Orange wine region — high-altitude, high-quality wine

It’s amazing what a bit of altitude and rainfall can do to a wine region. To see what I mean, hop in the car one weekend for the three-hour drive to Orange, via Yass, Boorawa, Cowra, Canowindra and Cargo.

I did this last week to judge at the Orange Region Wine Show. In the forty-minute drive from Cowra to Orange the temperature dropped by ten degrees. On the drive home a few days later it was nineteen degrees and raining in Orange and, twenty minutes later, twenty-six degrees and dry at Cargo

What makes Orange so special – and different, I believe, from any other wine region on the west of the NSW Great Divide – is this cooler climate and tendency to higher rainfall.

Not that Orange is wet at the moment. It, too, is in the grip of drought. But the long-term average rainfall is around 850mm, determined, the locals tell me, by the impact of 1395-metre Mount Canobolas on local weather.

The Canobolas range, too, provides the altitude that makes Orange so genuinely cool as a grape-growing region. Even though the official low point of the region is 600 metres, many vineyards lie between 800 and 1000 metres.

Not surprisingly, some of the higher points under vine are on land previously devoted to orchards – which remain an important part of the local economy.

And though Orange has its share of small vineyard/winemaking operations, broadacre developments are common, giving Orange the potential to build substantial regional brands as well as accommodating the boutique wineries that usually build regional identity in the first place.

By my estimate just five vineyards account for 1046 of the 1350 hectares of vines planted in the region. Of these, Cumulus Wines’ Rolling vineyard, near Molong, is comfortably the biggest at 508-hectares.

Formerly the Little Boomey Vineyard, part of the ill fated, publicly listed Reynolds Wines, Rolling might serve as a model for those contemplating purchase of the Kamberra Winery here in Canberra.

The vineyard and thirty thousand tonne winery might have become white elephants had it not been for wealthy new owners with a flair for marketing. The Cumulus operation now makes and markets the innovatively packaged and superb Rolling and Climbing brands – both sourced from the Rolling Vineyard.

This is a story in itself, to be covered in a future column. Suffice to say that this venture alone is already taking Orange and Central Ranges wines to global and domestic audiences.

The scale of operations in Orange, combined with the inherent quality of the fruit and the advanced skills of both small and large winemakers, make it perhaps the most promising wine region in New South Wales.

The chardonnays, in particular, have been particularly impressive over the years – notably those by Rosemount Estate and Canobolas Smith.

Tasting 162 wines at the regional show confirmed chardonnay as the standout variety. But the quality overall was very high with notably few faulty wines and an impressive display of graceful, deeply flavoured wines in the riesling, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz classes, too.

Merlot, too, showed great potential and the pinot class delivered one outstanding wine. In reality, though, Orange won’t prove to be all things to all people. The diversity of altitude, soils and aspects may suggest a range of specialties but probably no other variety will prove to be as uniformly excellent as chardonnay.

Cumulus Wine Climbing Orange Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 $19 to $21
Cumulus is the phoenix rising from the ashes of the Reynolds wine disaster. The thirty thousand tonne winery and 580-hectare vineyard that might have become white elephants are under new ownership that says its exporting the Rolling and Climbing brands – as well as the separate Philip Shaw label – to over twenty countries. Philip Shaw showed me this stunning wine in Canberra a week before the Orange Show. And then at the show it topped the cabernet class by a comfortable margin. It offers ripe, well-defined cassis varietal flavour with the cedary complexity of oak and a firm, tight structure. A bargain.

Patina Orange Chardonnay 2003 $27
That cool Orange is suited to chardonnay shows in the results of last week’s regional show where I judged with James Halliday and Celine Rousseau. In a field of twenty-one chardonnays we awarded three gold medals, four silver medals and ten bronze medals. These were delicious wines covering a range of styles. A taste-off of the three gold medallists yielded this unanimous trophy winner, made by Gerald Naef from his vineyard at 930 metres above sea level. The intensity and freshness of fruit and harmony of flavour components is extraordinary for a three year old. It’s available at cellar door, see www.patinawines.com.au

Mayfield Icely Road Orange Sauvignon Blanc 2005
At the Orange regional show, the forty-hectare Mayfield Vineyard impressed with a range of wines, winning gold medals and trophies for each of its Icely Road Riesling 2006, Icely Road Sauvignon Blanc 2006 and Mayfield Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005. To cap it off, Mayfield also won a trophy as most successful exhibitor in the field of 162 wines. The 2005 Sauvignon Blanc appealed for its zesty, citrusy, minerally flavours; the 2006 Riesling for its floral aroma and delicate palate; and the Pinot Noir 2005 for its silky, plush texture and clear varietal flavour. See www.mayfieldvineyard.com

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007

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