Mudgee claims a long history of winemaking yet has only a modest profile as a wine region. Its low-key approach makes for delightful finds as you meander through its glorious countryside.
Somewhere beyond the Blue Mountains and cluttered Great Western Highway, stress and fumes are finally wafted away by breezes that hint of eucalyptus, brittle grass and hot corrugated iron from old sheds. Your spirit unfurls as the road shrivels, and you’ll find yourself wanting to cackle in pleasure like the cockatoos that wheel against a cerulean sky. The NSW Central West is the quintessential rural Australia of undulating wheat fields, sheep-chewed hillsides and rust-roofed farmhouses.
And vineyards, of course. Trellises run across the hillsides like stitching on a quilt, pointing the way into Mudgee, whose red-brick clock tower, sandstone church and ornate street facades make you think of Cobb & Co carriages and bushrangers. No monster cellar doors here, or tour-coach parking lots. Vineyards here are a boutique experience, and you’re more likely to meet the owners and winemakers than tourist gaggles.
Vines were first planted here in the 1840s, and in 1971 Mudgee introduced Chardonnay grapes to Australia. Yet despite its considerable wine achievements, Mudgee slipped off the radar. Chardonnay fell out of fashion, big wine companies sold up, and the acreage under vines fell.
By the turn of the millennium, Mudgee wasn’t getting much attention, but that didn’t mean nothing was happening. It still had its distinctive climate, high altitude and great soil profiles. “Warm sunny days followed by cold nights during the ripening season produce red wines with powerful fruit, earth and spice flavours and a structure to age, but also an elegance and true varietal expression,” says winemaker Peter Logan.
And while Mudgee produces big reds, it has more recently made a great success of Spanish and Italian varietals. Meanwhile, its Rieslings are challenging the assumption that Mudgee isn’t a top white wine region.
A taste of adventure
Kim Currie from Zin House with winemaker David Lowe (Credit Destination NSW); Tony McKendry of Vinifera.
Among the first to recognise that Mudgee might be suited to adventurous grape varieties was Tony McKendry at Vinifera Wines. “I noticed the similarity of Mudgee’s climate to that of Spain’s Rioja wine region. I thought, why do the same old thing when something new could be better?” In 1994, he planted some of Australia’s first Tempranillo.
McKendry had discovered a love for Spanish wines, and added Garnacha, Graciano and Gran Tinto to his repertoire. He’s often behind the counter at his unpretentious cellar door, at which visitors can enjoy a round of croquet or badminton. He describes his Gran Tinto as “a nice, soft red, a relatively full-bodied blend that picks up the characteristics of the other wines it’s blended from.” Meanwhile, Vinifera’s purple-red Graciano, full-bodied and chocolatey with a hint of smokiness, is a standout.
Further out of town at Robert Stein Winery, vineyards run from shale and quartz down gentle slopes to loamier soils. The result? Fresh acidic whites layered with flavour (Riesling, Semillon, Chardonnay) and well-balanced reds (Cabernet, Shiraz). The property runs sheep, Angus cattle and Berkshire pigs too. In autumn, they gorge on marc, the purple pulped remains of pressed grapes.
The Steins are the definition of a wine family. Johann Stein planted vines in Camden on Sydney’s outskirts in 1838. Robert and Lorna Stein started the Mudgee vineyards in 1976; their son Jacob is now chief winemaker. You can see why he returned after seven seasons away. This is a glorious corner of countryside, where a mellow sun shines across neatly pegged vines to caress the buxom hills behind.
Simon and Will Gilbert of Gilbert Family Wines; Lunch is served at Pipeclay Pumphouse (Credit Destination NSW)
Stein’s cellar door has an unassuming rusticity, but Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant, despite its corrugated-iron roof and stone floors, would challenge any Sydney establishment. Indeed, chef Andy Crestani worked for Otto Ristorante, stalwart of city celebrities. Now he reimagines farm-to-fork dining, elevating the farm’s produce to new heights in deceptively simple dishes. The six-course tasting menu might include fettuccini with poached egg and truffle, and duck breast with Jerusalem artichoke.
Mudgee’s best dining experiences are at cellar doors. Case in point, take a ten-minute drive to Zin House, whose executive chef Kim Currie is married to winemaker David Lowe. Set aside an afternoon here for a lingering lunch of five courses, matched with Lowe wines, which are best known for Zinfandel, matched on the menu with Angus beef with pumpkin and horseradish in the restaurant.
If you’re doing a tasting at the wisteria-draped cellar door, consider the Louee Nullo Mountain Riesling from one of Australia’s highest wine-growing areas (1,200 metres). “The cool climate at Nullo results in a ripening period extending into autumn, which means high natural acidity, delicacy and perfume,” says Lowe.
Lowe has been working in the wine industry since he started pruning vines at 15. In 1973, he planted 20 acres of Chardonnay vines that had to be replanted when his father pointed out they were upside down. He improved with stints in the Hunter Valley and Bordeaux before starting his own winery. A maverick who doesn’t trellis or irrigate his wines, he keeps peacocks, and most recently started experimenting with fermenting wine in giant clay amphora buried underground, like the ancient Greeks.
“I still love what I do. No other agricultural product displays its regionality like wine. Cultural, meteorological and historical influences are fixed into it. Taste my wine, you taste the whole region,” he enthuses.
Mudgee main street (Credit Destination NSW); The old world charm of Mudgee.
Traces of tuscany
On the way back into town, stop at The Cellar by Gilbert, the cellar door of Gilbert Family Wines which, with its tubs of olive trees and shady grape trellises, feels teleported from Tuscany. You might catch winemaker-owners Simon and Will Gilbert behind the counter. From Thursdays to Sundays, you can tuck into satisfying share plates piled with cheese, smoked eggplant and pork rillettes, or heartier dishes such as beef cheeks stewed in Gilbert Shiraz.
The countryside south of Mudgee hides a couple of cutting-edge cellar doors, architecturally speaking. First Ridge Wines opened its cellar door only in 2007, strikingly arranged from red shipping containers – an excellent place to try Italian varietals such as Fiano, Vermentino, Barbera and Sangiovese.
Deeper into the hills, the award-winning cellar door at Logan Wines leaps from the landscape as you drive through the vineyard’s gates. It looks as if an alien spacecraft has crash-landed on the hilltop. Views sweep across vineyards to a crumpled-up, wooded landscape behind.
The unique cellar door at First Ridge; Tucking in at Vinifera.
Peter Logan is another Mudgee winemaker who likes to push boundaries: “That spirit of adventure carries through to the winery and leads us to experiment with all sorts of techniques to bring out the most in our wines,” he says. Logan was making Pinot Gris before it became fashionable in Australia, and produces Gewürztraminer that still isn’t.
An interesting exercise is to contrast the Ridge of Tears Shiraz from the two regions. “Our Orange version, grown at high altitude on ancient decomposed volcanic soil, is all silky red fruits and spice,” Logan explains. “The Mudgee version grown a little lower on ironstone and quartz gravelly red loam is more robust, while still elegant, and has a lot more darker fruits with chocolate and earthy characters.”
As evening falls, head to Roth’s Wine Bar. Opened in 1923 by Bob Roth of Craigmoor (now Robert Oatley Vineyards), it features cosy rooms and a courtyard that hosts live music. You’ll often spot local winemakers here, attempting to fool each other with blind tastings, which says something about the impressive wine list. Some 60 per cent of wines are from Mudgee, the rest from Australia and the world. Try Roth’s own dangerous 1080, which blends wine and fortified wine and is 43 per cent alcohol, though deceptively smooth. It will have you feeling very happy. Then again, that could just be the Mudgee effect.
To discover more about Mudgee, check out our Best Mudgee Wineries and Cellar Doors article!