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Mudgee - nest in the hills

There’s a zest for life, a sense of passion and purpose, among the winemakers, restaurateurs and providores of this Central Western NSW region.

Friday night, with the sun setting and the moon rising, is a fine time to arrive at Lowe Wines, high on a hill-rise, with its vista of vines and cerulean blue hills beyond. There’s time enough for a quick catch-up with the very busy winemaker David Lowe, just before hundreds of guests are seated at tables in his winery for dinner and a show. Lowe is a sixth-generation descendant of the first Lowes to take up farming on this property, and he’s a passionate convert to organic, indeed biodynamic, farming measures.

"When I took over, the soils here were completely degraded, needing drastic repair, and biodynamics seemed the fastest and best way to fix them,” Lowe says. Biodynamic farming techniques involve burying cow horns with a mixture of fermented manure, minerals and herbs at specific phases in the lunar cycle ‘to harmonise the vital life forces of the farm’, as one authority explains it. While it’s based on belief more than theory, it’s certainly working here. David is famous for his premium, certified organic wines; some made without any preservatives, notably a Shiraz, demand for which is high.

Adjacent to the winery is The Zin House, Mudgee’s only restaurant with a SMH Good Food Guide chef’s hat. Chef Kim Curry is David Lowe’s partner, so naturally, flights of Lowe Wines accompany her degustation menus, which are inspired by what’s fresh and in season – 60 to 70 per cent of the ingredients are sourced locally, many of them grown here on the farm.

PALPABLE PASSION

There is a long tradition of organic winemaking in Mudgee, starting with Australia’s first organic vineyard, Botobolar in 1971. At Vinifera Wines, the McKendry family is celebrating having achieved organic certification for their wines. After Tony and Debbie McKendry recognised climatic similarities between Mudgee and Spain’s Rioja region, they embarked on Spanish varieties like Tempranillo, Graciano and Gran Tinto – all of which have been very popular – however, it’s their Chardonnay that leaves me smitten.

The passion emanating from the winemakers – indeed, from all the Mudgee producers – is palpable. They care deeply about quality, and are continually improvising and experimenting to improve quality and variety. The other striking feature is how collaborative they are – they share advice and ideas, and as winemaker Peter Logan tells me, they have fun together – the winemakers field their own indoor soccer team in a local comp.

A STUNNING OUTLOOK

With over 40 cellar doors in the fairly compact Mudgee wine region, there’s a lot of choice. There’s also plenty to please the eye, like the stunning tasting room and deck at Logan Wines with its sweeping view of Apple Tree Flat and its surrounding pyramidal hills. Peter Logan, celebrating his 20th vintage, is happy to show off his latest range called Ridge of Tears, two very different styles of Shiraz. Each is made from low-yield fruit and treated much the same, but ‘terroir’ is the variable – one comes from Logan’s Orange basalt-based vineyard, the other from Mudgee’s more loamy soils.

The terrace at Moothi Estate has another gorgeous view, especially at sunset. ‘Moothi’ is another version of ‘Mudgee’, meaning ‘nest in the hills’ in the Wiradjuri language, extremely apt for this beautiful place. Jessica and Jason Chrcek now run Moothi Estate vineyard, which her parents started. At their cellar door, they serve award-winning platters of cheese, pickles and smallgoods – the lamb pastrami is a great discovery.

At another family enterprise, the Robert Stein Vineyard and Winery, the multitalented, third-generation winemaker Jacob Stein (playing striker in the winemakers’ soccer team), also has responsibility for looking after the ‘old world’ varieties of pig that graze on the property. His brother-in-law, chef Andy Crestani, roasts the resulting free-range pork at the winery’s restaurant Pipeclay Pumphouse, and it appears as one of the dishes in the dinner degustation. (I’m keen to come back for breakfast to try the bacon and egg gnocchi with truffle oil.)

Just about every cellar door will serve you High Valley Wine & Cheese Factory’s handmade soft cheeses, and they return the complement by serving local wines in their tasting room. The couple behind High Valley, Ro and Grovenor Francis, are no slouches. They already had 40 years of farming experience, and 20 years of viticulture behind them before venturing into dairy manufacture. The walls of their tasting room are plastered with the awards their wines and cheeses have won.

ALL AGES ADVENTURES

I discover local passion isn’t confined to producers when I meet ‘mine host’ of Mudgee’s Getaway Cottages, Elizabeth Etherington, a former mayor of Mudgee. These six holiday dwellings appear to be houses on an ordinary street a few minutes’ walk from the centre of town, but you soon discover that they all back onto a 3.64-hectare farm-stay wonderland on the banks of the Cudgegong River. “I’m a baby boomer,” Etherington explains, “and I grew up with plenty of space to play and roam, and with innocent freedom to explore. When I created Getaway Cottages, I had in mind to provide for today’s children the joy of nature, which many seem to miss out on.”

To this end, Elizabeth Etherington has created a kids’ paradise, complete with an ostrich, a donkey, rabbits, flourishing vegetable gardens to raid for dinner, and plenty of toys and activities, including, for the big kids, a chip’n’putt golf course. In conversation, it transpires that Etherington is a producer as well, of the Orchy brand of fruit juices, which is a “100% Australian family-owned business since 1876.” Mudgee’s food manufacturing history goes way back.

In town, Roth’s Wine Bar, holding the oldest wine bar licence in NSW, is the place to try (and buy) almost all of the district’s wines (due to the peculiarities of the ancient licence, you are also permitted to take away). Here you can dig into pizza, listen to live music, and try Roth’s special in-house drinks, such as the ‘1080’ (named after a poison bait) and ‘Diesel’. Before being licensed in 1923, when Roth’s was a general store, these were code names for the sly grog chalked up on farmers’ accounts.

Also possessing a fine cellar, the recently renovated Oriental Hotel offers an elevated dining/drinking experience (and city views) on its second-storey deck, while at the nearby Wineglass Bar and Grill, owner and chef Scott Tracey serves breakfast, lunch and dinner (and provides chic boutique accommodation) in a restored 1850s former hostelry for mail coaches.

BEER AND BITES

It’s not all about the wine (and food), however, there are very fine craft beers to be sampled at the Mudgee Brewing Company (another live music venue), housed in a historic wool store; and adjacent to Vinifera Wines there’s Baker Williams Distillery, where distillers Nathan Williams and Helen Baker are having a lot of fun coming up with proof concoctions – butterscotch schnapps, anyone?

Good coffee can also be found – at the Wineglass, you can buy the four-shot ‘bucket’, ideal for coping with a bad hangover. One of the most popular breakfast spots in town is the leafy courtyard café at Albie + Esthers, which transforms into a wine bar at night (of course). Tea is not neglected either – exotic varieties (and fresh handmade dumplings) feature on the menu of the delightful 29 nine 99 Yum Cha and Tea House at nearby Rylestone; it’s well worth stopping here for refreshments if you are making the 3.5 to 4 hour drive from Sydney.

There’s lots more to explore – the old gold-mining township of Gulgong, the racehorses of Goree Park, the fine streets and shops of Mudgee itself, and more wineries – but when you eventually have to leave, FlyPelican can make light work of the trip with a 50 minute flight to Sydney. (Speaking of ‘light’, and speaking from experience, the aircraft’s 23kg luggage limit means it may be best to freight your wine purchases beforehand.) It’s good to know, however, that whenever you pine for a taste of more Mudgee magic, it can be quick and easy to return.

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Coonawarra - the Cult of Consistency
Words by Nick Ryan on 29 Sep 2017
While other Australian regions may have caught up to Coonawarra in the red wine stakes, the commitment of this region’s passionate locals will see it shine well into the future. Coonawarra is an enigma wrapped in a red dirt riddle. We all think we know Coonawarra because it seems like it’s always been there. When you set out on the journey to discover Australian wine, Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the first checkpoints you reach, a foundation stone for building an understanding of what this country can do with its vineyards. But does familiarity breed contempt? And where do the classics sit when the market seems obsessed with the cool cutting edge? Is it enough to continually do a few things well when the consumer has the all the loyalty of a stray cat and the attention span of a goldfish? Is Coonawarra’s glorious past impeding the region’s push into a bright future? A famously close-knit community
Coonawarra is a place where many of the names on the bottles have been there for generations. While its biggest players are corporate, Wynns most notably, the majority of producers are family owned, including names like Balnaves and Bowen Estate. Vineyards are tightly held and rarely change hands and its comparatively small size – just 5,500 ha – ensures the region’s prized fruit is all taken up by those domiciled there and virtually nothing is available for winemakers from other regions to have a crack at making Coonawarra wine seen through outsider eyes. There are obviously benefits in a strong sense of community. “There’s certainly a combined sense of purpose,” says Peter Bissell from Balnaves, a transplanted Kiwi and relative newcomer, having arrived in Coonawarra in 1989. “There’s also a long collective memory of winemaking traditions going back to the 1950s and beyond, that gives us as winemakers a real sense of carrying on something important.” Dan Redman is as Coonawarra as they come, having joined the family business exactly a hundred years after his great-grandfather made his first wine from grapes grown in the famed terra rossa soil. It’s been his nursery, his playground, his backyard, his home. “To me, this community is a source of great friendships and some pretty good times with people I’ve known all my life,” he says. “One of the real strengths of this place is the shared common goal we all have to promote Coonawarra. There’s a united front when any of us talk about the region.” But Redman is not totally blinkered. “It’s probably fair to say that some of the ideas and thinking from the wider wine world might take a bit longer to get here than some other places,” he admits.
That’s pretty understandable in a way. You can’t talk about Coonawarra without considering its physical isolation. It’s halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, but not on the direct route to either. New blood flows through Coonawarra the way it does through a statue. Kate Goodman is uniquely placed to comment on the region’s uniquely singular focus. She makes wine under her own label in the Yarra Valley and was appointed consultant winemaker at Coonawarra’s Penley Estate a couple of years ago. “The Yarra is vast with a huge diversity of sites, while  Coonawarra is a small area with a tight focus on carefully defined vineyards,” she says. “I’m not saying one is better than the other, I’m just saying the diversity of the Yarra’s landscape lends itself more easily to a diversity of winemaking approaches.” Goodman relishes the opportunities Coonawarra presents, and has quickly learned what makes the place special. “Dear God, the fruit this place can produce is just bloody sensational,” she says. Evolution, not Revolution
​ It would be wrong to see Coonawarra as a wine region trapped in amber. There has been significant change over the last decade, but those changes have been subtle and have taken place within the well-established framework of the classic Coonawarra style. Most notable of these has been the widespread reworking of the region’s vineyards, a sustained exploration of how best to manage its most valuable assets with fruit quality the singular aim. This focus certainly underpins winemaker John Innes’ philosophy and, he says, he spends time in his vineyard, “continually tasting the fruit for optimal flavour and textural ripeness.” The minimal pruning regimes that dominated the region in the 1980s have given way to practices more conducive to vine health and various flirtations with both over and under ripeness have given way to a more comfortable middle ground. A wider clonal mix is now present in the region’s vineyards, offering new angles from which to view the Coonawarra Cabernet picture we think we know so well. Coonawarra has so far been immune from invasion by hipsters who harvest while howling at the moon, so remains untouched by the outer extremes of winemaking methodology, but that doesn’t mean the place is all ‘set and forget’ when it comes to winemaking approach. But it’s all about refinement rather than re-invention. Concrete fermenters are back in vogue, larger format oak and softer fruit handling are helping shape red wines that are more medium-bodied and supple, yet still retain the region’s famed capacity for ageing. Nick Zema explains it best. “We’re always looking to improve, but we never forget what this place has always done best,” he says. “You can go chasing market trends and change up everything you do, but by the time those changes come through to the wine in the bottle, the market’s moved on and you’re just chasing your tail. When you’ve got something that’s considered a classic, you just keep polishing it.” Looking into the future
So where does the famed terra rossa fit in the Australian landscape? The status Coonawarra once had as arguably Australia’s finest red wine region has slipped – more through the competition catching up than Coonawarra going backwards – but the core of what has made this place great remains and, if anything, the future looks brighter now than it has for a long time. Coonawarra’s biggest challenge is making the market fall in love with Cabernet again, and with the ongoing refinement of the style – small, considered steps rather than radical reinvention – the region’s winemakers are set to take that challenge on. Once that’s been done, the story of the region’s outstanding Shiraz, hugely underrated Chardonnay, and affinity with other members of the Bordeaux brotherhood like Cabernet Franc can be told, too. It will always be a place of traditions and tightly woven community ties and may that always be the case. In a world that flutters on the fickle winds of fashion, some certainty, classicism and Cabernet Sauvignon can prove to be welcome respite.
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All Pizzazz - South Australian Shiraz
Words by Nick Ryan on 18 Aug 2015
It's a good and appropriate time to undertake a tasting of good ol’ South Australian Shiraz. While Pinot Noir is strapped tight to the rocket of rapidly ascending popularity and wine lists across Australia overflow with so-called ‘alternative’ varieties, the fact remains more bottles of Shiraz are consumed across the country than any other red variety and of those bottles the majority trace their origins to South Australian dirt. A good reason for the variety’s ubiquity is its ability to grow well in just about every wine region in the country and to present a different angle on its varietal character in each of those places. It really is our national barometer of terroir, the control that gives our experiments in regionality their context. When it gives us medium-bodied savouriness we’re in the Hunter, when it’s exuberantly spiced we’re in Canberra or central Victoria. When it’s all that and more we’re in South Australia. The results of a large tasting of South Australian Shiraz throwing up 30-odd top pointed wines offers a great opportunity to assess where the variety is at – they don’t call them State of Play tastings for nothing – and the results have presented some juicy food for thought. Some key observations follow. The Barossa is still king If we include the higher, cooler and bonier vineyards of the Eden Valley along with those down on the Valley floor, then the Barossa has produced almost half of the top pointed wines in the tasting. That shouldn’t really surprise us, after all the Barossa has always been South Australia’s Shiraz heartland. But what’s really exciting is the diversity of styles across the wines that performed well. “Ten years ago you could be forgiven for thinking Barossa Shiraz was pretty much all the same,” says senior Red Winemaker at Yalumba, Kevin Glastonbury. “A lot of the Barossa’s best wines were blended from across the region and made to a certain style, but now there’s a much greater focus on capturing what’s special about great single vineyards.” That’s got to be a good thing considering the Barossa has some of the greatest viticultural resources on the planet, including some wizened, deep-rooted old vineyards that date back to the early days of the South Australian colony. Zooming in closer on the Barossa’s viticultural map has also given a deeper understanding of sub-regionality across the Barossa. Glastonbury is well placed to comment on this development, having had a significant hand in two high-pointed wines in the tasting, each one representing a different approach to Barossa Shiraz Yalumba’s 2010 Paradox Shiraz is an outstanding example of this new way of thinking about Barossa Shiraz. Its vineyard sourcing is drawn from a narrow band across the northern Barossa, primarily around Kalimna, Ebenezer and up towards Moppa Springs, and the winemaking is carefully controlled to express the character of this corner of the region. “We want something that’s really savoury and supple rather than hefty and sweet fruited,” he explains. “We also back right off on the new oak and use old French puncheons.” Glastonbury is also a big fan of the distinctly different fruit that comes of vineyards up in the Eden Valley. “The nature of the place allows us to apply a few winemaking techniques that work well with that finer fruit. We’ve started to do things like a bit of whole bunch fermentation in some Octavius parcels and it really adds an extra dimension to the style.” The Barossa is clearly in a golden age South Australian Shiraz is becoming cool and getting high. Anyone labouring under the out-dated impression that South Australian Shiraz is all big flesh and brute power should look to the impressive number of top pointed wines in the tasting coming from the Limestone Coast and Adelaide Hills. Wines from Zema, Wynns and Brands help us realise there’s more to Coonawarra than just Cabernet Sauvignon and remind us that the famous terra rossa soils can produce outstanding, fine framed and elegant Shiraz. It’s particularly exciting to see a wine from Wrattonbully – Coonawarra’s near neighbour to the north – a region that really has the capacity to produce a fragrantly spicy Shiraz style. If this tasting took place a decade ago, we’d be surprised to see a single entrant from the cool, elevated vineyards of the Adelaide Hills, but in 2015 we have five breaking into the Top 30. Where many saw Pinot Noir as the future star when vineyards began to take root in the Adelaide Hills, it’s been Shiraz that has performed best. The Hills offers a huge diversity of sites for growing Shiraz and canny winemakers have harnessed this diversity to produce some of the most impressive cool climate Shiraz in the country.  Clare is the real dark horse One of the really significant elements of this tasting has been the strong performance of the Clare Valley. Clare attracts most attention for its Riesling, and while Shiraz lovers might look closer to Adelaide for their red wine thrills, it’s clear that the distinctive, consistent and exceedingly delicious Clare Shiraz style is something very special. Andrew Mitchell has been making Shiraz in Clare for four decades and his Mitchell Wines ‘McNicol’ Shiraz 2005 was the highest pointed wine of the tasting. “When we first started this place most people in Clare used Shiraz for making port,” he says. “ Even when table wines started taking off in the 70s, the market really wanted Cabernet, but I’ve always known Clare Shiraz was something pretty special. “Clare Shiraz can give you power, intensity, depth and length, but does it all with great balance and a kind of elegance that I think defines the regional style. “And it ages really well too. That’s why we release the McNicol with bottle age. I want people to experience just how beautiful these wines can be when mature.” There is such a wide range of Shiraz styles scattered throughout the top wines in this tasting that we can safely say there’s a South Australian Shiraz to suit just about any palate. The key word in discussing these results is ‘diversity’. The one obvious conclusion to be drawn from these results is that to talk of South Australian Shiraz as one homogenous thing is unjust. There is such a wide range of Shiraz styles scattered throughout the top wines in this tasting that we can safely say there’s a South Australian Shiraz to suit just about any palate. Click here see the Wine Selectors range of Shiraz
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