Orange — three-dimensional wine region

Close your eyes and think of Orange wine region. Does chardonnay come to mind? It’s certainly been the region’s attention getter – think, for example, of Canobolas Smith, Rosemount Estate, Bloodwood, Printhie, Philip Shaw. These have all, at times, delivered high-calibre, intensely flavoured expressions of the variety.

But ABARE grape-production figures paint a richer palate of flavours. And surprisingly, chardonnay’s not at the top of the list.

ABARE puts total production in Orange in 2010 at 8,557 tonnes (around 640 thousand dozen bottles). Shiraz tops the volume at 2,259 tonnes (169 thousand dozen), followed by chardonnay on 1,897 tonnes (142 thousand dozen), merlot 993 tonnes (74 thousand dozen) and sauvignon blanc 541 tonnes (40 thousand dozen) before falling away sharply to 257 tonnes of riesling, 228 of pinot gris and 121 of pinot noir – plus a smattering of niche varieties, including grenache, mourvedre, cabernet franc, verdelho, traminer, malbec, semillon, viognier, barbera, zinfandel, and marsanne.

That the red total of 4,878 tonnes outweighs white at 3,081 tonnes can be attributed in part to the export boom of the late nineties. Demand for red grapes prompted broad-acre planting along the Great Divide in New South Wales.

Included among these was Peter Poolman’s massive Little Boomey vineyard, located just north of Molong. Little Boomey, planted 80 per cent to red varieties, was underpinned initially by grape-purchase contracts with Southcorp Wines and funded by hundreds of small investors.

The venture came to grief. But the remaining 508 hectares of vines and a ten thousand tonne capacity winery now trade as Cumulus Estate Wines – jointly owned by Assetinsure, a Sydney based insurance group, and the Berardo family of Portugal. Cumulus exports forty per cent of its production.

Cumulus serves as a useful introduction to Orange as the regional boundary dissects the vineyard – part of it’s in Orange, the rest in Central Ranges. So fruit from the Central Ranges part goes to the company’s Rolling brand; and fruit from Orange to the Climbing and Cumulus labels.

The vineyard’s not on the boundary in the traditional sense, as it lies entirely within the shires of Cabonne, Blayney and Orange City. Rather, the vines literally roll in and out of Orange because of the boundary definition’s third dimension – “contiguous land above 600 metres”.

So, if Cumulus vineyards sit on the lower part of the boundary (the vineyard’s lowest point is 557 metres), the only way from there is up. And even if that’s not all the way to Mount Canobolas’s 1395-metre summit, the spread in altitude of Orange’s vineyards ensure a great diversity of wine styles.

According to local promoter David Cumming, the upper limits are at Ross Hill at 1,100 metres and Brangayne and the David Bartrell vineyard at 1,050 metres – all substantially higher than Lark Hill, Canberra’s highest vineyard at 860 metres.

In Orange, the mean January temperature falls by about two degrees between 600 and 1,000 metres. This variation, multiplied across the growing season, significantly affects total solar heat collected by vines and, hence, the flavours of grapes and wine.

Mount Canobolas also acts as a rain trap – the regional averages rising to around 900mm annually on the higher slopes and falling off to 700mm lower down. But because the ripening period tends to be dry, irrigation is still necessary “on lower warmer vineyards”.

While Orange has several large vineyards (by my estimate five of them account for about 1,000 of the area’s 1,500 hectares), the area’s pioneers were mainly small operators.
Sons and Brothers arrived in 1978. They were followed in the eighties by Bloodwood, Cargo Road, Canobolas Smith, Habitat, Highland Heritage, Philip Shaw, Rosemount Estate, Ibis and Somervaille Estate. More arrived in the nineties and new century, bringing the total to around 30. Some, like Brangayne, were already on the land and added grapes as another crop.

One arrived by air! Philip Shaw, then chief winemaker for Rosemount Estate, recalls an emergency landing in 1987 at Orange in the company’s private aircraft. Cruising in for landing, Shaw found welcome distraction searching for a vineyard site – and found one.
Rosemount and Shaw both established vines the following year. Shaw now presides over his 47-hectare vineyard, making wine for his Philip Shaw label. The vineyard sits at around the 900-metre mark.

In contrast to the well capitalised, larger Shaw and Rosemount ventures, other growers established much smaller vineyards by sheer sweat – driven by their own visions.

Bloodwood is a great example. Visit their terrific website (www.bloodwood.biz) to see how Rhonda and Stephen Doyle struggled but laughed their way through the eighties, hand building their eight-hectare vineyard with its 21,274 vines. For years the Doyles have made some of the best wines in Orange from this precious, hard-won plot.

We’ll be venturing up to lovely Orange in early September to report on the latest wines.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

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