Mudgee, New South Wales, classic & cutting edge highlights

Not heard of Mudgee?  Though I had (it’s a wine region in New South Wales, Australia), I’d never tasted the wines.  So last month provided the opportunity.  I didn’t make it to Mudgee but David Lowe (Lowe Wines) and Tim Stevens (Huntington Estate, pictured) kindly met up with me in Sydney (265km away) to show me their wares, together with wines from Skimstone , Di Lusso,Montrose and Thistle Hill.

A continental style

Mudgee sounds cute and its aboriginal meaning, “nest in the hills,” is even cuter but these are far from cutesy wines.  The hills in question are the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range.  While the Hunter Valley on the eastern, coastal side has traditionally produced elegant, medium bodied “Hunter Burgundy” (a.k.a. Shiraz), Mudgee’s continental climate and well drained, leaner hillside soils forge wines of an altogether different hue.

Deep and inky in colour, the region’s stalwart reds, Cabernet and Shiraz, are characterised by a robust backbone of tannins, the product of sunny, dry days and cold nights – harvest is typically four weeks behind the Hunter. At 450m altitude, the wines also have an attractive juiciness, so they’re quite different from robust but more overtly fruity styles of Shiraz and Cabernet from South Australia too. In Mudgee, the emphasis seems to be more on structure than mid-palate generosity and, since I’m in go compare mode, for Cabernet, the tannins are sturdier, bony and less polished than say Coonawarra or Margaret River.

Small is beautiful

Mudgee lays claim to being one of the oldest towns in New South Wales and the birthplace of Australian Chardonnay, though its powerful reds account for 70% of production.  Originally dubbed white Pinot, Chardonnay has been grown continuously in Mudgee for 150 years.  Lowe tells me that the jury is out as to whether Mudgee or the Hunter Valley is the original source of Australian Chardonnay cuttings.  There are no Chardonnays for me to taste so I can steer clear of the Great Dividing Range’s varietal tug of war!

As for the present, a different battle is at the forefront of minds – economic sustainability, the rally cry of the Winemakers Federation of Australia of which Lowe is a board member.  For him, it’s a relief that the big players, who sourced fruit from the region, have been and gone leaving the winemaking to a solid rump of boutique producers (34 cellar doors and 12 wineries).  Vineyard plantings (currently 2,200ha) have reduced by 30% over the last two years, a fact of which Lowe is proud – “we’ve looked at prices and production costs and worked out where the weaknesses and strengths lie.  We have to concentrate on what we do well and do it economically – it’s not a race to bottom [of the market].” 

A natural advantage

Rather Lowe, among others, is proactively seeking means to add value to his range, which includes certified organic and preservative free reds.  It’s an upward trend in Mudgee, home of Australia’s first organically farmed vineyard (Thistle Hill).  He explains that Mudgee is naturally suited to working organically and making preservative free wines because it’s high country, blessed with clear, dry autumns, while its lean and mean, well drained soils produce small berried, tough skinned grapes.

Another area of innovation is focused around Italian varieties.  For Stevens, as organics reshaped Mudgee 30 years ago, Italian varieties look set to play a part in reshaping its future.  Those I tasted certainly showed promise – a good fit with Mudgee’s naturally structured style.

The wines

Lowe Wines Dry Riesling 2010 – Lowe is a Riesling fan and reckoned, if Clare Valley at the same latitude can do it, why not Mudgee given his Riesling vineyard’s higher altitude – very high for Mudgee at 1200m.  He’s discovered that it works well if with a more delicate frame than the Clare Valley. Heavily influenced by German Rieslings, the style is defined by its fruity acidity and Lowe hires German oenology students each vintage. This dry Riesling is delicate with a touch of bead and floral notes (elderflower) on nose and palate.  Still, from such an elevated vineyard, it maintains a tight line, galvanised by 11g/l of Total Acidity (2.5g/l pH and an undetectable 5g/l of residual sugar).  Good.

Lowe Wines Late Harvest Riesling 2004 – deep yellow and developing some lime butter, though it retains a sense of freshness/lightness with its floral, blossom quality and juicy, soft stone fruits. It handles its 21g/l of residual sugar well.  Good.

Lowe Wines Late Harvest Riesling  2010 – picked a month later than the 2010 Dry Riesling, it’s quite grapey, musky even, with floral elderflower notes.  Very primary/fruity with 45g/l residual sugar balanced by 9g/l Total Acidity.  Good if, I suspect, relatively forward.

Lowe Wines Tinja Preservative Free Merlot 2010 – Lowe’s reds (only) have been certified organic since 2005.  This innovative Preservative Free unoaked wine is Lowe’s biggest selling and most profitable wine.  Lowe confides it’s the hardest and scariest thing he’s done in 33 years!  Though the easiest way to make preservative free wines is to pasteurise it, Lowe says this reduces wine quality so, instead, he uses colour (by which I assume he meant polyphenols), alcohol and tannin as preservatives.  Ingredients in which Mudgee is naturally high. Deeply coloured, the wine smells of plum syrup/juice and blueberry.  In the mouth it’s very direct and fresh, plum juice-like, but with more oomph behind (alcohol of course, which is well balanced), with damsons for edge/balance.

Thistle Hill Shiraz 2010 – founded in 1975 and organically farmed from the outset, Thistle Hill was Australia’s first organic vineyard.  This wine is also preservative free and, once again, is deep in colour with an impressive depth of fruit and a whiff of black pepper on the nose.  In the mouth, it’s very peppery with juicy blackberries and attractive ripe but anchoring fruit tannins.  Guiless, attractive wine.

Montrose Black Shiraz 2009 – made from vines planted in the 60s, this inky coloured Shiraz with a dark and brooding flavour spectrum lives up to its name.  It shows pronounced liquorice and fruit spice to its plush plum core, a violet lift too, its tannins ripe but present.  Good. The winery is owned by Robert (Bob) Oatley, founder of Rosemount.

Lowe Wines Shiraz 2006 – an engaging, brighter style with jammy red fruits well balanced by juicy bramble, mulberry and plum and supported by chalky tannins.  Very Cotes du Rhone.  Well done.

Lowe Wines Reserve Zinfandel 2006 – Zinfandel is renowned for its uneven bunch ripening and this shows great typicity with some raisin on the nose and palate, but a sourness and savoury black olive/tapenade character too, supported by Mudgee’s firm tannins.  Aged in large format oak, which puts the emphasis on savoury, it’s an impressive but user friendly wine.  For Lowe, who has worked a couple of vintages at Ridge, he’s gone for a US style.  Only made in exceptional vintages, there was no 2007 or 2008.  2009 will be the next release.

Skimstone Sangiovese 2009 – aged in old oak for six months maximum this shows good typicity with sour cherry fruit edged with liquorice, dried herbs/tea leaf and present tannins.  Lacks a bit in depth (arguably down to vine age), but a really good effort which would work well with salumi.

Di Lusso Barbera 2009 – though it’s not got the varietal typicity of the Zinfandel or Sangiovese, it has no shortage of intensity or character.  Deep in colour with quite buttoned up fruit, it’s the polar opposite of the Sangiovese with brooding dark chocolate, kahlua and liquorice with hints of mint, dried herbs and sasparilla.  An impressive mouthful, perhaps better by the glass than by the bottle though, to be fair, it has yet to be released.

Huntington Estate Shiraz Special Reserve 2006 – typically released at 5 years of age, when its tannins have mellowed (assisted by 24 months in oak), this wine is famous for its ageworthiness.  The 2006 (a riper vintage) shows a hint of jamminess but it has Mudgee’s deep inky colour and dark flavour spectrum, with liquorice and medicinal notes surrounding a juicy, brambly core.  The oak (100% new, 2/3 American/1/3 French) is more obvious compared with the wines previously tasted, but then this wine is designed to be drunk at 10-15 years of age so there’s plenty of time for it to integrate yet.  A good example of a robust, quite traditional style.

Huntington Estate Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006  – once again, longevity is the aim and, for Stevens, Mudgee Cabernet is more Bordeaux in style. This wine stays on skins for 3-4 weeks and is typically picked at around 13 baume (and ripens pretty much every year).  It’s then aged in 100% French oak, with a significant amount of new wood which is seemingly readily mopped up by its concentrated cassis and juicy blackcurrant fruit.  Nonetheless, this (pre-release) Cabernet is very tight knit and sinewy, with subtle savoury black olive on the finish.  Very good.  A stern, powerfully structured wine, which will appeal to more traditional drinkers.

Huntington Estate Block 3 Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 – Block 3, a very low yielding (1t/acre) parcel, is located at the vineyard’s highest point on old, lean, clay soils.  The first Block 3 Cabernet was made in 2004.  A dark, glinting (polished) nose signals that this is a concentrated, tightly furled wine with classy oak.  In the mouth it has a deep seam of ripe blackberry, mulberry and cassis fruit.  Mudgee’s continental climate is marked by a juiciness and firm but ripe backbone of tannins. Powerful and a tad more approachable than the Special Reserve with warm earth on the finish.  Very good.

Huntington Estate Tim Stevens Signature Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 – Stevens describes this as more Australian in style.  It’s certainly more exuberant – a fleshier style of Cabernet, with greater generosity of mulberry and juicy blackberry fruit supported by firm but ripe tannins. A lingering slightly warm finish shows a lick of liquorice.  Very good.

Visting Mudgee

Incidentally Huntingdon Estate is also famous for its annual chamber music festival, whose content is devised by its aptly named Artistic Director, Carl Vine.  You can find out more about visiting Mudgee and download a guide to its wineries and September wine festival on the Mudgee Wine Grape Growers Association website here.

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