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The best NSW wine to try now

NSW and ACT wines are very poorly represented on NSW and ACT restaurant wine lists. This has been a gripe of NSW wine producers for many years, and several years ago the NSW Wine Industry Association spearheaded a concerted effort to improve the situation. It enjoyed real success, but this momentum has now evaporated.

Indeed, it has reversed. Listings of NSW/ACT wines on NSW/ACT wine lists fell 18.5 per cent in the past year.

According to data collected in 2013 by independent business consultancy Wine Business Solutions, NSW/ACT wine lists contain only 15 per cent NSW and ACT wines. Compare this with other major wine-producing states: in South Australia and Northern Territory combined, 63 per cent of the wines on restaurant wine lists are South Australian; in Victoria, 31 per cent are Victorian wines; in Western Australia, 43 per cent are Western Australian wines. Even in Tasmania with its tiny wine industry, 46 per cent of the wines are Tasmanian.

What is so wrong with NSW and ACT wines that they figure so poorly in their home-state wine lists?

According to Peter McAtamney, the man behind Wine Business Solutions, “It’s all about the offer”. What he means is the NSW wine industry is simply not producing the kinds of wines the market wants. At the same time that imported wines’ market-share has risen, NSW regions are among the least innovative. “At the core of the problem is a lack of ability to adapt to change, and develop an effective on-premise (restaurants, hotels and bars) offer,” says McAtamney.

Then there’s the fashion thing. NSW doesn’t have a fashionable region, with the arguable exception of the Canberra District. In a market that’s groaning with labels and a bewildering number of choices, a sexy image can count for a lot.

What does NSW have to compete with Yarra Valley, Margaret River, Mornington Peninsula or Adelaide Hills? NSW’s answer could be Orange, Tumbarumba, maybe even Southern Highlands, but these regions are not well-known or understood. They have relatively few top wines that are consistent, and their leading producers aren’t pushing hard enough to make an impression.

The Canberra District is the exception. It’s still quite small and has a relatively small number of top producers, but it has the closest thing to a critical mass with enough gravitas to take on the high-profile Australian regions. Put Clonakilla (tastings), Lark Hill (tastings), Helm (tastings), Ravensworth (tastings), Mount Majura (tastings), Collector Wines (tastings), Nick O’Leary (tastings) and Eden Road (tastings) together in one room and you’d have a small but impressive bunch.

CANBERRA DISTRICT

Thanks in large measure to the inspired winemaking and tireless promotion of Tim Kirk of Clonakilla, this region has a high profile and modern, exciting image that transcends NSW borders. Kirk’s innovative shiraz viognier blend (tastings), various other shiraz bottlings, and viognier (tastings) and riesling (tastings) dry whites are standard-bearers. Ken Helm has done similar with his rieslings (tastings). The more understated Carpenter family of Lark Hill make beautiful wines from their biodynamic vines. Nick O’Leary, Alex McKay of Collector Wines and Andrew McEwin of Kyeema (Capital Wines) have also run with the shiraz baton. Ravensworth’s Bryan Martin makes an arresting Rhone Valley-style dry white blended from marsanne, roussanne, viognier and chardonnay, The Grainery (tastings), which shows there are other possibilities. Ditto Frank van de Loo at Mount Majura, with red wine: his ‘TSG’ tempranillo shiraz graciano (tastings) is superbly made, as are the wines he makes from those three varieties separately.

HUNTER VALLEY

Of course NSW has a lot of great wine, and the Hunter still leads the charge, thanks to its sheer weight of winery and brand numbers, as much as its proud history. Hunter semillon and shiraz are two of Australia’s greatest wine-styles, even if the punters aren’t exactly loving them. The 2011 and 2013 vintages will provide plenty of top examples of both. And – stop the presses – Lindemans (tastings), silent for years in the Hunter, is about to launch a new range of Hunter wines.

The great names to look for here are Tyrrell’s (tastings), Lakes Folly (tastings), Mount Pleasant (tastings), Brokenwood (tastings), Audrey Wilkinson (tastings), Peppertree (tastings) and Hungerford Hill (tastings), to which we can add the more recently established Thomas Wines (tastings), De Iuliis (tastings), First Creek (tastings) and Meerea Park (tastings). The latest newbies to make an impact are Leogate Estate (tastings) and Tinkler’s (tastings), the first based on the former Rothbury Estate vineyard, Brokenback; the latter a family business now occupying the full attention of young Usher Tinkler, feted former winemaker at Poole’s Rock (tastings). Other proven performers are Allandale (tastings), Gartelmann (tastings), Keith Tulloch (tastings), McLeish Estate (tastings), Margan (tastings), Scarborough (tastings), Tulloch Wines (tastings) and Two Rivers (tastings). Semillon and shiraz are the specialties; verdelho is the crowd-pleasing white quaffer, and chardonnay has proven itself in the hands of a few – Lakes Folly, Tyrrell’s, Scarborough and Mistletoe (tastings). But, with rare exceptions, alternative varieties have mostly failed to produce interesting results. Stick with the tried and tested ones.

TUMBARUMBA

Tumbarumba is arguably the region with the most exciting activity of late. Jason Brown, of Hilltops vineyard Moppity (tastings), has bought a Tumbarumba vineyard and launched a range of excellent wines. McWilliam’s Armchair Critic brand won 2013 NSW Wine of the Year with its superb 2012 chardonnay (tastings). Courabyra Wines won the same award the year before with its superb 2001 sparkling wine (tastings), and has turned out several good table wines to go with its vintage bubblies. Alex Retief (tastings) is another young gun making fine Tumbarumba wines, while Chalkers Crossing (tastings) and McWilliams’ Barwang (under the Granite Track label – tastings) have been doing it for some years. The leading varieties apart from sparkling wines and chardonnay, are riesling and sauvignon blanc. The occasional pinot noir (e.g. Excelsior Peak – tastings) and shiraz (Hungerford Hill – tastings) have been noteworthy.

ORANGE

Orange is a region that’s loaded with promise but appears to have been treading water for the last few years. This is partly due to difficult seasons and economic factors. What it needs is more people with the technical savvy and creative juices of the likes of Philip Shaw (tastings), Phil Kerney at Ross Hill (tastings) and Drew Tuckwell at Printhie (tastings). Angullong (tastings) has perhaps Orange’s best-value range, including some smart alternative varieties (tempranillo, sangiovese, barbera and savagnin) while Bloodwood wines (tastings) are invariably full of character and fairly priced.

The region’s most successful variety is undoubtedly chardonnay, at which Philip Shaw, Printhie, Ross Hill, Canobolas-Smith (tastings) and Bloodwood excel. Sauvignon blanc is also better in Orange than most parts of Australia, and names to look for are Angullong, Philip Shaw, Patina (tastings), De Salis (tastings), Brangayne (tastings), Brokenwood Forest Edge, Ross Hill and Printhie. In reds, initial enthusiasm for cabernet has shifted to shiraz: Philip Shaw, Ross Hill and Logan (tastings) have made some crackers, while Printhie and Cumulus (tastings) also have runs on the scoreboard. Riesling is also very good: Cargo Road (tastings), Brangayne (tastings) and Patina make some beauties.

RIVERINA & MURRAY DARLING

NSW supplies some of Australia’s best value for money wines.

Trentham Estate (tastings), De Bortoli (with the Deen De Bortoli vat series and Sacred Hill labels – tastings) and McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate (tastings) regularly serve up high-quality wines at prices that defy belief. For reference, go no further than Trentham’s 2012 Cabernet Merlot (tastings) and 2012 La Famiglia Nebbiolo, both $14 at full retail price.

Far from being typecast as a cheap ‘n cheerful region, the Riverina is also a paradise for sweet table wines made from botrytis-affected grapes. The names to seek out are De Bortoli Noble One (tastings), Lillypilly Estate (tastings), McWilliams Morning Light (tastings), and Westend 3 Bridges Golden Mist (tastings).

Dry white vermentino is a ‘new’ grape that’s exciting plenty of interest. These are simple, fresh, cheerful and inexpensive light whites: Trentham Estate (tastings) and Berton Vineyard (tastings) are worth trying.

SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS

This high-altitude, humid region just south of Sydney can produce surprising wines, but summer and autumn rains are often problematic. Early-ripening grapes do best, especially whites and sparkling varieties. Its strengths are riesling and pinot noir, and names to seek out are Tertini (tastings), Centennial Vineyards (tastings), Cherry Tree Hill (tastings) and Artemis (tastings). Tertini’s pinot noirs have enjoyed considerable show success (the Reserve is extra special) while virtually every wine Centennial produces is of a remarkably consistent standard, seldom disappointing. Some of its wines are from Orange grapes; the best from its own Bowral vineyard are the various sparkling wines, Woodside chardonnay, rosé and late-harvest sweet wines.

HILLTOPS

A small but impressive region for serious, well-structured, cellarworthy red wines, mainly from shiraz and cabernet but also several of the newer imported varieties. Look for Freeman Vineyards’ Secco rondinella corvina blend (the only such in Australia – tastings), tempranillo (tastings) and nebbiolo (tastings), and Grove Estate’s nebbiolo (tastings). Shiraz is very good: try Clonakilla’s Hilltops shiraz (tastings) as well as Grove Estate Cellar Block (tastings) and Moppity reserve shiraz (tastings). McWilliam’s Barwang reds can be quite good, if oaky, and Moppity’s Lock & Key wines are special value at $15.

MUDGEE

The organic Lowe Family Wines (tastings) and dynamic Logan (tastings) continue to give this small and much-diminished region a boost of excitement. Robert Stein Wines (tastings) is the area’s hidden gem, making sturdy modern reds and very fine rieslings, while Huntington Estate (tastings) continues in its worthy, ultra-traditional red-wine style. Di Lusso (tastings) is devoted to all things Italian, from arneis to olives, sangiovese to saffron… and picolit, greco, pinot grigio and vermentino. Robert Oatley (tastings) is the region’s biggest winery and vine-grower, but Mudgee regional wines are a small fraction of its vast output these days. The high-altitude (c.1,000 metres) Rylstone sub-region is adding an extra cool-climate dimension to the diversity of Mudgee styles. Look for de Beaurepaire (tastings) and Louee (tastings) brands.

HOW CAN NSW DO BETTER?

Among Peter McAtamney’s suggestions as to how NSW can do better, he cites three big areas where NSW is missing out: “Provence-style rosés, blended white wines, and medium-bodied, spicy reds.”

When McAtamney researched leading Sydney wine importers, he found the biggest selling wine in each of their portfolios was a Provencal rosé. “Rosé sales are nudging towards 9 per cent of global wine sales; Provencal rosé in the US has increased about 13-fold in the last 10 years. If you walk around Vinexpo, you see they all have the same colour – a very pale salmon-pink – and they’ve learnt how to stabilise that colour so it doesn’t change with age. One colour sells rosé. Almost no-one in Australia is making that sort of wine. My feeling is that the first Australian producer who makes a really world-beating pink wine will make a lot of money.”

Indeed, most Australian rosés are too deep and too purple in hue; too full and fruity in flavour, and often too sweet as well.

The second kind of wine McAtamney identifies that NSW should produce is blended dry white wine, which the Italians in Friuli and the French in Alsace and the southern Rhone have been doing for a long time. Australians are fixated on single-varietal wines, especially whites, but blending grape varieties often produces a more palatable and balanced wine. What it may lack in varietal character it makes up in drinkability. “Complex, layered white wines are worth working on. It’s still novel in Australia to think of white blends. It’s a matter of combining the best varieties from the regions that suit them.” And NSW with its 14 regions should be able to supply the component parts. McAtamney singles out Chalmers Montevecchio from Heathcote (tastings), a blend of white varieties – vermentino, fiano and moscato giallo – that he thinks is a good example (and I agree).

Thirdly, he says medium-bodied, spicy, savoury red wine is a growth area, and the lack of tasty local examples is only encouraging drinkers to buy imported wines. “I like sitting down to dinner with a Cotes-du-Rhone from Guigal (tastings) or Chapoutier (tastings), or a Chianti from Antinori (tastings) or a Spanish red from Bodegas Borsao (tastings). No-one in Australia has really nailed that style. Ben Riggs (tastings) in South Australia is doing it with shiraz and grenache. Just look at Borsao: it’s in Dan Murphy’s and Costco and they’re selling 700,000 cases of it.”

I mention Carpineto Dogajolo, another Dan Murphy’s import, and he agrees, adding that this wine has a fantastic label design, another area where NSW is behind.

Wine Business Solutions is retained as an adviser by the NSW wine industry.

NSW WINES TO TRY

Building a cellar of NSW wines? Try these for starters:

Canberra District

Hunter Valley

Tumbarumba

Orange

Riverina & Murray Darling

Southern Highlands

Hilltops

Mudgee


First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 18 Feb 2014.

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