Category Archives: Travel

Driving the mighty Kimberley

The mighty Kimberley: the dirt Gibb River Road (blue) and sealed Great Northern Highway (1).Source: Google Maps.
The mighty Kimberley: the dirt Gibb River Road (blue) and sealed Great Northern Highway (1).Source: Google Maps.

For a long time my wife Jill and I had wanted to visit Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region – and in July this year we did.

We flew out of a frosty Canberra morning and arrived in Darwin’s friendly dry-season heat at lunchtime. We collected our Apollo four-wheel-drive camper, stocked up on food and wine at the nearest Woolies store, then camped the night in a Stuart Highway trailer park ready to begin our journey south to Katherine, then west to Kununurra, Western Australia, the following morning.

Darwin, Northern Territory, to Kununurra, Western Australia. Source: Google Maps.
Darwin, Northern Territory, to Kununurra, Western Australia. Source: Google Maps.

Having enjoyed the independence of a Northern Territory trip in a similar vehicle two years ago, we had opted to drive and camp through the Kimberley, too. We initially held some misgivings about the Gibb River Road and the infamous Kalumburu and Mitchell Falls roads.

But our misgivings faded after talking to a workmate David Evans-Smith. He’d driven and camped through the area with his family a few years earlier. He assured me even the rough Mitchell Falls road, “isn’t technically difficult”. And so it proved – though the road takes a mighty toll on vehicles, as we found out first hand.

A driving tour of the Kimberley normally takes in the roughly 1,000km from Broome in the west, via Derby, to Kununurra in the east. Two roads traverse the region east-west: the sealed Great Northern Hightway (Highway 1) and, to its north, the mainly dirt Gibb River Road.

The sealed Great Northern Highway (Highway 1) trends east and slightly south from Broome before cutting north to Wyndham, with an east-bound turn-off to the Victoria Highway (now Highway 1) to Kununurra. The total distance is 1043 kilometres.

The Gibb River Road (to the north of the Great Northern Highway) begins at Derby (220km west of Broome, sealed road) and joins the Victoria Highway 45km west of Kununurra. The total Broome-Kununurra distance by this route is 917km, but about 550km of it is dirt. It’s a stony but fairly good road, with bone-shaking corrugations in sections (depending on where the grader happens to be).

A comprehensive four-wheel-drive road tour of the Kimberley logically begins and ends in Broome – driving along the Gibb River Road in one direction and the Great Northern Highway in the other.

The Gibb River Road provides access to spectacular gorges along the entire route as well as to the Mitchell Falls and Kulumburu, on the coast. The Great Northern Highway, on the other hand, passes the access road to one of the Kimberley’s most spectacular attractions, the Bungle Bungle Ranges, part of Purnululu National Park.

We originally planned to explore the Kimberley on this circuit. However, we changed our minds when Apollo offered a substantially lower hire rate for picking up our vehicle in Darwin and leaving it in Broome.

The 900km Darwin-Kununurra drive is actually 100km shorter than the Broome-Kununurra drive. However, coming into the Kimberley from the Kununurra end, meant a return 700-km drive from Kununurra to the Bungles and back again before we could head west on the Gibb River Road.

And what a lovely, scenic drive it was – uncrowded and easy on the 250km sealed Great Northern Highway road south to the Bungles turn-off, then rough as guts on the 53km access road. For two nights we enjoyed the serenity of Walardi campground in the south of the park.

Piccaninny Creek, Bungle Bungle Ranges, Purnululu National Park. Photo Chris Shanahan
Piccaninny Creek, Bungle Bungle Ranges, Purnululu National Park. Photo Chris Shanahan

During the days we drove to the walks – Piccaninny Creek and Cathedral Gorge in the south and Echidna Chasm in the north; and enjoyed a chopper ride over the unique sandstone domes of the south. We needed another night and day, really, but we cut and ran back to Kununurra. The 700km Kununurra-Bungles-Kununurra drive included about 200km of dirt driving to access the park and drive around within it.

Bungle Bungles sandstone domes from the air. Photo Jill Shanahan
Bungle Bungles sandstone domes from the air. Photo Jill Shanahan

There’s plenty to see around Kununurra, the centre of the massive Ord River scheme. We took time to boat the 50km from the town’s diversion dam up Lake Kununurra to the wall of the Argyle Dam, holding back about 1000 square kilometres of water.

Water from the lake drives a hydro electricity plant and, with Lake Kununurra, irrigates about 150 square kilometres of farmland on the Ord flood plains. These are awesome to view. And we found one farmer, Spike Dessert, distilling outstanding rum and whiskey from the local sugar cane and corn (see Kimberley bookends below).

Ord River flood plain, watered by the vast Argyle Dam. Photo Chris Shanahan
Ord River flood plain, watered by the vast Argyle Dam. Photo Chris Shanahan

From Kununurra, we headed west to the Gibb River Road. By this time we’d already driven about 300km of dirt, crossed many streams and learned to hate unrelenting corrugations, like those of the Bungles’ access road.

Ever-changing landscapes, dust and corrugations lay ahead and by now we felt some excitement about the coming climb up to the Mitchell Falls. Because of its remoteness and ability to break cars, the falls remain forbidden territory for many hire vehicles, which now cross the Gibb River Road in good numbers.

Before we left Canberra we sought Apollo’s permission to drive to the falls, and they obliged. However, we stayed overnight at El Questro station, the nearest gorge county to Kununurra. Here we explored Emma Gorge and relaxed in the Zebedee Hot Springs, before fleeing the large crowds.

Emma Gorge, Gibb River Road, near El Questro Station. Photo Chris Shanahan.
Emma Gorge, Gibb River Road, near El Questro Station. Photo Chris Shanahan.
Pentecost River crossing, looking east to the Cockburn Ranges. Perhaps the most photographed point of the Gibb River Road. This is just a little to the west of El Questro Station. Photo Chris Shanahan.
Pentecost River crossing, looking east to the Cockburn Ranges. Perhaps the most photographed point of the Gibb River Road. This is just a little to the west of El Questro Station. Photo Chris Shanahan.

After a peaceful overnight at Ellenbrae Station the following day, we headed further west before turning north, about 300km from Kununurra, onto the Kulumburu Road for the 250km drive up to Mitchell Falls.

Ancient boab tree, Ellenbrae Station, Gibb River Road, Western Australia. Photo Chris Shanahan.
Ancient boab tree, Ellenbrae Station, Gibb River Road, Western Australia. Photo Chris Shanahan.

We rested, showered, enjoyed a cold one and camped overnight at the very hospitable Drysdale Station, about 60km north of the Gibb River Road. Early next morning we bounced north on the Kalumburu Road’s endless corrugations. About 105km later we turned left onto the Mitchell Plateau Road. After about eight, narrow, rocky kilometres (second gear territory), we crossed the pristine King Edward River and followed a wider but terribly corrugated road through the marvellous livistona palms.

King Edward River crossing Mitchell Falls Road. Photo Jill Shanahan.
King Edward River crossing Mitchell Falls Road. Photo Jill Shanahan.

About 40km short of the falls, we offered help to a carload of American scientists. They waved us on. But 200 metres later our car died and the Americans came to our aid. A bracket securing our battery had broken free from one of its moorings to fuse itself onto the positive terminal. The short circuit drained the battery, fatally as it turned out.

A few metres of nylon rope re-anchored the battery, thanks to the American scientists. Six people pushed the vehicle to a successful clutch start, and a tense hour and a half drive to the campground followed, with a near-dead battery. Warning lights flared intermittently on the dash, but thankfully these turned out to be a false – a result of the battery damage.

Despite the best efforts over the next few days of park ranger, John Hayward, the battery not only failed to recharge, but exploded, spewing acid, when we attached jumper leads. However, Hayward manufactured a new battery support bracket from a tent peg, which we stowed optimistically for the time we’d find a new battery.

We ditched the dead battery and after creating a circuit without it, unsuccessfully attempted a clutch start sans battery.

By this time, Nathan, a RAAF aeronautic electrician camped nearby, had joined the rescue effort. He established a trickle of electricity from the fridge battery to the Toyota’s computer, just enough to switch on the dash lights. The diesel clutch started instantly at the next effort, allowing us to drive the 190km back to Drysdale station, with no battery and hoping we wouldn’t stall on the way. We didn’t.

Our three nights at Mitchell Falls proved a highlight as we walked all over this beautiful, remote region. With other campers, we attended John Hayward’s night time presentation on the area during the wet season, ancient rock-art sites in the vicinity and his notable work with academics from the universities of New England and Wollongong.

Hayward discovers new sites during his wet-season explorations, then works with the university teams and local Indigenous people on excavations and attempts to determine the age of rock art.

Mitchell Falls in the dry season. Photo David Evans-Smith
Mitchell Falls in the dry season. Photo David Evans-Smith
Mitchell Falls in the wet season. Photo Mitchell River National Park Ranger, John Hayward.
Mitchell Falls in the wet season. Photo Mitchell River National Park Ranger, John Hayward.

After our four and half hour, battery-free drive from the falls, we installed a new battery and rested overnight at Drysdale Station. Next day we moved on to the beautiful, serene campground of Charnley River Station, 42km north of the Gibb. We explored the property’s gorges for two days and listened to the dingo chorus at night.

We moved westward again, then headed south from the Gibb River Road to Tunnel Creek – scrambling through a 750-metre, watery tunnel through a craggy limestone reef, dating from the Devonian period. We spent our last night on the Gibb River road at Windjana Gorge, another limestone formation of the Devonian era, a short but corrugated drive north of Tunnel Creek.

Windjana Gorge, western Gibb River Road. Photo Jill Shanahan.
Windjana Gorge, western Gibb River Road. Photo Jill Shanahan.

From there we headed to Broome, via Derby, taking in the local sights, riding a hovercraft to the famed dinosaur footprints and visiting brewer Marcus Muller at Matso’s brewery (see inset).

Town Beach, Roebuck Bay, Broome. Photo Chris Shanahan.
Town Beach, Roebuck Bay, Broome. Photo Chris Shanahan.

We spent just 24 days on the road from Darwin to Broome, travelling about 4,000 kilometres – about 2,000 of it on dirt. Our sturdy Toyota Hilux, or Hilux Hilton, proved to be the ultimate downsizing exercise – moving from a five-bedroom Canberra home to a mobile bedsitter.

For three weeks we slept comfortably and ate and drank well from a 32-litre fridge – where two 500-litre behemoths seem often not big enough for our extended family.

We met so many people all ages from all over the world. But we particularly enjoyed our encounters with young Australian families, travelling the country and taking their kids out of school for three, six and even nine months.

Our only regret: not allowing more time. There was so much we didn’t see on the Gibb River Road. Nor did we travel north from Broome to Cape Leveque, as we’d originally hoped, or south to Fitzroy Crossing, or Wolf Creek crater.

We concluded that any able bodied person can do this trip. You need a four-wheel drive, principally for its high clearance and sturdy suspension. But you don’t need any particular driving experience. The car does all the hard work. However, if you do venture to more remote places, a severe breakdown could become extremely time consuming and very expense.

Our travel guides were few but excellent: Birgit Bradtke’s comprehensive Destination Kimberley and Hema Maps’ The Kimberley Atlas and Guide. Both are available online.

Kimberley bookends

We book-ended our east-to-west Kimberley drive with visits to Kununurra distillery, the Hoochery, and Broome landmark, Matson’s Brewery.

Spike Dessert: distilling Ord River rum and whiskey. Photo: Chris Shanahan 9 July 2014
Spike Dessert: distilling Ord River rum and whiskey. Photo: Chris Shanahan 9 July 2014

Hoochery owner, Spike Dessert, moved to the Ord River area from the USA in 1972, bought land in 1985 and cultivated seed crops from 1986. Thirteen years later, inspired by South Australian cellar door winery operations, Dessert established a distillery and cellar door facility. The complex, which also serves food and caters for functions, soon became one of Kununurra’s major tourist attractions.

“I liked the cellar door concept”, says Dessert, “but obviously you couldn’t make wine at Kununurra”. Instead, he built his own still, based on research of USA hill distillers, to make rum and whiskey from local sugar cane and corn.

About 1,000 kilometres to the west, in Broome, Martin and Kim Pierson-Jones’s Matso’s Brewery, offers ocean views, decent food and beers made for the tropics. Matso’s hugely popular ginger beer (in fact, a blend of wine, ginger essence and water) joins a quirky drinks list that includes mango, chilli and lychee beers. However, brewer Marcus Muller makes several delicious, traditional lagers and ales in addition to these sweeter tropical thirst quenchers.

Matso's brewer, Marcus Muller. Photo Chris Shanahan
Matso’s brewer, Marcus Muller. Photo Chris Shanahan

Our vehicle

Our 'Hilux Hilton' camped at Ellenbrae Station, Gibb River Road. Photo Chris Shanahan.
Our ‘Hilux Hilton’ camped at Ellenbrae Station, Gibb River Road. Photo Chris Shanahan.

You can tour the Kimberley in complete luxury, flying in from Broome or Kununurra or from a cruise ship on the coast. Accommodation ranges from luxury lodges to basic bush camping, sometimes with showers, always with composting toilets. Where there are no showers, croc-free fresh-water swimming holes do the job.

We took the fly-in, self-drive approach and selected our Apollo Adventure Camper after considering the many other four-wheel drive options. We simply liked what it offered for two people: a sturdy turbo-diesel Toyota Hilux ute with a camping unit on the back.

The camper, with its pop-top, comprised a comfy, large double bed, a 32-litre fridge with its own battery, crockery, cutlery, sink, 60-litre water storage and ample cupboard space for clothing and food storage.

A panel with a two-burner gas cooker folded down from the outside. This and a couple of outdoor chairs and a fold-up table, allowed us to cook and eat outside – which is extremely pleasant during the tropical dry season. The inside we used only for storage, changing, sleeping and night time reading.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2014
First published 14 September 2014 in the Canberra Times
Mitchell Falls photos:
– dry season © copyright David Evans-Smith
– wet season © copyright John Hayward.

Tasmania rolls Burgundy and Champagne into one

In the nineties as Australian wine regions agonised over their boundaries, Tasmania got smart. Its winemakers saw that as small, comparatively homogenous producers, their interests would be best served by promoting the island as a whole. In opting for ‘Tasmania’ as their only entry in the register of protected names they neatly avoided the distraction of formally defining the state’s widely spread wine producing areas.

In the ensuing decade, as other states with vastly more varied wine styles defined zones, regions within zones and even sub-regions within regions, Tasmania stuck to its guns and still has ‘Tasmania’ as its only official appellation. But this hasn’t hindered the emergence of regional identities within the state.

Indeed, as soon as you set foot in a Tassie winery you’ll be given a copy of the excellent Tasmania’s wine routes 2009–10 and see on the map four regions: North-West, Tamar Valley, East Coast and Southern. And if you happen to be Hobart based, you’ll see the Southern region further sub-divided into the Derwent Valley, Coal River Valley and Huon Valley/d’Entrecasteaux.

But the location of Bream Creek Vineyard in the East Coast region, for example, demonstrates the difficulty of formally defining boundaries. It’s just a spit from Coal River Valley or Hobart but more than two hours’ drive from the northern end of the East Coast.

With vineyards located between 41 and 43 degrees south, and surrounded by the Southern Ocean, Tasmania enjoys a moderate climate with an extended, cool ripening period. This suits the production of delicate wine styles, dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay, used in both sparkling and table wine making The two varieties accounted for 71 per cent of production in 2008.

While the split between sparkling and table wine production is anybody’s guess, it could be as high as fifty-fifty given increased Tasmanian sourcing from mainland sparkling-wine producers and a growing number of home-grown brands.

Talking to grape growers across Tasmania it becomes clear that Constellation Wines (formerly BRL Hardy) is a major buyer of grapes for both still and sparkling wine. And Foster’s, Australia’s largest winemaker, is on the scout, too, snapping up top quality fruit for its Heemskerk brand and multi-regional icon blends, including Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay.

In the latter, Foster’s has simply discovered, as Hardy’s did a decade earlier, that some of our greatest chardonnay grapes come from Tasmania. For example, Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, Constellation’s flagship white wine, has been predominantly Tasmanian for around ten years.

While the big producers, especially Constellation, exert a profound and positive impact on the Tasmanian wine scene, the view from the ground is of tens of small and medium sized independent makers sprinkled around the island.

The Australian Wine Industry Database lists 84 Tasmanian vignerons. But I suspect the number might have grown since it was compiled a year ago.

Tasmanian makers, focused at the top end of the bottled wine market, account for half a per cent of Australia’s wine grape output, contributing just 9,628 tonnes of the 1,827,647 tonnes crushed in 2008.

Pinot noir, at 4,355 tonnes, is the state’s most widely grown variety, accounting for 45 per cent of the crush in 2008 – highlighting the vast difference between this cool little Island and the mainland, where pinot accounts for only about two per cent of the harvest.

In 2008 Tasmanians harvested 2,501 tonnes of chardonnay, its second most important variety; 992 tonnes of sauvignon blanc; 732 tonnes of riesling; 452 tonnes of pinot gris and tiny quantities of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, gewürztraminer, shiraz and other niche varieties.

In effect, given the dominance of pinot noir and chardonnay, Tasmania is the equivalent of France’s Champagne and Burgundy regions rolled into one, albeit on a far smaller scale.

Tasmania’s first modern vineyards appeared near Launceston in 1956 (Jean Miguet’s La Provence, now Providence and owned by Stuart Bryce) and on the Derwent in 1958 (Claudio Alcorso’s Moorilla Estate, now owned by David Walsh and partners).

But growth was slow. Thirty years after Miguet planted his first vines, Tasmania had only 47 hectares of bearing vines, producing 154 tonnes of grapes – equivalent to about 11 thousand dozen bottles.

By 1999 the area under vine had grown almost tenfold to 463 hectares, producing 3,199 tonnes (224 thousand dozen bottles). And by 2008 vines covered 1,315 hectares, yielding 9,628 tonnes (674 thousand dozen bottles).

As we’ve seen, this accounts for only half a per cent of Australia’s wine production. But it’s all pitched at the top end of the market. While some of it may disappear anonymously into mainstream sparkling wine blends, the majority come to market under Tasmanian labels.

It’s far more than the Tasmanians themselves can drink, so producers look to the mainland, tourists and exports for sales in an increasingly competitive market.

Fortunately for them, they have something unique and delightful to offer, as we’ll see over the next few weeks.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

Hunting the Hunter wine region innovations

As far north and as coastal as it is, the lower Hunter Valley of NSW ought to be too warm, too wet, too humid and, with Sydney so close, too expensive to make wine. But it has successfully done so for 170 years and today it is more varied and innovative than at any other time in its long history.

By my estimate, the Hunter now has 159 winemakers with the greatest concentration – and therefore the richest pickings for visitors – in the lower Hunter, quite close to Cessnock.

Clearly, that’s more wineries than any visitor can cover in a fortnight, let alone a weekend. But that’s part of the Hunter’s interest: scale and diversity mean you can go back time and again and still find something new.

For a writer reporting on the Hunter, it’s also a frustration. How can a three-day tour, visiting a handful of wineries, do the region justice? Hence, the sins of omission are many and the gaps can be covered only by you, dear reader. Visit the Hunter, explore and enjoy for there’s much more there than you’ll find in this brief report.

The purely regional experience begins (and, for some, ends) with Semillon and Shiraz, the area’s time-proven, long-lived and idiosyncratic specialties. These find dozens of subtly different expressions amongst makers large and small and could easily be the focus of a weekend’s tour. However, there is much, much more to discover, and it goes beyond the old familiars of chardonnay, verdelho, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

Today’s diversity in the Hunter reflects the explosion of grape growing in Australia and the good old Aussie traditions of cross-regional fruit sourcing, blending and a restless quest to make new and different styles.

Hunter contacts now stretch throughout NSW from the cool regions of Orange and Tumbarumba to warm areas like Mudgee and Cowra. Hunter makers also source fruit from Victoria’s King Valley, Heathcote and Beechworth regions and even from Tasmania and South Australia.

So don’t be surprised when you visit the Hunter to find familiar regional favourites from around Australia as well as emerging varieties like Sangiovese, Barbera, Tempranillo, Pinot Gris and Viognier from the Hunter and beyond.

Invariably, the innovators with these new varieties are also the guardians of the traditional Hunter styles.
Andrew Margan, for example, planted the Italian red variety Barbera at Ceres Hill, Broke, in 1998. He’d seen the increasing popularity of Merlot and believed an Italian variety, either Sangiovese or Barbera, might provide yet another flavour experience for visitors.

Andrew opted for the thick-skinned, high-acid Barbera, reckoning it to be better suited to the Hunter’s warm, humid climate than thin-skinned, big-cropping sangiovese. Cuttings from a Mudgee vineyard (planted by Italian winemaker Carlo Corino in the 1970s) took to the new site and yielded the first Margan Barbera in 2001.

Cellar door customers loved the 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages. And the current release 2004 — and even better, yet-to-be-released 2005 — show the variety’s brilliant purple colour, exotic summer-berry perfume and flavour and savoury, tangy, food-friendly grip.

No matter how tasty though, five Barbera vintages do not a Hunter specialty make. For Andrew Margan the main game remains Semillon, Chardonnay, Verdelho, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon from a former Lindemans vineyard, planted at Broke in 1970 and Merlot from a newer planting next to the Barbera vines.

Margan says that working with Tyrrell’s from 1989 to 1994 taught him “that the basis of wine quality was great viticulture”. Hence, the TLC given to the 78-hectare former Lindeman vineyard at Broke and the 70-year-old former Elliott family ‘Beltree’ Semillon vineyard at Belford, Pokolbin, twenty minutes drive from Broke.

Andrew acquired the Beltree Vineyard in 1999, “returned it to a good state”, and from it produces an absolutely stunning classic Hunter Semillon: delicate, pale, austere and hard for the uninitiated to understand when young but of a style to develop an extraordinary toasty richness with extended ageing.

When you visit Margan’s cellar door — cohabiting with Restaurant Beltree on Hermitage Road, Pokolbin — you can taste Beltree Semillon and other traditional styles like Shiraz alongside the newcomers: Barbera, an excellent Shiraz-based rosé called Shiraz Saignee, and a highly-original, low-alcohol, no-oak, light-and-sticky Botrytis Semillon, sourced from the old Lindemans vineyards at Broke.

Andrew offers, as well, an innovative variation on traditional Hunter Shiraz, born of the current rosé boom. His rosé is made by the ‘Saignee’ or bleeding method – draining lovely pink juice from the Shiraz before it extracts too much colour from contact with the skins.

This has a significant impact on the red wine, too, as it means less juice remaining with those colour-and-tannin-packed grape skins. Margan Timber Vines Shiraz emerges from the fermenting vats as a deeper and richer wine than it would otherwise have been. And to be sure that it doesn’t carry too much mouth-puckering tannin, Andrew doesn’t blend in the pressings – the usual practice with red wines.

Timber Vines, then, has the usual Hunter fruit flavour, but it’s a little darker in colour, a bit fuller on the palate with lots of velvety, soft tannins – cleverly retaining Hunter character while sending a seductive siren song to those who love the bigger wines of, say, the Barossa or Clare.

This respect for tradition spiced with ingenuity shows all through the valley from makers of all sizes.
For example, in 1993 when the Lusby family carved Tintilla Estate out of the bush on Hermitage Road, they included in the seven-hectare vineyard the Italian red variety, Sangiovese – the thin-skinned variety rejected by Margan in favour of Barbera.

In Australia, our most likely exposure to Italian Sangiovese comes via the tight, savoury reds of Chianti – the huge wine zone bulging between Florence and Siena in Tuscany. The quality ranges from glad-when-you’ve-had-enough to jaw dropping, good – especially when you include the related Tuscan heavyweights, Brunello di Montelcino and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, also made from Sangiovese.

The better wines share a savoury intensity and a ripple of tannin that sweeps across the palate, cleaning up before the next sip. We generally don’t see this in fruit-focused Aussie wines. But it’s what Tintilla and a number of other Hunter makers now seek, as an addition to the traditional styles.

Thus, young James Lusby makes convincing examples of the Hunter staples — a traditional, low-alcohol, delicate Semillon and an earthy, soft Shiraz — plus an attractive Merlot, while really bowling over cellar door visitors with three versions of Sangiovese.

Its thin skin and lighter colour make Sangiovese an ideal source for Tintilla’s rosé, Rosato di Jupiter Sangiovese – a pale pink, zesty, savoury luncheon drop – made, like Margan’s Shiraz Rosé, by the Saignee method.

And the ‘bleeding’ process boosts the colour and body of Tintilla Sangiovese, which remains pale in comparison to traditional Aussie reds. However, it has the variety’s cherry-like fruit character and fine, grippy, savoury tannins.

And inspired by modern Tuscan practice, James makes a Sangiovese Merlot blend, a delicious red that retains Sangiovese’s flavour and structure while benefiting from a little more colour, flesh and silkiness contributed by the Merlot component.

Over in Broke at Olivevine, Ian and Suzanne Little specialise in alternative varieties, including locally grown Sangiovese. Like James Lusby, they find the variety struggles for colour, so use the Saignee method to produce a rosé and bolster the red version — with striking success in the excellent 2005 vintage. These are delicious wines.

Olivevine’s a must visit, too, for its racy, limey Gewurztraminer sourced from the former Penfolds Wybong vineyard in the Upper Hunter and a plush, silky, ‘pear drop and apricot’ laden dry white made from Broke-grown Viognier.

And you’ll find Sangiovese and Viognier at Brokenwood that great maker of traditional Hunter Semillon and Shiraz. The homely cellar door looks much as it has for decades. But out back in the winery Peter-James Charteris makes barrels of fun.

P-J’s currently working with different clones of Sangiovese from McLaren Vale, South Australia, and Beechworth, Victoria as well as Nebbiolo (the noble red variety of Piedmont), Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from Beechworth and Chardonnay from Mount Panorama and Orange.

Sure, these are not Hunter wines. But they are truly exciting. And as they move from development to bottling, you can taste and buy them from the Hunter cellar door. I’d drive there again just to re-taste P-J’s creations.

All of this, of course, is a mere swatch of the colourful Hunter fabric. I’ve not even mentioned the time-proven, glorious Semillons and Shirazes from Tyrrell’s and McWilliams Mount Pleasant.
These are surely the region’s greatest beacons. Be attracted to them. But allow time to fan out and see the impressive diversity offered by the other 157 makers.

HUNTER — HOW TO GET THERE, SLEEPS AND EATS

How to get there

Drive north on the Newcastle freeway from Sydney, take the Cessnock turnoff ramp to the left, then follow the signs to Cessnock, then follow the ‘Wine Country’ signs. Take a map, be adventurous and have fun. The greatest concentration of wineries is around Pokolbin, but Lovedale and Broke are must-visits, too.

Sleeps

Tonic Hotel
251 Talga Road, Lovedale
Phone 02 4930 9999 or tonichotel.com.au
Your hosts: Nici and Tom Stanford
Luxurious king-bed suites in clusters of three. Luxury ensuite, TV, oodles of space, balcony, bush views and very peaceful and quiet. Tasty, healthy breakfast in room

Wilderness Grove
77 Wilderness Road, Lovedale
Phone 02 4930 9078
Your host: David Wilson
Luxurious ensuite rooms in purpose-built modern mansion, next to the olive grove in peaceful and quiet location. Share pre-dinner drinks in the lounge or deck and enjoy David’s hearty cooked breakfast.

Eats

Margan Restaurant Beltree
266 Hermitage Road, Pokolbin
Phone 02 6574 7216 or margan.com.au
Offers breakfast, fresh and imaginative Mediterranean-inspired lunches as well as fresh cakes, desserts and coffee all day. Doubles as Margan’s cellar door,

Hungerford Hill Terroir
1 Broke Road, Pokolbin
Phone 02 4990 0711 or hungerfordhill.com.au/terroir
In this magnificent setting chef Darren Ho produces food of the highest calibre. A degustation menu, each dish matched with a Hungerford Hill wine, reveals the depth and brilliance of Darren’s art. His signature ‘Dixon Street bbq duck with sweet pickled lemons on basmati rice and choy sum’ and ‘Caramelised lemon tart with coconut sorbet’ are two highlights.

Mojo’s on Wilderness
Lot 82 Wilderness Road, Rothbury
Phone 02 4930 7244 or mojos.com.au
The ambience is suburban living room. But the do-it-all yourself approach of proprietors Adam and Ros Baldwin delivers homely, relaxing service and strikingly good food. And that’s not surprising given Adam’s twelve-years as a chef in London’s West End and another eight at the Kurrajong, Cessnock.

The rise of Wrattonbully — unique new Aussie wine region

‘You’ve never heard of a champion race horse with a bad name’. Attributed to viticulturist Vic Patrick during a prolonged, and at times rancorous, debate over the naming of Wrattonbully wine region.

Wrattonbully, the biggest of several new wine regions on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, sprawls for forty kilometres along the Naracoorte Tableland, touching Padthaway to the north and Coonawarra to the south.

Hemmed in by these venerable winemaking neighbours, Wrattonbully exploded into existence in the nineties, the product of high hopes and a global red wine boom.

Deterred by rising land prices and a lack of suitable sites in Coonawarra, winemakers moved decisively to Wrattonbully in 1993, attracted by lower land prices, soils and climate similar to those of Coonawarra and clean underground water.

Where two vineyards, covering just 20 hectares, existed in 1993, scores of broad acre plantings, totalling about 2600 hectares, had been planted by 2003.

In Australia’s bumper 2004 harvest, these new vines produced 28 thousand tonnes of grapes, equivalent to about two million dozen bottles of wine – an extraordinary volume for an area that barely existed a decade earlier.

Wrattonbully’s impressive growth is perhaps best seen in the context of the Limestone Coast overall. This vast area, taking in all of South Australia west of Victoria and south of Lake Alexandrina, now wears the crown as Australia’s largest premium wine growing district.

The Limestone Coast’s combined 2004 grape output of 172 thousand tonnes (13 million dozen bottles equivalent) easily outweighs the 87 thousand tonnes (6.5 million dozen bottes) of the combined Barossa and Eden Valleys, the next largest premium area.

Within the Limestone Coast, Wrattonbully holds the greatest concentration of grapes after its older neighbours – Coonawarra, established in 1891 (62 thousand tonnes in 2004) and Padthaway, established in 1964 (51 thousand tonnes).

Like Padthaway, much of Wrattonbully’s output goes to high quality cross-regional blends. Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon and Hardys Sir James Brut de Brut, for example, both carry Wrattonbully material blended with fruit from other areas, and go to market without a regional appellation.

But many grape growers and winemakers, seeing the exceptional quality potential in Wrattonbully, won’t settle for anonymity.

They see Wrattonbully as one of the best wine growing regions in the country. Its soils and climate, the outstanding winemaking achievements of nearby, similar Coonawarra and Padthaway and even its own short winemaking history all support this belief.

As in Coonawarra, Wrattonbully’s vineyards tend to be located on shallow terra rossa soils over limestone. These soils are composed partly of weathered limestone but also contain wind-born material. In Wrattonbully, some vineyards have a shallow layer of grey, sandy loam over the terra rossa.
Some growers say that these are the best sites for vines; others insist on terra rossa without the sand overlay. Could both be correct? We’ll know in thirty years.

Despite the similarities between the two regions, there are important differences, too. Wrattonbully lies to the north of Coonawarra on a tableland elevated about 50 metres above the plain and to the east of the Kanowinka fault.

According to geologist David Farmer, about 780 thousand years ago “the country to the west of the fault fell about 40 metres, perhaps under the sea. It was against this cliff face that the Southern Ocean deposited the dunes comprising the West Naracoorte Range” – near the western edge of today’s Wrattonbully. It was perhaps another 100 thousand years before what is now Coonawarra rose above sea level.

Meanwhile Wrattonbully remained high and dry to the east of the range, weathering and, later, collecting in its near-surface caves, the bones of trapped mammals and reptiles. These provide the wonderful 500 thousand year fossil record seen today at the Naracoorte caves, within the wine region boundary.

The caves are part of the limestone bedrock noted for thick layers of calcrete – dissolved and redeposited limestone – near the surface along ridges. Over the past ten years bulldozers ripping the calcrete prior to vine planting uncovered numerous caves (see separate story) and dragged to the surface enormous limestone boulders – like the 37 tonne monster marking the entry to Hardy’s Stonehaven vineyard.

According to Greg Koch, vineyard owner and contract vineyard manager, stone breaking and removal adds up to $5000 a hectare to establishment costs in Wrattonbully.

However, the ready availability of choice sites and land prices considerably below those of Coonawarra attracted investors throughout the nineties and into the new century.

On this rugged, undulating tableland, then, sit 2600 hectares of vines on a diversity of sites that should, in general, be slightly warmer than Coonawarra and sufficiently elevated to avoid the vintage fogs that sometimes hamper vintage in Coonawarra and Padthaway.

Wrattonbully’s grape-growing history includes two little vineyards planted decades ahead of the recent expansion. These give a glimpse of its potential.

In 1969, Patrick and Susie Pender planted the ‘Riddoch’ vineyard at the southern end of the district. Its grapes were sold to various winemakers over the years, but from what I can gather, wine made from the site was generally referred to as Coonawarra, including one that I personally bought and labelled Farmer Bros in the mid eighties.

The Penders sold to the Meyer family who, in turn, sold the vineyard (no longer called Riddoch) to Petaluma. Since the purchase, says Petaluma’s Brian Croser, shiraz from the vineyard goes to a Bridgewater Mill shiraz blend, while the excellent but tiny quantity of cabernet sauvignon is included as a legal out-of-district component of Petaluma Coonawarra – one of the region’s elite reds.

Nearby, in 1974, John Greenshields established the Koppamurra vineyard. In adopting the general regional name (local farmers still call the area Koppamurra, not Wrattonbully) he unwittingly set the scene for a recent protracted dispute over the regional name. Wrattonbully it became, but not without acrimony.

In January 2003, Tapanappa Wines Pty Ltd – a partnership between Brian Croser, Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, and Société Jacques Bollinger, the parent company of Champagne Bollinger – purchased the vineyard.

Croser had advice that the vineyard was perfectly suited to dry-land viticulture and was impressed by the keeping qualities of Geoff Weaver’s Ashbourne Cabernet Sauvignon 1980 — sourced from the vineyard and made at Petaluma.

The first two vintages of Tapanappa wine now sit in barrel at Petaluma. Croser seems deeply impressed by the fruit quality. All three red varieties – cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot – ripened fully in both the 2003 and 2004 vintages.

He described the merlot as ‘very big and blocky’, the cabernet as having ‘violet and rose floral character, more finesse and silky tannins’ and the cabernet franc as ‘inky and very complex’.

As these vines are fully mature, low yielding and dry grown it suggests Wrattonbully could be suited to a range of varieties.

However, as almost all of the vines in Wrattonbully are much younger and yet to deliver their best flavours, other winemakers report varying results.

Yalumba’s red winemaker, Peter Gambetta, says that Wrattonbully reds in general looked good in the first vintages but merlot had the WOW factor, performing well in a number of different vineyards.

The variety now receives special attention in the vineyard and winery and is distributed by Yalumba under the Smith and Hooper Wrattonbully label. As I write, there’s a very concentrated ‘Limited Release’ 2001 retailing at about $50, and a standard, more fruit driven 2002 at around $17.

Smith and Hooper Wrattonbully Cabernet Merlot 2002 (about $17) won a gold medal at the recent Limestone Coast Show. And Yalumba’s budget Wrattonbully label, Mawsons (about $12), offers a Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, with a Sauvignon Blanc due in 2005.

Gambetta and Yalumba’s Wrattonbully vineyard manager, Peter Freckleton, both seem excited about the upcoming first vintage of tempranillo, a Spanish red variety, from their vineyards.

At Hardy’s Stonehaven Winery, winemaker Sue Bell rates Wrattonbully cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and chardonnay ahead of merlot and believes that tempranillo may be very good. Sue’s current release Stonehaven Limited Vineyard Release Wrattonbully Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 won a silver medal at the Limestone Coast Show and her Stonehaven Limestone Coast Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (100 per cent Wrattonbully) won a bronze medal.

Unlike Hardys and Yalumba, Southcorp owns no vineyards in Wrattonbully but sources from contract growers. Southcorp winemaker, Greg Tilbrook, says that cabernet sauvignon looks the best variety to date, making the grade for Penfolds Bin 407 in 2003 and 2004.

Griffith based Casella Wines no doubt favours cabernet, too, after winning the Jimmy Watson trophy with its Yellowtail Premium 2003, sourced from a vineyard managed by Greg Koch.

Coonawarra-based Ian Hollick clearly backs shiraz after his Wrattonbully Shiraz – Coonawarra Cabernet 2002 won a gold medal and trophy at the Limestone Coast Show.

And a few good wines are emerging from Wrattonbully grape growers. Greg Koch’s Redden Bridge ‘Gully’ Shiraz 2002 and ‘The Crossings’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 won silver and bronze medals respectively at the Limestone Coast Show; winemaker Pat Tocaciu produces Patrick ‘The Caves’ Vineyard Riesling 2003 and Pavy Cabernet Sauvignon 2001; and the Stone Coast Vineyard Shiraz 2002, made by Scott Rawlinson, won silver at the Limestone Coast Show.

With most of her vineyards still under ten years of age Wrattonbully is a work in progress, producing bread and butter, good average quality wines alongside smaller quantities of high quality regionally labelled product. It’ll take another ten years to see what her real specialties are. But there’s every hope, given the regional pedigree, that we’ll see great rather than merely good wines in due course.

Ken Schultz and the Stone Hill Vineyard cave
Ken Schultz says he was conceived and born in the room that’s now his office in a limestone house amongst Beringer Blass’s Wrattonbully vineyards. Establishing the Stone Hill vineyard in the early nineties, Ken found a nervous bulldozer driver teetering on the opening of an extensive cave. A little research showed that the cave had been sealed in 1917. A thorough exploration by Ken’s boss, Vic Patrick, and others found that it meandered 270 metres under the vineyards and included a touching memorial of the past – a beautifully hand-carved in limestone ‘F. J. Charter 1911’ – a local who died on the battlefields of France in 1917. A bit of creative paving work by Ken’s vineyard team, and the addition of subtle lighting, prepared a large chamber, 10 metres below the vineyard and 130 metres from the entry, for the occasional dinner or lunch under the vines.