Orange a bright star on the NSW Great Dividing Range

A collation of my Canberra Times articles published between January and March 2000

January 23  2000
Along New South Wales’ Great Divide — from Tooma and Tumbarumba in the south, heading north through Gundagai, Canberra, Yass, Young, Harden, Cowra, Cudal and Cargo, to the cool heights of Orange’s Mount Canobolas and on to Mudgee – sheep, cattle, wheat and orchards have been giving way to the vine at an accelerating rate during the late nineties.

Of New South Wales’ record 1999 grape crop of around 290,000 tonnes (about one quarter of the national crush), vineyards on the West of the Divide accounted for just over 36 thousand tonnes (2.5 million dozen bottles).

Although that may appear small change compared to the Riverina’s 155 thousand tonne harvest (10.9 million dozen) or the Murray River’s 68 thousand tonnes (4.8 million dozen), we’re talking about superior wine quality, higher production costs and, consequently higher grape and wine prices.

The difference is significant. Take for example the weighted average prices of popular wine-grape varieties. In the Riverina in 1999, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon fetched $686 and $989 a tonne respectively. The same varieties in the ACT and Southern Highlands sold for $1,347 and $1,468.

While grape prices don’t tell us everything – and the gap could narrow if there’s a glut or recession – they do reflect, in a general sense, the different roles of the broad acres along the hot, irrigated river lands and the more fragmented, often pioneering, activities in the cooler, higher altitudes.

What all of the State’s remarkably varied wine regions share is the growth in wine tourism being driven by the industry’s expansion. Where there’s wine there are tourists. And where there are tourists there’s food, accommodation and entertainment.

Groupings of vineyards easily accessed by road from Sydney appear to be in a prime position to draw tourists, both local and foreign. That makes Canberra an attractive destination, especially if it can be linked, in tourists’ minds, with a grand wine tour that might come south to Canberra, head north to Cowra/Canowindra and Young, then on to Orange, then Mudgee, then back to Sydney.

These regions already offer diversity and quality. But the future appears even brighter, especially in light of recent Bureau of Tourism research showing that food and wine are now major attractions for international tourists.

The ACT and Southern Highlands (including Tumbarumba, Young and Bowral) produced just 3,300 tonnes of grapes in 1999. By 2004 the figures should be 19,202 tonnes.

In the same period, Cowra’s output should grow from 14,700 to 20,100 tonnes. Perhaps the biggest change in Cowra is not so much increasing quantity (much of its production goes to multi-regional blends) but the development of cellar door outlets selling regionally labelled product.

Amazing as it may seem, it was not until the 1999 vintage that Cowra’s first winery opened, at the O’Dea family’s Windowrie Estate.

Mudgee, one of Australia’s oldest wine-growing regions, changed rapidly in the late nineties. Rosemount Estate and several large investors commenced broad acre planting on a scale not previously seen in the district. As a result production exploded from around 6000 tonnes annually in the early nineties to 14,000 tonnes in 1999 and should double again to 30,000 tonnes in 2004.

The relocation of Orlando-Wyndham’s winery from the Hunter to Mudgee further underpinned Mudgee’s rapid shift into the big time.

Where Cowra began with broad acre plantings and no wineries, Orange was pioneered by small grower-makers whose success played some part in the arrival of bigger players, like Rosemount and, later, the massive “Little Boomey” vineyard, near Molong.

But, as in Cowra, fruit from these bigger developments goes to wineries outside the district. Southcorp Wines takes the majority of “Little Boomey’s” grapes, while Rosemount’s go to Denman. Here, Philip Shaw crafts the strong and elegant wines appearing under the company’s Orange label.

The wide distribution of Rosemount’s Orange wines (Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Merlot due for release later this year) has been important in spreading the district name, both locally and internationally. It helped, too, when the 1997 Chardonnay won a Gold Medal and the Prix d’Excellence at Bordeaux’s 1999 Challenge International du Vin.

Largely because of the new broad acre plantings, Orange’s harvest is set to grow from 4,300 tonnes in 1999 to 15,600 tonnes in 2004.

The sheer quality of Orange wine, the natural beauty of the area and the terrific food make it ‘must visit’ for Canberrans. More on Orange next week.

January 30 2000
In 1999 the ACT and southern highlands together with Cowra, Mudgee and Orange, produced about 36 thousand tonnes of wine grapes (equivalent to 2.5 million dozen bottles. By 2004, weather permitting, that figure will have grown to 85 thousand tonnes (6 million dozen bottles).

From the fruits of this new sea of vines, Orange, just three hours drive north of Canberra, produces some of the loveliest wines of all. In my view they are potentially the best in New South Wales, and perhaps good enough to put Orange beside Victoria’s Yarra Valley, South Australia’s Coonawarra and Adelaide Hills and Western Australia’s Margaret River as our very best wine growing regions.

However, it’ll take another decade or two to take Orange’s measure. Vineyards and winemaking skills need to mature. And we have yet to see if today’s exciting wines look as good in maturity as in youth.

As wine making regions go, Orange is young. The oldest winery of twelve listed in ‘The Australian Wine Industry is Stephen and Rhonda Doyle’s Bloodwood Wines, founded in 1983 – twelve years after Drs Edgar Riek and John Kirk planted Canberra’s first vines at Lake George and Murrumbateman respectively.

If Orange was a late starter, it quickly overtook Canberra in volume. Smaller estates like Bloodwood and Canobolas-Smith were joined in the mid eighties by the 20-hectare Highland Heritage Estate and, in the late 1980’s by Rosemount’s broad-acre plantings.

But by far the biggest individual development was the “Little Boomey” project near Molong, just within the official Orange wine region’s minimum 600-metre altitude requirement.

This former sheep paddock was planted to 153 hectares of vines in 1995, 124 hectares in 1996 and 180 hectares in 1997. Little Boomey is planted predominantly to red varieties. As I understand it, the grapes are contracted largely to Southcorp Wines initially but with the publicly listed Cabonne to take increasing quantities for its new Cudal winery in the future.

In 1999 Orange’s wine-grape harvest was about 4352 tonnes (305 thousand dozen bottles). Of the total, reds accounted for 3001 tonnes (210 thousand dozen) and whites for 1351 tonnes (95 thousand dozen).

A great deal of this output – how much, I don’t know — will have been shipped out of the district as grapes destined for multi-regional blends.

A survey by the New South Wales Wine Industry Association suggests that output is set to rise dramatically to 15,577 tonnes (1.09 million dozen) by 2004. (3721 tonnes – 260 thousand dozen – white; and 11,857 tonnes – 830 thousand dozen – red).

Rising production will also see a broadening palate of flavours as the grape varietal mix changes in the vineyard.

In 1999 chardonnay (1,168 tonnes) totally dominated the white harvested. Sauvignon blanc came a distant second at 129 tonnes; riesling fourth on 19 tonnes; then semillon, 18 tonnes and marsanne, 12 tonnes.

In 2004 we should see 1680 tonnes of chardonnay, 704 of sauvignon blanc, 375 of semillon, 307 of riesling, 294 of marsanne, 275 of verdelho, 50 of viognier and 6 of traminer.

If we think of Orange only as the cool 800–1000 metre altitude vineyards near Mount Canobolas, then the dominance of heat-loving shiraz (1623 tonnes) in 1999 is surprising. However, we’ll have to assume that a good deal of this comes from the lower, warmer vineyards, principally Little Boomey.

Cabernet sauvignon was Orange’s number two red variety in 1999 at 850 tonnes; followed by merlot’s 351 tonnes; then pinot noir 97 tonnes, cabernet franc 44 tonnes, petit verdot 12 tonnes and ‘others’ 15 tonnes.

By 2004, the red mix, too, will increase: Shiraz 4,806 tonnes, cabernet sauvignon 4,764 tonnes, merlot 1716 tonnes, pinot noir 308 tonnes, cabernet franc 82 tonnes, grenache 60 tonnes, mourvedre 49 tonnes, pinot meunier 43 tonnes, malbec 14 tonnes, petit verdot 12 tonnes and ‘others’ just 1 tonne.

Orange’s increasing grape diversity reflects the varying styles and interests of the region’s grape growers and winemakers as well as the significant climatic differences experienced when vineyards stretch between 600 and 1000 metres above sea level.

The region provides a happy hunting ground for Canberra wine drinkers, as I found on a one-day visit two weeks ago. But don’t try to do it in a day as I did. A dawn start and midnight return pushes even two drivers. Plan a weekend. And see next Sunday’s column for a glimpse of what Orange’s wineries have to offer.

February 6 2000
To discover the wines of Orange the easy way, head down to your nearest liquor outlet and buy a bottle or two. If the range is small, go straight for the widely distributed Rosemount Orange Chardonnay. Pull the cork and you’ll see what tremendous excitement the region offers.

This is the wine that first alerted me to Orange’s exceptional quality. At a masked tasting of top-shelf chardonnays five years ago, the wrappers came off to reveal Rosemount’s 1994 as my highest ranked wine. And that was against some of the big names of the industry.

And it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Sometimes a newcomer stars in a tasting, before disappearing into the background. However, subsequent Rosemount vintages show equally good form. As well, those earlier vintages, going against the tendency for Australian chardonnays to fade quickly, are actually blossoming with age.

At Sydney’s Wokpool Restaurant a few months back, Rosemount’s 1993 Orange Chardonnay showed real class – a class shared by bottles of the 1994, 1995 and 1996 vintages stashed under Chateau Shanahan when the wine could be picked up for $14.99 a bottle, rather than today’s $24.

The comparatively large scale of Rosemount’s Orange vineyard, combined with the company’s marketing strength and winemaking resources — especially Philip Shaw’s highly-polished chardonnay making skills – have created good will for the region throughout Australia and in some export markets, too.

However, there’s a lot more to Orange than Rosemount. Indeed, visit Orange and Rosemount is virtually invisible as it has no cellar door outlet. What you’ll find is a mixed and interesting bag of operators showing, in varying degrees, the rich but delicate flavours of the area’s wines.

Drive north from Canberra through Yass, Boorowa, Cowra, Canowindra and Cargo. In Orange, pull into Cook Park for a breather (have a look at the magnificent Sequoia trees). Then head down to the Visitors information centre (Civic Gardens, Byng Street) for a guide to the local wineries.

One of earliest established and best wineries, Bloodwood, isn’t on the map. Fortunately Griffin Road (about 3kms from Orange on the Molong Road) is marked. Pencil Bloodwood in, on the left-hand side of Griffin Road, 3.5 kms from the turnoff. This is a must visit. But you need an appointment. Phone 6362 5631 a few days in advance.

Stephen and Rhonda Doyle bought the Bloodwood site during the drought of 1983. “It was clapped out grazing country”, says Stephen. They lived in a car on the property for five years as they established dams, orchards and vineyards in some of the oldest soils on earth.

Today the property has 10 hectares of vines producing cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling, merlot, shiraz, pinot noir malbec and cabernet franc grapes, with plans to establish the Italian varieties, sangiovese, barbera and nebbiolo in the future.

Stephen says that the very old geology of the site was an important factor in its selection. The tired old soils, he says, means that the vines struggle a little. That means less work fighting the excess vigour that comes when vines are planted in more fertile soils.

Excess vigour, especially in cool areas like Orange, means special trellising and more work in the vineyard. Vines have to be coaxed into ripening fruit rather than putting out more foliage.

The Bloodwood vines are hand pruned, the fruit hand harvested and the wines made in a tiny, spotlessly clean, well-equipped winery on site. It even has an air-conditioned barrel maturation area – the sort of detail that finally makes a big difference to wine quality.

Current offerings, tasted at the winery two weeks ago, include a delicious, delicate 1999 riesling ($14) which we tasted alongside a 1992 – proving both the variety’s suitability for this site and its staying power; an outstanding 1998 chardonnay ($18), again showing the region’s superiority with this variety; and a strong, elegant 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon ($18).

Chirac’($25), the Doyle’s controversially named bubbly, launched during the last round of French nuclear testing, is a terrific pinot noir-chardonnay, built on outstanding, delicate fruit flavours. The base wine is made on site, then sent to Charles Sturt University, Wagga for conversion to sparkling wine.

Bloodwood also offers two flagship reds ‘Schubert’ and ‘Maurice’ named after two great Australian winemakers, Max Schubert, creator of Grange, and Maurice O’Shea, creator of superb Hunter wines at Mount Pleasant during the 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Both are offered at $25 . I didn’t taste Schubert, but the soon to be released merlot-based Maurice 1998 is a wonderful, idiosyncratic drop, showing merlot’s nobler qualities. It’s not one of those soft, drink now styles. This wine has real class and staying power.

Next week we’ll look at the results of the Canberra district wine show, then return the week after for more Orange wineries.

March 5 2000
In this fourth and final piece on the Orange wine region, we look at three contrasting operations, each of them worth a visit: Brangayne, a broadacre grape grower with one foot in the winemaking door; Canobolas-Smith, a dedicated boutique grower, maker, marketer; and Highland Heritage Estate, a tourist orientated, middle-sized producer offering estate-grown wine; fresh, frozen and preserved blackberries, gooseberries, red currants and blackcurrants and a large restaurant overlooking the vineyard.

The first of these, Brangayne vineyard, sits on a gentle slope, 970 metres above sea level, between the city of Orange and Mount Canobolas. Proprietors, Don and Pam Hoskins, became grape growers not, initially, through any romance with wine but because a decision needed to be made about the future of the family fruit growing business.

Don’s parents had moved to Orange and established the orchard (naming it after the character Brangayne in Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde) during the depression. But by the early nineties the old fruit trees needed replacing.

Pam and Don considered retiring — selling the second property, Ynys Witrin (island of eternal youth), and turning Brangayne into a park.

Instead, they turned to grape growing and, with advice from well-known viticulturist Dr Richard Smart, commenced planting in 1994.

Now the Hoskins have 25 hectares of vines: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and pinot meunier at Brangayne, with cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, merlot, pinot noir and pinot meunier at the lower (870 metres) and warmer Ynys Witrin site, on the other side of Orange.

Three quarters of the crop goes to other wine makers, the remainder being made into wine for the Hoskins’ Brangayne label by Simon Gilbert at Mudgee.

It’s early days, but the wines produced to date show this high, cool region’s delicate but strong flavours. The current releases include sauvignon blancs from the warm1998 vintage and cooler 1999 vintage, a terrific 1999 chardonnay, a fruity, solid 1998 pinot noir from the Ynys Witrin vineyard and ‘The Tristan’ a delicious, firm cabernet shiraz merlot blend.

Brangayne wines show up occasionally on retail shelves and may be purchased at cellar door – although you need an appointment to do so. For appointments, details of Canberra stockists or to place orders, phone Pam and Don on 6365 3229.

A few kilometres from Brangayne, and a little lower down the slopes at 800 metres, Murray Smith hand-crafts marvellous, idiosyncratic wines from his six-hectare vineyard.

Smith selected Orange after studying winemaking and working at Rothbury, Huntington and Woodstock in Australia, as well as in New Zealand, California and Bordeaux.

He purchased land in 1986, attracted to Orange by the altitude and the resultant later, cooler vintage; the winter/spring rainfall pattern and the lack of vintage rains.

With a rare passion and commitment Smith comparatively quickly built a following. His highly-awarded chardonnay, in particular, attracted favourable attention from wine critics and eagle-eyed enthusiasts.

Pop in to the vineyard and buy a bottle of his luridly-labelled and exciting 1997 Chardonnay , a top performer at last year’s ‘Winewise’ small vignerons awards here in Canberra. Like Rosemount’s Orange Chardonnay mentioned earlier in this series, the Canobolas-Smith version confirms chardonnay as the greatest white grape of all — and that Orange sits amongst the best of Australia’s chardonnay-growing regions.

Murray’s second most sought after wine, ‘Alchemy’, combines cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and shiraz. The style is super ripe and robust, but in a refined and palate-friendly way.

Shiraz, say Murray, is slightly less reliable than cabernet in this climate. Nevertheless, there are a couple of particularly pleasing, supple, sweet batches maturing in barrel right now. Pinot Noir, too, shows promise. Time will tell.

For exciting and individual drinking, visit Canobolas-Smith on weekends and public holidays between 11am and 5pm. Phone 6365 6113.

The d’Aquino family’s Highland Heritage Estate sits on the right hand side of the Mitchell Highway as you approach Orange from Bathurst.

Current head of the family’s business, Rex d’Aquino, says his grandfather migrated to Orange from Sicily in 1954. He established a thriving mixed liquor importing, exporting, wholesaling and retailing business.

In time the reins passed to Leo d’Aquino and, recently, from Leo to his son Rex.

The vineyards and winery are a recent family acqu isition – the family’s first venture into winemaking. Rex trucks grapes from his 20-hectare vineyard to his own winemaker, John Hordern, at Simon Gilbert’s Mudgee winery.

Pull off the highway, step into the converted tram tasting room and sample Highland Heritage Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – the latter the best in the range, in my view.

And for something completely different and delightful, try ‘Mountain Flame’ – Highland Heritage’s irresistible fortified raspberry wine.

Or stock up on a punnet or two of fresh berries in season, or jams – all made from fruit grown on the property – all year round. Highland Heritage is open 9-3 weekdays and 9-5 on weekends.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2000 and 2015
First published 2000 in the Canberra Times