Green with envy - Cool climes of Orange
I will lay my cards on the table right from the start. I love Sauvignon Blanc. It is a noble and great grape variety with interest and intrigue. It produces some of my favourite wines on the planet. Like so many wine drinkers, my first memorable Sauvignon Blanc experience was a wine from Marlborough. I still remember the wow factor, the new flavour sensation. It was revelation. It was exciting. Now, 25 years on from that moment, I am a winemaker in Orange NSW making my fair share of Sauvignon Blanc in what I think is one of Australia’s leading regions for the variety.
Despite being synonymous with New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc actually originates from the upper Loire Valley in north-west France, most famously from the appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. These days, these are the wines that make me go weak at the knees. The top wines of producers such as Gérard Boulay, Didier Dagueneau, Alphonse Mellot, amongst others, rival some of the more famous wines of Burgundy.
Like all noble varieties, Sauvignon Blanc is very expressive of the region in which it is grown. So while the wines of Orange taste like Sauvignon Blanc should, they still taste different to Sancerre, Marlborough or any other region that grows the grape. It has its own regional personality. Furthermore, there is no singular style of Sauvignon Blanc – fresh and fruity, subtle yet complex, pure and mineral, barrel fermented and rich.
Sauvignon Blanc country
Orange is in the central west of NSW, 280km west of Sydney. When I travel out of the region, I will often ask people who have not been to Orange, what they imagine the landscape would be – hot? dry? flat? Their answer is almost universally, yes. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sitting at almost 900m above sea level, the vineyards climb as high as 1100m, the highest in Australia to the best of my knowledge. There is hardly a flat stretch of ground off the slopes of the iconic Mount Canobolas. In summer, 300C is a pretty warm day and the area is rarely touched by a true drought. What it lacks in latitude, it makes up for in altitude. As I often point out, Orange is a little bit of Tassie in the middle of New South Wales.
All this makes for great Sauvignon Blanc country and the local vignerons have taken the varietal to their hearts. Of the almost 40 wine producers in the region, nearly all make a Savvy of some description. This vested interest is crucial in treating Sauvignon Blanc with the love and respect it deserves. It enables the development of a regional style and continual improvement in wine quality. After declaring Sauvignon Blanc as the region’s hero variety in the mid-2000s, the region has evolved to identify some of the best vineyard sites and has become more adventurous with its winemaking techniques seeking to find the best expressions of this wonderful variety.
Its a style thing
The most common expression of Sauvignon Blanc in the Orange region is the fresh, intense fruit-driven style – and it rarely disappoints. Less herbal, it has a tropical punch with passionfruit being a key flavour. It tends to be a bit fuller with more palate weight, but is still lively. Logan, Printhie, Mayfield, Swinging Bridge and Angullong excel in this style, while a new producer, Colmar Estate, revealed a cracker from their debut 2014 vintage.
A subtler style, that is still fresh but somewhat more refined, is also being produced in Orange. This is what I refer to as the ‘less is more’ style. Less of the upfront, big impact aromatic intensity and more of the subtle aromas, flavours and layers than your regular Sav Blanc fruit bomb. Ross Hill Pinnacle is a prime example, as is the Cumulus Sauvignon Blanc and Philip Shaw No.19.
There is also a more complex style of Sauvignon Blanc being engineered in Orange. Made in much the same way as Chardonnay, with subtle oak treatment, wild yeast and some malolactic fermentation, these wines often show funky aromatics, smooth texture and savoury complexity. They still have the varietal characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc, but are a world away from the Marlborough version and more towards a Sancerre style.
De Salis Fumé, Printhie MCC and Patina are all pushing this envelope. However, these wines are made in such small quantities, sometimes less than 100 cases, and are rarely found outside the region’s restaurants and cellar doors – but they are well worth tracking down. Many times I have seen the pleasantly surprised reaction of committed non-Sauvignon Blanc drinkers seeing this variety in a different light. It is one they had never come across before and it usually inspires them enough to buy a bottle.
I believe this complex style is the future of Sauvignon Blanc in Australia. Every wine drinker has evolving tastes and wine producers also need to evolve. It is a sure thing that the most popular wine of five years ago will be made in quite different ways in five years time. So expect to come across more Sauvignon Blancs that are made with cloudy juice rather than clear juice, that are fermented in barrels rather than stainless steel tanks, with naturally occurring yeast from the vineyard rather than commercial yeast cultures. It is an exciting time for Sauvignon Blanc drinkers and producers alike.
But wait, there’s more
Any conversation about wine in the Orange region inevitably comes around to Chardonnay. Alongside Sauvignon Blanc, I consider it to be the most exciting wine style in Australia. The quality, the style evolution, and the regional characteristics are fantastic. It excels in virtually every wine growing area across the country, so if a region is going to tout its Chardonnay credentials these days, it has to be pretty smart wine. With 30 medal-winning Chardonnays from 47 entries in the 2014 Orange Wine Show, it would seem that Orange Chardonnay is in the sweet spot. Not long after the Show I sat in on a tasting with a group of wine writers, and it was the Chardonnays they raved about. It was a landmark moment and testament to the quality and style of Orange Chardy. With across-the-board success, the good news that you can score a winner from a host of producers from Swinging Bridge Estate, Patina, Borrodell to Carillion, Centennial, De Salis, Philip Shaw and boutique producers such as Dindima and Heifer Station.
The reds of orange
Wherever Chardonnay does well, so too should Pinot Noir and this difficult and temperamental variety is right at home in the highest vineyards in Orange. It can be reliably ripened at elevations where other reds cannot. The best Pinots are perfumed, earthy and very inviting and that is exactly what you get in the cool climes of Orange. Seductive and charming in their youth, they are not wines that need lengthy cellaring. Standouts from the region include the Pinots of De Salis, Philip Shaw, Ross Hill, Bantry Grove, Stockman’s Ridge, Brangayne, Mayfield and Logan.
Much has been written recently about the style shift of big, bold Shiraz to the more refined, elegant cool climate Shiraz and it would seem that Orange is perfectly placed to take advantage of this trend. I have always considered Shiraz to be the most consistent red variety in Orange. It performs across different elevations, producer to producer and from vintage to vintage.
It is medium bodied, spicy and floral with freshness from natural acidity. The richer styles of Shiraz come from lower elevations and producers such as Cumulus, Angullong, Ross Hill and Printhie, while the likes of Logan, Philip Shaw, Centennial and newcomer Montoro highlight the spiciness of higher elevation vineyards.
While the aforementioned traditional varietals do well in Orange, it seems there is a huge future for alternative varieties as well. Angullong has played with Italians Sangiovese and Barbera for some time and have recently added Vermentino and Sagrantino. Stockmans Ridge has planted Gruner Veltliner, Sassy Wines and Rowlee have Arneis, Cargo Road has Zinfandel. Centennial and Hedberg Hill have Tempranillo. It is perhaps the ultimate accolade for Orange that producers from other regions are sourcing fruit from our elevated climate to make their wine. Hunter Valley’s David Hook, a long-time alternative producer, now sources his Barbera and Riesling from Orange. Tulloch’s buy Tempranillo grapes, See Saw grow Sauvignon Blanc, while Pepper Tree Wines source their award-winning Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from Orange.
Time for a visit
As Orange is just a couple of hours drive from Sydney, Canberra and Newcastle it is worth making the trip to visit. From the historic town of Orange, there are gorgeous villages such as Millthorpe and Canowindra not far away. It is here you will find Rosnay, a biodynamic farm producing whole range of treats from olive oil and paste, figs in various forms and wine – very much worth a visit.
This of course reminds me how spectacular the food of Orange is. See for yourself at the farmers’ markets held the second Saturday of every month. There’s also the massive FOOD week event in April, the Apple Festival in May and WINE week in Ocotober. Check out tasteorange.com.au for all the details and programs for all the events. But in the meantime, aim for the heights and sit down with a glass of Orange wine. I bet you’ll enjoy it.