Tethering the mighty bush to the wine world (with apologies to Manning Clark)

Bruce Brown, Southcorp’s New South Wales’ Viticultural Manager, says his company’s New South Wales annual grape intake should jump from 12,500 tonnes to 52,000 tonnes over the next five years, underlining just how important vineyards along NSW’s Great Divide are to be to the fine wine industry next century.Eliminating grapes from other areas from those figures, Southcorp’s increased crush from the Great Divide could be in the order of 20,000 tonnes a year – equivalent to 1.4 million dozen 750 ml bottles.

That’s only Southcorp’s figures. They’re a major player, but by no means the biggest in two (Mudgee and Cowra) of the three really large areas now emerging as the hottest viticultural spots on the Great Divide: Mudgee, Molong-Orange, and Cowra.

By my estimates, five years from now should see an annual output of around 1.75 million cases of wine from Mudgee, 900 thousand from Molong-Orange and 1.5 million from Cowra. As well, we can expect significant contributions from Forbes, Young, Harden, Gundagai, Canberra District, Tumbarumba and possibly other as yet unexplored sites.

The unprecedented vineyard expansion appears to be driven mainly by a global shortage of premium red wine and Australia’s continued export success (exports reached $550 million in 1996).

While major wine companies have pumped tens of millions of dollars into vineyard expansion in recent years, the success of the industry has attracted investors from many new sources.

In some cases, existing landowners (like the Cowra O’Deas and Tumbarumba Bells) saw a brighter future in grape growing than in wheat and Simmental cattle and tobacco respectively.

They and other families have been prepared to risk upfront capital investments in the order of $20,000 a hectare in the belief that high-quality wine grapes offer good long-term returns.

Larger investors have spotted opportunities, too. I reported last year on Mudgee Vineyards’ 200 hectare planting – the first of three similar size blocks in the Mudgee area with another 400 hectares to be planted somewhere between Mudgee and Harden.

Then, after another visit to Mudgee two weeks back, Bruce Brown showed me what the entrepreneurial spirit could achieve. We drove west from Mudgee to Wellington, then south through Mumbil and Stuart Town.

After kilometres of wide brown land, we reached “Little Boomey”, just north of Molong. Here, amongst the sheep paddocks, rolls a vast, brand new, bright green vineyard.

It’s a big development by any measure. Rod Lyon, vineyard manager, says 153 hectares were planted in 1995, 124 in 1996 and there are plans to establish another 180 this year.

Ian Britton, Business Development Manager for Central Highlands Management (the company managing Little Boomey) estimates an annual wine output of around 450,000 cases by the time all vines come into bearing.

Following global consumption trends, the plantings are in a ratio of about 80 red to 20 white. Red varieties, in hectares, are: cabernet sauvignon 149, merlot 47, shiraz 176 and whites: chardonnay 53, marsanne 10, sauvignon blanc 10, verdelho 10, semillon 10.

By Britton’s reckoning, the Molong-Orange area currently has around 500 hectares of vines in the ground with another 380 due to go in this year. Assuming average production of 14 tonnes of grapes to the hectare, that gives the region a wine-production potential of around 900 thousand cases a year.

Little Boomey was the brainchild of Peter Poolman, who had been on the land at Canowindra and Wagga before launching an agri-business consultancy.

Spotting an opportunity in wine grapes, Peter bought Little Boomey (after expert advice gave it the nod as a vineyard site), then marshaled the financial and technical resources to develop it.

Ian Britton tells me Southcorp’s chief wine maker, John Duval and head viticulturist, Andrew Pike and others gathered on a rise overlooking the vineyard site, all excited by its potential.

The Southcorp involvement was crucial, not just in confirming the potential of the site but also in signing contracts on the grapes.

The land is owned by Peter Poolman’s company ‘Snowleaf’ and managed by a subsidiary, Central Highlands Management. Capital for the development was raised from hundreds of smaller investors in a tax-driven scheme that sees ownership revert to Poolman’s company after investors lease vines for 15 years.

The locals, of course, are delighted by the development. It has become a major employer in the area. And it shows that there may be money to made on the land despite the decline of wool and wheat. As well, we can assume much of Little Boomey’s output will eventually head to export markets after considerable value adding in the wine making, packaging and marketing processes.

February 23rd, 1997


Is it fanciful to imagine New South Wales’ Great Divide a hundred years from now as a new Italia – a sunburned southern landscape dotted with vivid green vineyards on hill tops and slopes, from Mudgee in the north to Tumbarumba in the south?

The vision appears to be taking shape as vineyards large and small push sheep, cattle, wheat, cherries, tobacco and vegetables from a remarkably varied landscape.

There’s suitable land galore. And, although water is a limiting factor, wine makers can choose a site to suit production of particular grape varieties and wine styles.

From Mudgee to Tumbarumba, a spread of about 3 degrees of latitude, countless soil types, aspects, altitudes ranging from about 100 metres to 900 metres, and, in Tumbarumba’s case, the proximity of the Snowy Mountains, gives wine makers a remarkable range of climates to produce an equally varied palate of grape flavours.

Mudgee’s full-bodied reds and whites, grown at about 450 metres, contrast with the intensity and elegance of those emerging from the slopes of Mount Canobolas, Orange, 900 metres above sea level.

And the reds and whites from nearby Little Boomey, Molong (discussed here last week), grown at 600 metres, are sure to be different again. Shiraz, in particular, should do particularly well here, where it wouldn’t have a chance on cool Conobolas.

A little to the south, Cowra’s broad-acre vineyards sit between 300-350 metres. The extra heat at this lower altitude means earlier ripening than we see at Orange and generally fuller bodied wines. Generously flavoured chardonnays have been the area’s main output until now, but verdelho is proving another reliable variety.

The jury is still out on Cowra reds, but with renewed efforts by the area’s largest producer, Richmond Grove, and other growers, we may see good, full-bodied styles emerging.

Just a short drive south to Young, with vineyards at 500-540 metres, reds thrive. Mc Williams wine maker Jim Brayne says the area’s shiraz “… is absolutely sensational.”

Who can argue? McWilliam’s 109-hectare Barwang Vineyard consistently makes outstanding cabernet sauvignon and even better shiraz. The current release 1994’s have been voted, respectively, best value red in Australia (Penguin Wine Guide) and best New South Wales red.

McWilliams is by far the biggest producer in Young, but we noted recently the strong performance in the Canberra District Wine Show of Robert Provan and Pam Gillespie’s Demondrille Vineyard. And Brian Mullany, cousin of our editor, established, between 1990 and 1996, 40 hectares of vines, mainly contracted to Southcorp. There are others, too, and these will be covered in a future article.

South again to Gundagai, and we find Tom Robertson’s 6 hectare chardonnay vineyard planted at about 200 metres. The first vintage, 1996, was so impressive Southcorp decided to release a special Gundagai Chardonnay under Hungerford Hill’s New South Wales regional label. Watch for it.

It may be a while before vines prove a stronger tourist attraction than the dog on the tucker box. But viticultural guru Dr John Gladstones hints of a vinous future for the area ” … Localities with best temperatures for viticulture would include the ridge of hills running from Gundagai to a little west of Cootamundra… “. There are vine prospectors searching them thar hills as I write.

Pushing south from the Murrumbidgee Valley towards the Snowies, past Tumut and Batlow, we find yet another viticultural environment around Tumbarumba.

Southcorp’s 28 hectare vineyard, developed as a specialist sparkling wine source by Ian Cowell in the early 1980s, sits on a fertile plateau, 720 metres above sea level, a few kilometres north west of Tumbarumba.

Excess vine vigour and spring frosts present severe challenges to vineyard manager, Shane Howard. This season, for instance, 60 per cent of the crop was wiped out by a November frost.

However, when the gods smile, the vineyard produces wine with the exceptional intensity and finesse produced only under cool ripening conditions. Wine maker Ian McKenzie says Tumbarumba produces stunning pinot noir and chardonnay sparkling wine. And I’ve tasted promising samples of table wines made from the same varieties.

You can get a glimpse of the vineyard’s special qualities in Hungerford Hill Tumbarumba Sauvignon Blanc 1996 – a lovely wine that easily bears comparison with the best from Marlborough, New Zealand.

There are private growers in the area, too, including Frank and Chris Minutello, Ian and Jane Bell’s brand new 12.5 hectare planting at 430 metres on their Willow Vale property in the beautiful Maragle Valley, and Denis and Jane Boyd at Pine Grove on the river flats near Tooma.

All these and many more developments along the Great Divide promise a whole new spectrum of flavours for next century’s wine drinkers.