Judith Elen gets a taste for the high life on the fertile slopes of NSW’s Great Dividing Range
IN its own small way, the central western NSW town of Orange, 3 hours’ drive west of Sydney, is a bit like those solid little globes used in models of the solar system to show the centre around which everything revolves. Orange is the thriving focus of its region and increasingly a destination food-loving weekenders head to from Sydney and elsewhere.
Not so long ago, some ended up in Orange almost by accident. Winemaker Philip Shaw, on the lookout for a vineyard site in the late 1980s, was flying over in a light plane when engine problems developed. While the pilot searched for somewhere to land, Shaw was scanning the landscape, knowing he’d found what he’d been seeking. Of course, he’d done his homework. Traditionally a region of fruit orchards, the first commercial vineyards were planted here in the 1980s; the pioneering Bloodwood opened in 1983.
When I visit, the grapes are in for this year and the vineyards seem a universe away from the lush wine region I visited a couple of weeks earlier in New Zealand’s Marlborough. Here, everything is brown: autumnal vines, the dry, bleached grass, the dirt roads; Mt Canobolas looms on the horizon, a hazy guardian of the land. This is unmistakeably country Australia.
Orange’s wine region is elevated; vines are grown as high as 1100m. It’s cool in the evenings but daylight’s strong ultraviolet rays generate intense colour in the grapes and, so, intense flavour. The soils are right: limestone, terra rossa (as in South Australia’s Limestone Coast) and shale. Most rain falls in winter and spring, so the ripening months (February, March, April) are the driest. A big point about Orange wines, Shaw says, is their natural acidity; because of the cold nights, very little artificial (chemical) adjustment is needed.
Shaw’s plane problems were resolved without disaster and he bought land here in 1988, setting up Koomooloo Vineyard and planting in 1989; his Philip Shaw label wines are widely praised and awarded.
Perhaps one of the best-known blow-ins is chef Michael Manners. Manners had been using Orange produce since the 70s, at his then mountain retreat, the celebrated Glenella, in Blackheath. When he eventually moved further inland, it must have seemed natural to follow his nose to the source.
Manners’s restaurant Selkirks opened in 1997; he moved on from there last year and Selkirks continues under chef Euan Macpherson, who maintains the restaurant’s focus on the wines and produce of the district.
Manners’s new business, meanwhile, also continues in the cause of the region, creating restaurant-quality ready-meals (takeaway is hardly the word for what Manners does). Typically for Orange’s tendency for understatement, Manners & Borg is in the meandering car park behind a supermarket; here, in partnership with Orange butcher Michael Borg, Manners offers his prepared meals, artisan charcuterie and gourmet sausages.
To focus on these pioneers, however, is to single out high profiles in a background dense with good food and wine. I set out to explore and sample some of the bounty that has put Orange at the centre of its humming little universe. Always a good place to start, the farmers market here is on the second Saturday of the month, and I’ve timed my visit carefully. It’s autumn, and apples are everywhere: trestle tables are piled high. Borry Gartrell, from Borrodell on the Mount 12km away, sells heritage apples with names rarely seen in the city: Cox’s orange pippin, Egremont russet, Dr Hogg cookers, Winesaps.
I have not visited, but Borrodell on the Mount has a reputation. The orchard contains 170 heirloom varieties, including the Codlin, which Shakespeare mentions and Gartrell believes is the oldest named apple. There are 400 heritage plums, some with a single tree but all offered in season at the market. A vineyard with a cellar door, accommodation and Sister’s Rock restaurant have been added.
I can’t resist a rare apple and ask for one of each. That won’t be enough, Gartrell says, loading apples into a large paper bag. He charges me $5 and tells me if people visiting the cellar door buy a decent amount of wine’’ he throws in a bag of apples.
At other stalls, quinces, potatoes (including the purple-skinned royal blue with its buttery yellow flesh), pumpkins and other earthy autumnal crops are arranged in crates, boxes, sacks and on top of flowered tablecloths. There are fresh hazelnuts and dukkah, chestnuts, old-fashioned preserves, all manner of organic produce and lime juice cordial.
Having shopped, it’s time to call on a grower and I head for Warren Bradley’s Norland Fig Orchard at Borenore, 16km from Orange. It’s coming to the end of the season but the trees are scattered with plump fruit. There are 800 trees, mainly White Adriatic, Brown Turkey and Black Genoa: such evocative names. There’s a rustic shop out front; visit between January and April (8am-6pm) to buy fresh fruit and, out of season, for frozen figs; there’s also an array of orchard goodies such as jams, fig ice cream and pies.
Bradley and his wife Annette invite me to pick some fruit. They give me a tip: figs with dry-looking fissures, as if scored by a fingernail, have most sugar and make great eating.
Moving on, I visit Cumulus Wines, where winemaker Shaw, of forced landing fame, and Jeffrey Wilkinson (as chief executive) produce a range of red and white wines under the quirkily elegant Rolling and Climbing labels. Rolling wines are produced from 10 grape varieties grown on undulating hills, below 600m and close to the Orange township. Wilkinson tells me they have strong fruit and brightness, while the Climbing wines, those from the high-altitude section of the group’s 508ha of vines, are more complex, with a longer finish. Wilkinson shows me around the Climbing vineyard, which produces reds and whites, with a rose launching this year. He loves the shiraz; it’s rich, peppery and spicy here, he says, and not like the same wines of the Barossa or Hunter.
Shiraz and cabernet are the big wines for Cumulus. And Wilkinson says 2008 is a great year for merlot in Orange, so there’s a tip. It’s a perfect growing season for merlot vines, which have shallow roots and need moisture in the soil and rains at just the right time. The 2006 Climbing Merlot, awarded champion merlot trophy at the 2007 National Cool Climate Wine Show, has just been released.
At 600m, we gaze across the land to Mt Canobolas. Here at the edges of the Great Dividing Range, there are usually a few little cumulus clouds even on the sunniest day. Judith Elen was a guest of Cumulus Wines. www.visitorange.com.au www.philipshaw.com.au www.rollingwines.com.au www.climbingwines.com.au www.winesoforange.com.au www.orangefarmersmarket.org.au www.borrodell.com.au
High and dry: Orange district vines, left; heritage apples, top right, and local potatoes, bottom right, at Orange farmers market