Posted: February 20, 2020
– By Peter Bourne –
WINE COMES TO REST IN THE ‘NEST IN THE HILLS’
The New South Wales Central Tablelands town of Mudgee is the historic home of chardonnay, but quite how these Burgundian vines—bought to Australia by James Busby in 1832—found their way 300 kilometres inland remains a mystery. More to the point, it’s no longer chardonnay but full-bodied reds that now define the Mudgee wine region.
The name Mudgee comes from the Wiradjuri term ‘moothi’ meaning ‘nest in the hills’ and while vines now nestle in the undulating landscape around Mudgee, it was gold that first bought white settlers to the region in the 1850’s. Gold-mining is hard work and soon a plethora of pubs and hotels sprang up to provide beer, food and accommodation for the thirsty miners.
Wine quickly followed, with Adam Roth planting his first vines in 1858, with his original winery still the Craigmoor cellar door complete with a museum of antique bottles, casks and winemaking equipment. Wine-growing thrived for 30 years then faded as the gold petered out, and the focus turned to fortified wines.
Craigmoor Rummy port kept Craigmoor (and the Mudgee region) alive until the dry table wine renaissance of the 1970’s. Craigmoor has been owned by the Oatley family (the founders of Rosemount) since 2006, recently moving the eponymous wine brand to Margaret River with Craigmoor returning to its regional roots.
THE MODERN ERA
Local legend Pieter Van Gent was still making wine at Craigmoor when Bob Roberts (a young solicitor from Sydney) and his wife Wendy established Huntington Estate in 1969. Shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and some of the early merlot plantings quickly established Huntington Estate as a must-visit winery, with the charismatic Bob Roberts building a strong mailing list. The first Huntington Estate Music Festival was held in 1989, adding another drawcard to Roberts’ excellent wines, and although the Roberts sold their winery in 2005 the new owner Tim Stevens continues the musical tradition.
Another first for Mudgee came in 1971, when journalist Gil Wahlquist and his wife Vincie planted Botobolar, Australia’s first organic vineyard, with Wahlquist making preservative-free wine well before the current fad. Burnbrae, Thistle Hill, Miramar and Robert Stein soon joined Mudgee’s growing wine scene, with eager Sydney-siders venturing the 4 hours to Mudgee for a weekend of food & wine. However, when the wine-and-art savvy Italians Franco Belgiorno-Nettis and Carlo Salteri (the founders of Transfield) established Montrose in 1974, Mudgee wine-growing took a big step up. Their Italian-trained winemaker Carlo Corino proved the catalyst for a style change for Mudgee wines— from raw & rustic to fine-boned & sophisticated. Corino’s introduction of Italian red varieties was a game-changer, not only for the region but the entire wine industry.
The boom of the late 1990’s saw Mudgee’s area-under-vines multiplying tenfold in a decade (from a mere 400 hectares), led by daring ventures such as Filipino beer-baron Eduardo Cojuangco’s Gooree Park, and the Paspaleys (of pearl fame) Bunnamagoo. Mudgee has reached a new level of maturity—both its vines and its winemaking—with a future as bright as a glass of young riesling.
WHAT MAKES MUDGEE SPECIAL?
Mudgee sits on an elevated plateau between 400 and 500 metres on the western side of the Great Dividing Range. Hot summer days tempered by cooler nights and cold winters offer the perfect growing conditions for traditional bold reds such as shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. The vineyards near Rylstone are a notch higher, with Louee’s Nullo Mountain vineyard (at 1100 metres) one of the highest in Australia. Wine-growing often shadows gold—think Beechworth, Bendigo and Ballarat in Victoria, the Granite Belt in Queensland and Tenterfield, Orange and Mudgee in New South Wales.
Mudgee’s rich soils are primarily volcanic, with lots of quartz and some sandy red loams. Water is an issue with the best vineyards dry-grown with deeply rooted vines. Sustainable Viticulture is paramount, with eco-warrior David Lowe leading the way by using mulch, avoiding chemical sprays and farming organically. Lowe follows bio-dynamic principles and has inspired many local growers follow the same path.
WHAT GRAPE VARIETIES THRIVE IN MUDGEE?
Shiraz and cabernet sauvignon remain at the heart of Mudgee reds, with merlot showing best in the cooler seasons. However, when Carlo Corino returned from a sabbatical in his native Italy, he bought cuttings of sangiovese, barbera and nebbiolo and sent Mudgee (and Australian) winegrowing in a new direction. No only do these varieties thrive in Mudgee’s continental climate, but they suit our love of Italianate food and our relaxed lifestyle. Local makers Skimstone, First Ridge, Vinifera and di Lusso have embraced Italian varieties, adding the Rioja grape, tempranillo, into the mix. Tempranillo likewise flourishes on Mudgee’s warm continental plateau. Meanwhile, David Lowe has honed in on the US variety zinfandel for his iconic red—or primitivo as it’s known in the Puglia region of Italy.
While chardonnay is historically linked to Mudgee, the region is a tad too warm to make today’s tight, bright chardonnays, so it is left to semillon and (counter-intuitively) riesling to lead the white cohort, while a new wave of white grapes like arneis, fiano and vermentino bookend the Italian theme. A few fortified wines have survived from the gold rush days with Craigmoor’s Rummy (port) and Pieter van Gent’s Pipeclay White (port) still popular with a more traditional crowd.