The quiet achiever

Although often overlooked and underpromoted, the Mudgee region produces some exciting drops.

Bunnamagoo is a microcosm of what is wrong with Mudgee. The 2009 Bunnamagoo chardonnay is delicious and costs just $22, but who has ever heard of it? It has a forgettable label and a silly-sounding name. The crazy thing is, the vineyard is owned by the Paspaley family, who sell pearls, as everyone knows. If they called it Paspaley chardonnay, buyers would be breaking down the door.

Mudgee suffers because it has never been promoted well. But things are changing. With the canny and experienced Oatley family - founders of Rosemount - investing in the area, Mudgee's profile is rising. And with some smart young winemakers - including Jacob Stein of Robert Stein wines; Liam Heslop, an assistant winemaker at Lowe Wines; Julia Conchie at di Lusso Estate; and the family-owned Logan Wines - there is a sense of new energy. It is a shame Michael Slater, who was doing great things at Thistle Hill and Erudgere, has left to work in the Riverina, but others are running with the Mudgee torch.

The region has been in the doldrums. Successive big wine companies, including Orlando and Southcorp, quit the region and the vineyard area has been slashed by 30 per cent. ''It's medicine we needed to take,'' the principal of Lowe Wines, David Lowe, says.

With the exception perhaps of Robert Oatley wines, the region has retracted to a cottage industry of niche marketers. Hence, their wines are seldom seen outside the region.

Lowe specialises in organic, low-preservative wines. Di Lusso Estate specialises in alternative grape varieties. There you will find vermentino; sangiovese; barbera; nebbiolo; lagrein; picolit, a dried-grape, vin santo-style sweet wine; and even greco di tufo, but no cabernet or chardonnay.

Di Lusso sells virtually everything it makes from the winery and its eccentric (but well-made) wines make the most sense when drunk with a meal in the winery cafe, or enoteca. The estate grows olives and figs, presses its own oil and dries its grapes on racks for passito-style (dried-grape) wines. It even grows crocuses and makes saffron.

Nothing eccentric or difficult seems to daunt the owners, South African-born former New York banker Rob Fairall and his partner, Luanne Hill. The 2010 sangiovese ($26) is pale and light. I imagine it being the perfect partner for house-cooked pizza.

The Oatley family, which recently bought back the substantial Cumbandry vineyard from Treasury Wine Estates, has big plans for its various brands (the biggest is Wild Oats). It sells more than 200,000 cases a year, with plans for many more. Its wines are sourced from many regions - almost half are in Western Australia - but it is committed to Mudgee. The 2010 Robert Oatley Craigmoor AC1 Chardonnay ($29) was among the most impressive wines I tasted on a recent Mudgee tour.

Robert Stein Winery is impressing with wines as diverse as riesling, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, botrytis semillon and the cabernet shiraz blend reviewed in Good Living (March 20). Winemaker Jacob Stein, 26, the founder's grandson, returned to the fold a couple of years ago after gaining experience in other countries and regions.

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Another niche style in Mudgee is wines made with low or no preservatives from organic or biodynamic grapes. Following the lead set by Botobolar Vineyard since its inception in the 1970s, when it was virtually the only such producer in Australia, there are now five certified organic vineyards in Mudgee and another four in conversion. Their total area is estimated at 140 hectares.

One of them is Lowe's vineyard, which is on a property that has been in his family for more than a century. It has been organic since 2003 and had made a preservative-free wine since 2009. Lowe's biggest-selling wine is Tinja preservative-free merlot shiraz (the 2011 is $20). ''They are incredibly difficult to make as sound wines,'' he says. But he shows me a 2009 as ''evidence that they don't fall over immediately''.

Eloquesta is the newest organic and low-preservative wine. The 2009 and 2010 are both soft, juicy and very slurpable blends of shiraz and petit verdot ($28 direct).

The most head-turning wine I tasted in Mudgee - partly because it was a new discovery - was Quilty Running Stitch Cabernet Sauvignon from micro-boutique Quilty Wines. The 2009 and 2010 vintages (both $28 at quiltywines.com.au) are made from grapes grown at De Beaurepaire's high-altitude vineyard in Rylstone, about 50 kilometres south-east of Mudgee. These wines are fleshy and clean with perfectly ripened fruit, and the tannins are velvet-soft. A pity there are about only 300 cases.

Mudgee is a great region to visit. It's a classic Australian country town in a rural setting; its main asset is natural beauty. With a grape crush of 15,000 tonnes, it makes about 1 per cent of Australia's production. However, only an estimated 20 per cent is bound for Mudgee-branded bottles. The rest goes to big companies such as Casella.

There are 13 operating wineries and 34 cellar doors. The area is three hours from Sydney by car or 50 minutes by air and has a number of cultural attractions, including international music and short-film festivals, not to mention great local produce. That's probably why they don't make much noise about their wine. They want to keep it a secret.

See visitmudgeeregion.com.au/mrti/what-to-do/wineries-cellar-doors.

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Tastings

MEADOWBANK VINTAGE LOST

Fire has destroyed the crop in one of Tasmania's most important vineyards, Meadowbank. The Ellis family vineyard, at Glenora in the upper Derwent Valley near Hobart, was engulfed by fire and 40 per cent of the 40-hectare vineyard was burnt out. Smoke taint has ruined the remainder. The rest of the large grazing property, covering 2500 hectares, was burnt out. Meadowbank has provided grapes for Eileen Hardy Chardonnay and Hardys' Arras sparkling wines over the years. Recently, former Hardys winemakers Peter Dawson and Tim James launched their own brand, Dawson and James, with 2010 vintage pinot noir and chardonnay from Meadowbank. They are committed to the single-vineyard concept so there will be no 2012 vintage. Their 2010 chardonnay ($42) is a magnificent wine of great fruit purity, and 12 per cent alcohol. See dawsonjames.com.au.

WINE MASTER AVERY DIES

John Avery, master of wine and chairman of the world-renowned wine retailer Averys of Bristol, England, has died, aged 70, from a heart attack. Avery was known and respected world-wide and was a highly regarded wine judge. He was the first to import Penfolds Grange and other Australian and New Zealand wines into England, after taking charge of the family business from his father in 1975. Avery's daughter, Mimi, now works for Averys, representing the fifth generation, although the company is no longer family-owned but part of Direct Wines.

RYAN LEAVING MCWILLIAM'S

Corey Ryan has resigned as group chief winemaker of family-owned McWilliam's Wines. Ryan, a highly talented winemaker with a global perspective, has also been responsible for Zeppelin and various other wines on the periphery of the McWilliam's stable. He has been with the company since 2008 and will leave mid-year to return to his native South Australia. He will be retained as a consultant.

TABLED FOR DISCUSSION

The Two Faces Restaurant Tuesday Table by John Hoehn (Hirsch Publishing, 2011) is a book from another era. This paperback recounts the wines and food devoured by a group of Melbourne gourmets, led by restaurateur Hermann Schneider, at their 87 weekly lunches in the 1960s and '70s. The wines were obscure even then, and the observations would have been best kept to those who uttered them. Indeed, I cannot imagine this being of interest to anybody other than the participants. As the late wine writer Mark Shield used to say: ''Wine lovers discussing the great bottles they've drunk is like locker-room bragging about sexual exploits: if you weren't there, it's really not that interesting.''

VINEYARD SLEEPOUT

The Tamburlaine chief executive sleepout at the Hunter Valley vineyard raised more than $12,000 for the homeless people of Newcastle. Twelve high-profile chief executives slept out and the money will go towards a new kitchen for Newcastle's Soul Cafe, which provides meals for the homeless.

This article The quiet achiever was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.
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