LIFE’S LITTLE ESSENTIALS
Judith Elen finds the core of good living among Mudgee’s vines and olive groves
IMAGINE the perfect picnic. A jug of wine, a book of verse, perhaps . . . or better still, a green valley, a palette of good wines, olives, fragrant oil and rich local cheeses. I’m in Mudgee, about four hours’ drive northwest of Sydney, where farmers still come to town with dogs riding in the backs of their utes. There has been rain and green tinges the countryside. Vast flocks of sheep congregate on the freshest pastures, and grapevines in regimented rows, stitching the patchwork together, edge the roadside and lead off in every direction.
Value-adding to its traditional lamb, the Mudgee region is increasingly training its eye on wine and oil: the holy trinity (grape, olive, grain) minus the grain. There are about 40 cellar doors here. I visit six and each has its fascinating twist. In two days of tastings, interspersed with rustic food of the best kind, every turn offers something new.
Di Lusso Estate (on Eurunderee Lane) is part of the region’s Italian grape-growing heritage. Australia’s first aleatico wine was made in the 1920s at Augustine Winery next door by Italian-born doctor Thomas Fiaschi; nearby Montrose Wines was growing sangiovese and barbera grapes in the ’ 80s.
Di Lusso focuses on Italian grape varietals for mostly Tuscan-climate wines, 2ha of corregiola and frantoio olives, and figs. There’s a wood-fired pizza oven and a cellar door looking out on to a bocce court; every year di Lusso runs its own palio in honour of Siena’s famous race, but with goats.
We taste a pinot grigio, then a vermentino that ‘‘ dances on the tongue’’ with its initial acidity, winemaker Julia Page says. My favourite is the di Lusso picolit, a botrytisinfluenced dessert wine with aromas of citrus and pear, made from picolit grapes that originate in Fruili in Italy’s northeast. They are very difficult to harvest, Page says, and small amounts are grown only in that other enclave of Italian varietals, Victoria’s northeastern valleys.
Di Lusso wines are distributed in Western Australia and Victoria, but the cellar door is the main outlet. Because they are more savoury than the French varieties most people are used to, Page says cellar door and restaurant buying is best, where wines can be ‘‘ talked about with the growers or a good sommelier’’. The wines come in stylish black bottles with the gold silhouette of a tree shedding autumn foliage on one side, bearing heavy fruit on the other and reaching towards the sun at its zenith; it embodies the seasonal concentration of Mudgee’s food and wine.
A different heritage, stretching back to The Netherlands, animates Pieter van Gent (141 Black Springs Rd). A deep-rooted appreciation of what matters in life — quality, aesthetics, innovation — is here in the elegant wines, as well as the very European cellar door, with its intriguing barrel room and cellar bar furnished with church pews and towering 1920s barrels that look as though they could be fashioned into travellers’ caravans.
There’s a sunny, vine-shaded and paved terrace, where we gather around a table to savour three carefully chosen amuse-bouche , each a complement to the three wines we taste. (The food has been prepared at Scott Tracey’s Wineglass restaurant in town, where we eat later, another find.)
We wander into the atmospheric cellar where winemaker Philip van Gent tells us about his grandfather in Schiedam, a river port west of Rotterdam, and the exotically stamped sacks of spices that lay in his attic. It’s a memory that has influenced some of van Gent’s experiments with wine styles in smallproduction specialities such as his mistella. One of my favourites among the wines we taste, the mistella comes in tall, slender 375ml bottles, as discreetly elegant as the ancient drink itself: grape juice fortified with old brandy spirit, the colour of pale honey and with the smell of almonds.
When I visit Blacklea (at Alexander Road, off Hill End Road; phone 02 6373 3366), it is only the 10th weekend it has been open. Owner-winemakers Bernard and Gai Blackley are also experimenters: with a pinot noirshiraz blend, for example, and with infused oils and condiments such as a home-grown beetroot relish.
These are offered with tastings at the cellar door and should eventually find their way into bottles for sale. Bernard wants to keep everything at the cellar door, he tells us, while he perfects and establishes his range. He began nearly four years ago with 4kg of fruit from his 360 olive trees (leccino and picholine varieties), and has just harvested 600kg.
For his infused oils, to avoid heating the olive oil and so destroying its essential elements, he heats the chilli or herbs with canola oil and then blends the flavoured canola with extra virgin olive oil. Bernard’s son, a Sydney chef who has worked with David Thompson, lends an occasional hand. Not yet a retail item, the chef’s fabulous roasted whole garlic-infused oil is well worth waiting for. But the parmesan-infused oil is also very good and is on sale.
Elliot Rocke (at Craigmoor Road) is the only producer of ice wine in this region, part of a wide and excellent range. Elliot Rocke runs a stylish cellar door and has a wine club that gives excellent value and special offers to members only. It’s here that Mudgee’s annual outdoor festival of short films, Mudfest (March 15 in 2008), is attracting a growing audience, from about 40 to 900 in three or four years.
And, my final vineyard visit, Robert Stein (Pipeclay Lane) produces a wide range of lovely wines, on offer at an intimate, homey cellar door that adds great charm to a tasting visit. The range includes a blood-red sparkling shiraz, an unusual semillon-riesling blend, and a stunning gewurztraminer, a variety so often underappreciated, but theirs is redolent of Alsace. Andrew ‘‘ Drew’’ Stein later brings a cleanskin gewurztraminer from the justbottled new harvest, to dinner at Wineglass (see box). It smells and tastes of rose petals, an elusive, seductive hint of Turkish lokum. I’m sending an order when I get back to Sydney.
This cellar door also has a rare collection of vintage motorcycles, models from the 1920s through to the ’ 70s, in a special annexe.
Olive groves complement vines in an ageold symmetry and many of the vineyards here also grow olives. The top of the tree is Lakelands, a dedicated olive grower whose groves are organic and biodynamic. Its oils can be tasted in town, but a visit to the estate is the complete experience. High on a cool-climate rise at Clandulla, just out of Mudgee, the purpose-built processing plant is fronted by an apron of herb garden, its grey-green foliage leading into the silvery olive trees that sweep away across the slopes. There’s a dam with black swans on it in a valley, beyond a log and canvas pavilion that is crying out for long evenings of toasting and dancing.
Lakelands processes table olives, marinating them with biodynamic herbs (they’re crisper than I like, but it’s a matter of taste). The tiny, marinated jet-black, sun-dried olives are sweet and intensely flavoured and worth the almost equal balance of pit and flesh. But the oils take most of the harvest. When I visit, there is a seasonal, unfiltered oil, a frantoio, and a premium blend. They are superb oils.
Here, too, there are infused oils. Lakelands makes them by blending the primary product (mandarin peel, basil leaves) with extra virgin olive oil. The basil crush is especially stunning.
At High Valley Wine & Cheese Co (137 Cassilis Rd), my sixth cellar door, Ro and Grosvenor Francis run a cafe showcasing their wines and cheeses (especially the luxuriant fettas, marinated in olive oil with black olives, pesto, tomato and chilli) and other produce of the region. There is a good antipasto-style menu, with soups and more, warming stoves and produce to stock up on afterwards.
The cheese company is between cheesemakers at the moment, following a move, so my advice is to snap up all the cheese you can get your hands on in the hiatus.
Meanwhile, in an alluring sidestep from Mudgee’s concentration on wine, coalminer Gary Leonard and former information technology man Peter Shiels have begun brewing boutique beers in a peeling brick building (at 4 Church St) opposite the town’s atmospheric Regent Cinema. They have 8000 litres of pale ale, porter, and a European-style wheat beer all ready to go to local restaurants and retail outlets. These three staples of the Mudgee Brewing Company will be supplemented by a seasonal beer (autumn is ready: an Americanstyle pale ale with floral and citrus aromas).
I’m in on the ground floor, so to speak. One of the best parts of the plan is the boutique beer bar Mudgee Brewing hopes to open in this old wool store lined with stainless steel and copper vats shipped in from the US.
And the ground floor here is of colonial brick (only visible in patches through the broken concrete), as are the worn walls with their heavy wooden warehouse doors. There is already a corrugated-iron counter stretching the length of the room and framing the vats, from whence occasional deep gurgles show the beer is fermenting away happily. Once the paperwork is done, this will not just be the only micro-brewery in town, but a beer cafe with the beer brewed on the premises.
A knowledgeable local I chat with later says we have chosen our visits well. But there is so much more. Huntingdon is here (with its vineyard chamber concerts), Botobolar (Australia’s oldest organic vineyard) and Oatley (where, a Spanish contact in Sydney tells me, the olive oils ‘‘ are not far from the renowned oils from Spain’’).
A jug of wine, a loaf and a flask of oil with a beer chaser. What more could anyone want? Judith Elen was a guest of Marvellous Mudgee www.visitmudgeeregion.com.au www.dilusso.com.au www.pvgwinery.com.au www.robertstein.com.au www.elliotrockeestate.com.au www.highvalley.com.au www.lakelands-olives.com.au www.mudgeebrewing
Region of plenty: Clockwise from top, a lush panorama of vines and hills; Mudgee grapes; the unusual barrel room at Pieter van Gent winery; a private veranda at Kurrara Cottages Retreat