LIFE’S LIT­TLE ES­SEN­TIALS

Ju­dith Elen finds the core of good liv­ing among Mudgee’s vines and olive groves

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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

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