In a good year Australia crushes about two million tonnes of grapes, equivalent to about 150 million dozen bottles of wine. About one quarter of that comes from New South Wales, second in volume to our undisputed winemaking monarch, South Australia on fifty per cent.
Scratch below the surface of these big figures and we find, beyond the cask wines and daily quaffers, an increasingly rich palette of flavours emerging from the hottest plains to the chilliest peaks across New South Wales.
Vines now speckle the endless wrinkles and folds of the Great Divide from Queensland to Victoria and sprawl in broad acre plantings along the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers.
The latter, known officially as the ‘Big Rivers’ zone, accounts for more than 70 per cent of New South Wales’ wine production. While much of the wine from these areas is homogenous, destined for wine casks and cheaper bottled products, there are pockets of specialisation.
Take, for example, the luscious dessert wines of the Riverina district. Back in the eighties the de Bortoli family showed that semillon, the region’s then most widely planted white wine variety, need not make ordinary wine. De Bortoli Noble One, now Australia’s best known sticky, was born of imagination and the propensity of the area’s warm, humid sites to produce suitable grapes.
irtually every Riverina grower now makes a semillon in the Noble One mould – a style that goes so well with desserts, patés, and ripe old blue-vein cheeses.
Along the Great Dividing Range style variations can be remarkable – sometimes over tiny distances, thanks to dramatic variations in altitude. Warm Cowra, at about 200 metres makes fat, soft peachy, drink-now chardonnays; an hour’s drive north at 900 metres chilly Orange makes an altogether, leaner, slow evolving, more interesting style.
The former can be quaffed happily with any casual meal; the latter deserves the very finest seafood and your undivided attention.
The lower Hunter, of course, one of Australia’s oldest wine making regions, specialises in low-alcohol, delicate, long-lived semillons and elegant, earthy shiraz but, like most regions, produces a wide range of wines with notable success, too, in chardonnay and verdelho.
In our very own Canberra district (most of it within New South Wales, despite the name), shows the dramatic impact of altitude-related climate variation. Warmer sites between 550 and 650 metres around Hall and Murrumbateman make wonderfully elegant, refined shiraz — a great match for rare spring lamb, veal or turkey. And the shiraz performance has worked to higher altitudes in recent years and now includes Mount Majura, Wamboin and Lake George foreshore.
The cooler sites at over 800 metres up on the Lake George Escarpment, above Bungendore, make fine chardonnay and, occasionally, pinot noir – fine pairings for Atlantic salmon and duck, respectively.
Throughout the Canberra region, in comparatively warm Hall and Murrumbateman, up on the cool, high escarpment and along Lake George foreshore, at 700 metres, riesling performs well, albeit in a number of dry styles — all suited to a range of seafoods, depending on body and richness.
Canberra’s southern neighbour, Tumbarumba, in the cool lee of the Snowy Mountains, produces superb, delicate pinot noir and chardonnay for top Australian sparkling wines – delicate, appetisers to serve with finger food. Tumbarumba also contributes to some of our very best elegant, intense and expensive chardonnays. Like those from Orange, these gems can be savoured with the finest seafood.
Farther to the north, Mudgee (meaning ‘nest in the hills’) mixes the broad acre plantings of the last decade with the smaller plots of boutique makers. Though its winemaking story stretches back to 1858, its explosive growth is largely a story of the wine boom of the nineties.
Mudgee makes sturdy but not heavy reds, noted for their high tannin content and the longevity and ultimate grace of the very best. Shiraz and cabernet sauvignon are the main varieties – the latter working well with the local lamb and beef and former being a treat with rich pasta dishes.
Thanks to Italian immigrants Carlo Salteri and Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, Mudgee is also home to mature plantings of the Italian red varieties sangiovese, barbera and nebbiolo.
The first two work well in the area and though they’ve disappeared from sight in recent years, they’re about to reappear under the new ownership of Bob Oatley. The medium bodied, savoury sangiovese works well with savoury foods, including pizza; while the dazzling summer-berry exuberance of barbera loves pasta, salads and a good laugh.
And all of this is only part of what New South Wales wines have to offer. Vineyards have sprung up, as well, on the south coast, in the southern highlands, around Gundagai and on the New England highlands from Tamworth through to the Queensland border.
Every vineyard is a flavour and a story in itself and there are food styles aplenty to go with them.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007