes on racks for passito-style (dried grape) wines. They even grow crocuses and make saffron. Nothing eccentric or difficult seems to daunt the owners, South African-born former New York banker Rob Fairall and his partner Luanne Hill. The 2010 sangiovese ($26 tasting) is pale and light, but I can imagine it being the perfect partner for house-cooked pizza.
The Oatley family, who still own a lot of vineyards in Mudgee and recently bought back the substantial Cumbandry vineyard from Treasury Wine Estates, have big plans for their various brands (the biggest is Wild Oats), currently selling over 200,000 cases a year, with plans for much more. Their wines are sourced from many regions, nearly half in Western Australia, but they’ve also renewed their commitment to Mudgee. The 2010 Robert Oatley Craigmoor AC1 Chardonnay ($29 tasting) was among the most impressive wines I tasted on a recent Mudgee tour.
Robert Stein winery is impressing with wines as diverse as riesling, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, botrytis semillon and the cabernet shiraz blend reviewed in Good Living a fortnight ago. Winemaker Jacob Stein, 26, grandson of the founder, returned to the fold a couple of years back after gaining experience in other countries and regions.
Another niche style in Mudgee is wines made with low or no preservative from organic or biodynamic grapes. Following the lead set by Botobolar (tastings) since its inception in the 1970s, when it was virtually the only such producer in Australia, there are now five vineyards in Mudgee certified organic, and another four in conversion. Total area is estimated at 140 hectares.
One of them is David Lowe’s vineyard, on a property which has been in his family for over a century. He’s been organic since 2003 and making a preservative-free wine since ‘09. Indeed, his biggest selling wine is Tinja preservative-free merlot shiraz (the 2011 is $20). “They are incredibly difficult to make as sound wines,” he says. But he shows me a 2009 as “evidence that they don’t fall over immediately.” Lowe Wines.
Eloquesta is the newest organic and low-preservative wine. The ’09 and ’10 are both soft, juicy, very slurpable blends of shiraz and petit verdot, costing $28 direct. Or try Ultimo Wine Centre or Wine Odyssey.
The most head-turning wine I tasted in Mudgee – partly because it was a new discovery – was Quilty ‘Running Stitch’ Cabernet Sauvignon – two vintages in fact, 2009 and 2010 (tastings both $28 online), made from grapes grown at De Beaurepaire’s high-altitude Rylstone vineyard. These wines are fleshy and clean with perfectly ripened fruit, and the tannins – often tough in Mudgee reds – are velvet-soft. A pity there’s only around 300 cases made. Try Vine or Elizabeth Bay Cellars. Quilty Wines
Mudgee is a great region to visit. Natural beauty is its main asset. It’s a classic Australian country town and rural setting. With a grape crush of 15,000 tonnes it’s about one per cent of Australia’s production. However, it’s estimated that only 20 per cent of those tonnes are bound for Mudgee-branded bottles. The rest goes to big companies such as Casella. There are 13 operating wineries and 34 cellar doors. It’s three hours from Sydney by car or 50 minutes by air, and has a raft of cultural attractions including international music and short-film festivals, not to mention great local produce. Come to think of it, that’s probably why they don’t make much noise about their wine. They want to keep it a secret.
Mudgee has a new distillery to complement its wine industry. Nathan Williams, managing partner and distiller of Baker Williams Distillery, is setting up his business adjacent to Vinifera Wines (tastings), just outside the Mudgee township on Henry Lawson Drive, and working towards licensing. He plans to start with a vodka and then liqueurs, “But at the end of the day my heart goes to whisky, which is where we will direct the business to.” It makes sense in a winegrowing region to develop a brandy, too, and Williams says his goal is to include as much local produce as possible. “Folks coming to the region want to experience the regional produce, and we think there’s plenty of quality on offer.” He aims to have his first product on sale in July.
First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 3 April 2012.