Mudgee wine — whatever it is, Bob Oatley’s taking it to the world

The wine regions that stick in our minds are those with a specialty. Think of the Barossa and shiraz, Clare Valley and riesling, Coonawarra and cabernet sauvignon, Marlborough and sauvignon blanc, Burgundy and pinot noir and chardonnay or Champagne with its incomparable pinot-chardonnay bubbly blends. The list is long.

But when I judged at the Mudgee regional show a few years back, and again on a recent visit to the region, I found a diversity of styles but not one that I’d identify with the region. So, what is Mudgee wine? Does it have a specialty?

You sometimes still hear of ‘Mudgee mud’, a tag coined for a local beer during post world war two rationing. Somehow, undeservedly, the name attached itself to the area’s distinctly un-mud-like wines.

One interpretation of the Mudgee name, ‘nest in the hills’, captures the feeling of this elevated, mountain-ringed area on the Cudgegong River. Its mild growing season tends to produce good grape yields and medium bodied wines.

From Craigmoor’s founding in 1858 until the late eighties, the regional reputation grew from the efforts of small to medium makers like Craigmoor, Hill of Gold, Huntington Estate, Miramar and Montrose.

But the benign climate, availability of water from the Cudgegong and proximity to the Hunter region attracted a new wave of investors during the nineties. Small maker numbers increased, but these were dwarfed by broad acre plantings driven by the mid to late nineties grape shortages.

In this period, Goree Park, famous for its Mudgee horse stud, the Paspaley pearling family, Hunter-based Rosemount Estate and others, established very large vineyards. With the exception of Rosemount, which had planted to meet demand for its own brand, much of the new production went to large companies, notably Southcorp and Orlando-Wyndham.

For a period, then, Mudgee performed much the same function, albeit on a smaller scale, as South Australia’s Langhorne Creek – as a source of significant volumes of grapes for middle priced wines.

Mudgee’s wine identity continued to be carved largely by small makers, with some exceptions – notably Orlando’s Montrose, Poet’s Corner and Craigmoor brands and Rosemount’s Mountain Blue, a top-shelf red made from very old vines.

But for all of the good wines made from the seventies onwards only a few seemed memorable. Bob Roberts made some terrific reds at Huntington Estate and Carlo Corino and then Robert Paul at Montrose showed that the Italian varieties, sangiovese and barbera, had potential.

Then judging at the 2003 Mudgee a regional show a couple of impressively fresh, older chardonnays, including Miramar 1984, sparked memories – of a delicious Carl Corino Montrose Chardonnay tasted on my first visit there in 1979, some lovely early eighties Craigmoor chardonnays and the superb Montrose Stony Creek Chardonnay. Could this, perhaps be Mudgee’s specialty?

I had the question in mind on a visit to Mudgee three weeks ago. Just as it had been back in 1979, Montrose was the first stop. In the late seventies it was shiny new and impressive – having been founded by two Italians, Carlo Salteri and Franco Belgiorno-Nettis in 1974.

About twenty years later, ownership passed to Orlando-Wyndham. Then, in December 2006, the Oatley family (founders of Rosemount Estate, by now a Foster’s brand) purchased Orlando’s Mudgee interests.

The purchase included the Poet’s Corner Winery (now back to its original name, Montrose), the historic Craigmoor cellars (founded 1858) and an impressive suite of vineyards, including a lovely plot of Italian varieties planted on Montrose’s Stony Creek Vineyard by Carlo Corino in the 1970s.

As well, the Oatley’s maintained ownership of the Mudgee vineyards originally planted for Rosemount – although the plum Mountain Blue Vineyard remains with Foster’s, presumably to feed Rosemount Mount Blue red.

The Oatleys recruited James Manners as winemaker and pretty smartly planned a roll out of its Wild Oats, Robert Oatley, Montrose and Craigmoor brands.

Like the Rosemount brand before it, the new venture will rely on driving volume with its multi-regional value range – in this case the Wild Oats label. These are already in the market and moving well.

But the Mudgee regional focus is going to be important, too, James Manners told me. All of the chardonnays have been from Mudgee from day one, most of the flagship Robert Oatley wines will come from Mudgee and all of the Montrose and Craigmoor wines be regional.

He’s not sure why chardonnay does so well in the region. Judged on climate alone – mild rather than cool or cold – you’d expect tasty, early maturing styles. Instead, and especially from the slightly higher, cooler Stony Creek vineyard, the chardonnays tend to be fine, complex and extraordinarily long lived – like the Miramar 1984 that won a trophy at the 2003 show.

The sangiovese and barbera planting at Stony Creek are to be extended – vindicating Carlo Corino’s judgment back in the seventies. The 2006s, now in tank, look terrific and will be released under the Montrose label next year.

But there’s work to be done on the cabernets and shirazes. Both grow well in the area but the flavours tend to fade quickly as very firm tannins take over on the palate. James believes that the solution lies partly in vineyard practice – modifying vine canopies to encourage equal ripening of tannins and fruit flavours – and partly in winemaking.

For Mudgee, the arrival of the Oatleys is nothing but good news. These guys are proven performers. They made Rosemount a household word in the US. And they have the drive, ability and resources to take Mudgee to the world. Finally, the word from Chris Hancock, Bob Oatley’s right hand man, is that the US market loves the name Mudgee and see it as pure Aussie.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007