Discover New England

New England is a promising wine region. Stretching roughly between the Queensland border and Tamworth and across to the spine of the Great Dividing Range, it’s high altitude and has a continental climate (warm days, cool nights), and being on the western side of the Divide, the all-important ripening season is dry. It suffers by being small and remote from the rest of the Australian wine industry.

It has its own wine show, which includes the neighbouring Granite Belt (Queensland) region and the NSW coastal areas including the Hastings Valley. It’s a great little wine show, but if you took away the Granite Belt and New England’s leading producer Toppers Mountain (tastings), there wouldn’t be a whole lot left. 

I judged at the wine show recently and have since loaded about 50 tasting notes into the database. There are some smart wines, but it’s hard to overlook Toppers Mountain’s astounding success. Owned and managed by Sydney-based engineer Mark Kirkby, this 10-hectare vineyard at Tingha near Inverell is quite a marvel. The Inverell area had substantial vineyards in the second half of the 19th century, including the Bukkulla property of the Wyndham family of Wyndham Estate, but it didn’t survive into the 20th century.

Toppers Mountain’s first commercial vintage was 2005. Following much trial-and-error, Kirkby has a fruit-salad of varieties planted – gewurztraminer, petit manseng, viognier, tannat, tempranillo, barbera, nebbiolo, pinotage, touriga and tinta cao, as well as the more prosaic chardonnay, shiraz, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. He has 14 varieties but started with 28. This is rigorous, energetic, pioneering viticulture: try everything within reason and ruthlessly chuck out those that don’t work.

Every grape he’s growing today works well, some spectacularly. Gewurztraminer may be the most spectacular: in recent weeks, his gewurz (tasting) has won a trophy at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards (under the Symphony Hill label) for best ‘other’ white varietal, as well as a trophy at the New England Wine Show – where it’s a regular performer. The nebbiolo (tastings) also wins trophies and gold medals and has been best wine of show at New England.

Kirkby and his winemaker at Symphony Hill, Mike Hayes, are inveterate blenders, too. The Toppers Mountain Red Earth Child includes several varieties, and the current 2012 (tasting) mixes tempranillo, nebbiolo, tannat and barbera. It’s also a decorated wine. And a white partner has recently been debuted: Bricolage Blanc (tasting), composed of chardonnay, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc and petit manseng. It’s very good, too.

The vineyard’s soil there is so red it stains everything, so Red Earth Child was appropriate. It’s rich in iron and the pebbles are as heavy as steel ball-bearings.

There are a number of other promising wineries in New England, including Kurrajong Downs, Merilba Estate, Splitter’s Swamp and Thomas New England Estate. Life is not easy, but I hope they stick with it. 

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