Hot, flat, dry. Big, robust, tannic red wines. These are, according to some of the region’s locals, the ultimate misconceptions about Mudgee. And what misconceptions they are. Home to around 10,000 people, the township of Mudgee is bounded by the rolling, rugged hills of the Cudgegong River Valley (Mudgee or ‘moothi’ is a Wiradjuri term for ‘nest in the hills’) and, as a wine region, is one of the few in Australia that has managed to retain its country town atmosphere and resist over-commercialisation. It is a truly charming place to visit.
Thanks in part to its wine and farming industries, Mudgee is an affluent little town but, it is the local mining industry that has overwhelmingly helped account for much of the region’s prosperity since at least the early 20th century.
The first vines were established in the 1840s, not long after it was first settled by Europeans, but Australia’s preference for fortified wines during the first half of the 20th century rendered Mudgee’s wine industry static until the 1960s. Between then and the late 1990s the region was indeed famous for its bold, full-bodied reds – cabernet sauvignon especially – as well as excellent chardonnay and riesling, but in 2018 there appears to be no real champion variety. Why?
Well, Mudgee is one of those special regions whose diverse microclimates and soils, from the deep, volcanic grounds of the lofty (1,100 metres) Nullo Mountain to the rich red loam of Ulan Road, are suited to growing just about anything. Indeed, there may be debate between winemakers about which grape the region should hang its hat on (riesling is a solid contender; Mudgee sits on a latitude similar to that of the Clare Valley with slightly higher altitude), but the prevailing consensus is that Mudgee should perhaps instead be known for its incredible vinous diversity. “There is no hero in Mudgee,” reinforces First Ridge proprietor and viticulturist Colin Millott. “We do everything well here.” From crisp, crunchy riesling, vermentino and semillon to varietal, stone-fruited chardonnay, and from savoury, medium-bodied shiraz, sangiovese, grenache, merlot and barbera to broad, cellar-worthy cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, it’s hard to argue the logic.
Mudgee experiences cold winters and a long, relatively cool ripening period – vintage often starts close to a month later than the Hunter Valley – but its broad variation in diurnal temperature throughout the year means it’s not quite suited to growing elegant pinot noir. The variety has a strong presence in the cellar doors though with producers typically sourcing pinot from the cooler, slightly higher Orange region, 150 kilometres to the south.
Mudgee is a three-and-a-half-hour drive north-west of Sydney. You can fly – there are two regional flights from Sydney each day – but driving is highly recommended, if not for the scenery through the Blue Mountains, then certainly for the boot space. To truly calibrate your bearings and appreciate the ‘nest in the hills’ reference, book an aerial tour of the region with Mudgee Helicopters (mudgeehelicopters.com.au), either in the form of an hour-long joy flight or a half- or full-day cellar door tour.
Self-contained houses and apartments, as well as cosy B & Bs, are the way to go when staying in Mudgee. A number of wineries offer on-site accommodation, one of the best of which is Burnbrae’s Winemaker’s Cottage (burnbraewines.com.au/burnbrae-accommodation), a rustic two-bedroom house set among the shiraz vines, complete with open fireplace, complimentary breakfast and bottle of sparkling wine. For something a little closer to the town’s many pubs, restaurants and cafés, check out The Tannery (thetannerymudgee.com.au), a fully-equipped 19th-century cottage in the middle of town. If colonial rusticity isn’t your cup of tea, look no further than the four-star Perry Street Hotel (perrystreethotel.com.au), whose prime location and relaxed, modern vibe will no doubt be a welcome sight at the end of a long drive.
Chances are you’ll approach Mudgee from the south-east on your way from Sydney. If that’s the case, the modern Logan (loganwines.com.au) will be the first cellar door on your left as you coast along the quaintly named Apple Tree Flat. One of the region’s newer producers (it was established in the late 90s), founder Peter Logan produces wines from Mudgee as well as nearby Orange, providing punters with decent insight into the regional differences – perhaps best highlighted by the Ridge of Tears series of shiraz. Riesling, tempranillo and one of NSW’s most pristine sauvignon blancs are also highlights here, as well as Clementine, an amber-hued, textural skin contact pinot gris. “The purpose behind Clementine was not to make an esoteric orange wine,” says Logan. “Rather, I just wanted to make pinot gris more interesting and to show its pretty side.”
Turn left onto the Castlereagh Highway and within a few minutes you’ll find Mudgee’s premier producer of Italian varieties: First Ridge (firstridge.com.au). While the First Ridge label and architecturally designed, shipping container cellar door are both relatively new (the latter was opened in 2017), owner Colin Millott has been tending to these vines since he planted them in 2003. Originally based at Coriole in McLaren Vale, Millott arrived in 1995 as a viticulturist for Southcorp; vines remain Millott’s passion today: “I’m a viticulturist by choice,” he quips, “and a pretty reluctant wine purveyor.” Still, he loves his wine dearly, and with talented winemaker James Manners, is producing some of the country’s best quality vermentino, fiano, sangiovese and barbera. With sweeping views across the vineyard and the Cudgegong River, pull up a chair with a glass of the lip-smackingly moreish 2016 Enzo, a blend of sangiovese, shiraz and merlot, and bask in the uplifting golden light of the valley.
Jump back in the car and head towards town before making a hard right at Rocky Waterhole Road. Moothi Estate (moothiestate.com.au) is your destination, whose newly renovated cellar door on the slopes of Mount Frome offers First Ridge serious competition in the panoramic vista stakes. Moothi was established by the Moore family in 1995, initially producing cabernet and shiraz, however the focus since then has shifted slightly towards whites, in particular riesling, viognier, semillon and pinot grigio. Two 2016 reds are currently available – a velvety shiraz and a mid-weight, savoury merlot – with more on the way, according to owner Jess Chrcek (née Moore).
Head back to the Castlereagh Highway and stop in at Burrundulla (burrundulla.com.au), the final cellar door before reaching town and one of Mudgee’s most historic properties. It was established in the early 1820s by the Cox family, whose patriarch William built the first road across the Blue Mountains under order of Governor Macquarie half a decade prior. The first vines were planted in the 1840s and it remains under ownership of the Cox family today. Mudgee chardonnay is a special thing and it’s easy to see why here: fresh and well-balanced with a decent amount of complexity, the 2016 is a steal at $25. The 2017 Tempranillo and 2015 Sangiovese, as well as both the 2015 Shiraz and Cabernet, are equally worth a look-in, as is Burrundulla’s specialty: dry, savoury rosé.
Head to your accommodation to refresh before a pre-dinner ale at one of the town’s many great pubs. The Oriental Hotel (orientalhotel.com.au) and the Lawson Park Hotel (lawsonparkhotel.com.au) are both good options, or for a uniquely local experience sample one of the many craft brews at Mudgee Brewing Company (mudgeebrewing.com.au) before settling in for a top-notch dinner at Pipeclay Pumphouse (pipeclaypumphouse.com.au) overlooking the dam and surrounding vines at Robert Stein Winery. Tables fill up quickly, so be sure to book in advance.
After fuelling up on breakfast with in-house roasted coffee at the Butcher Shop Café (49 Church St, (02) 6372 7373), it’s time to get to Vinifera (viniferawines.com.au). Proprietors Tony and Debbie McKendry maintain a focus on organically-grown Spanish varieties, with tempranillo and graciano at the fore, as well as cabernet, chardonnay and semillon, all of which are worth a look – especially the 2016 Gran Tinto, a dark, robust blend of shiraz, garnacha (grenache) and tempranillo.
A ten-minute drive north will bring you to the cellar door of Bunnamagoo (bunnamagoowines.com.au). Owned by the Paspaley family (of pearling fame), the cellar door overlooks Pipeclay Creek and is a tranquil place to experience a relaxed tasting. The talented Rob Black is the winemaker here, who despite being from Orange is a staunch supporter of Mudgee’s capabilities as a world-class wine region. “We know what we do well and don’t unnecessarily try to push that,” he says. The range here is significant; give yourself time to try everything from the 2013 Sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay to the 2013 Cabernet Shiraz Merlot, as well as the luscious 2016 Autumn Semillon.
Head back south to Mudgee’s oldest winery, Craigmoor Pavilion, now the home of the Robert Oatley cellar door ((02) 6372 2208). They may have seen their fair share of corporate success, but that hasn’t diminished the Oatley family’s respect for this place; they have done a stellar job maintaining the heritage of both the site and the Montrose and Craigmoor labels. Outstanding value is offered across all ranges, including Wild Oats and Robert Oatley, but be sure to check out the 2016 Montrose Black Shiraz for a textbook example of Mudgee shiraz.
David Lowe of Lowe Wines (lowewine.com.au) is a beacon for the Mudgee region and one of Australian wine’s most well-respected figures. His dedication to progressive and innovative viticulture and winemaking is legendary, with organics, biodynamics and minimal preservative use all top of mind (the Beaujolais-inspired 2017 PF500 Shiraz is completely preservative-free – yes, including sulphur; Lowe concedes it is “bloody difficult to make” but totally worth the effort). Lowe’s repertoire is comprised of fruit from three separate areas: the cold and elevated Nullo Mountain with riesling, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc; the Mudgee Blue Vineyard, previously owned by Rosemount, and the organic Mudgee Vineyard on Tinja Lane. Everything is exceptional here so take your time; a personal favourite is the fresh and fragrant 2016 Louee Cabernet Franc (yet to be released at the time of writing).
Hunger will no doubt be looming so check in for a long lunch at Mudgee’s only hatted restaurant The Zin House (zinhouse.com.au). Situated behind the Lowe cellar door, it’s all about regional eating here. Owner and renowned chef Kim Currie showcases the best of what’s grown in the garden and on the Tinja farm, as well as championing local producers.
GT WINE Young Winemaker of the Year 2012 Jacob Stein of Robert Stein Winery (robertstein.com.au) is the face of Mudgee’s new generation of winemakers and one of the region’s brightest stars. The winemaking team of Jacob Stein and Lisa Bray is helping pave the way forward for the region with a suite of exceptional shiraz, cabernet, gewürztraminer and, of course, riesling wines, among others. “When I first came back [to the winery] in 2009, our most expensive wine was A$18,” recalls Stein. With solid foresight and the utmost respect for his vines, Stein has since really pushed the envelope with the Reserve range (A$50) and the most premium release to date, the 2014 The Kinnear (A$80), a seamless and elegantlymodern Mudgee shiraz.
Head south towards town, stopping in at Huntington Estate (huntingtonestate.com.au), awarded Best Small Cellar Door in 2018. Established in 1969 by Bob Roberts, the estate has always been associated with bold red wines, and current owners Tim and Nicky Stevens continue to honour this legacy. Even the label design remains pretty well unchanged and the wines continue to be astonishingly underpriced. Winemaker Tim is passionate about the robust tannins naturally present in Mudgee shiraz and cabernet and uses them to his advantage – the majority of the wines are released after three years bottle-ageing and offer excellent cellaring potential (up to 30 years in some cases), although they are elegant and superbly balanced upon release. Semillon and chardonnay are fine-boned and fresh with layers of complexity, and the 2012 Vintage Fortified Shiraz is a medium-bodied, spicy fortified that would stack up well against the best of Rutherglen.
As the day draws to a close head to local favourite Roth’s Wine Bar (rothswinebar.com.au) on Market Street for an aperitif and a snack before a light, tapas-inspired dinner at Alby & Esthers (albyandesthers.com.au).
You will have driven past it several times by now, but The Cellar by Gilbert (gilbertfamilywines.com.au) is worth leaving until the end. Father and son duo Simon and Will Gilbert craft some of the Central Ranges’ most elegant wines, mostly from Orange, as well as Mudgee and SA’s Eden Valley under the Gilbert Family Wines label. Riesling and rosé are focal points, but chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz offer a first-class look into what can be done in the cooler climes of NSW. If you plan to visit on a Saturday during the winter months, be sure to book a place at one of the legendary Food over Fire long lunches, where head chef and ex-MasterChef contestant Pip Sumbak cooks up a feast over a fire pit outside the cellar door. The Cellar by Gilbert also offers small plates, cheeses and a range of local and international wines.
Head towards town and then west along the Hill End Road to pay a visit to Thistle Hill (thistlehill.com.au). Established by the Robertson family in the mid-70s, it’s one of the region’s pioneering sustainable wineries and has been certified organic since 1993, although the vines have always been managed organically. Wines are low in, if not free from, preservatives and range from a dry, Provençal-style rosé through to supple, fruit-driven shiraz.
On the other side of Hill End Road sits the Burnbrae cellar door and Winemaker’s Cottage (burnbraewines.com.au). With a stunning outlook of the surrounding shiraz vines and rolling hillside, it’s a great way to wrap up your trip to Mudgee. Owners Andy and Trine Gay are two of the most down-to-earth people you are likely to meet and work tirelessly to help promote the region and all its offerings, without overlooking the casual and relaxed environment it is so well known for. The vineyard and winery were established in 1968 by Trine’s parents; since it was taken over the wines have been made in Orange, utilising both Orange and Mudgee fruit, and they are effortlessly approachable. On Sundays at midday the team fires up the wood-fired oven for Lazy Pizza Sundays. Sit on the deck or on the lawn – ideally with a glass of 2017 Burnbrae Vine Keeper Cabernet Merlot (a great pizza match) or a bottle of Burnbrae’s 548 Lager – and take it all in before heading home.
Go to winecraft.com for more Mudgee cellar doors to visit.
2017 Robert Stein Dry Riesling (A$30)
Aromatic with citrus florals and lime juice with fine, pitch-perfect acidity neatly balanced by a lick of sweetness on the finish.
2018 Moothi Estate Viognier (A$28)
Freshly cut nashi pear and Granny Smith apple, bright phenolics and waxy texture are the defining features of this wine.
2016 Montrose Stony Creek Chardonnay (A$25)
A great example of traditional Mudgee chardonnay. The oak element is present, but well-integrated and is totally complementary of the wine. Luscious and textural with a sleek line of mid-palate salinity.
2018 Gilbert Family Wines Pétillant-Naturel Sangiovese (A$26)
Made from the free-run juice of Gilbert’s sangiovese rosé, this is a lively, textural pét-nat loaded with watermelon aromatics, fine bead and a crisp, savoury character. Pair with cured meats and soft cheese.
2015 Lowe Icon Riesling (A$50)
David Lowe’s flagship white is made from fruit grown on the sub-alpine Nullo Mountain. Three years bottle-age sees the wine develop some serious texture that will continue to improve over a decade or so.
2017 Vinifera Rosé ($A20)
Pure summer water made with cabernet grapes – strawberry, rose petals and fresh acidity all perfectly framed by a dry, savoury finish.
2016 Logan Ridge of Tears Mudgee Shiraz (A$45)
This modern Mudgee shiraz is all red and blue fruits with grilled meats and earthy, gravel-like tannins brought on by the quartz and ironstone soil profile upon which the Logan vineyard sits.
2015 Eloquesta Shiraz Petit Verdot (A$35)
Stuart Olsen seems smitten with petit verdot and it’s evident in this wine, offering complex, balanced flavours that strike the balance between ripe sweetness and earthy savouriness.
2016 Manners Single Barrel Tempranillo (A$55)
A rich and exceptionally complex tempranillo, you could drink this over a few days and it will just get better and better. “It’s an adult Cherry Ripe: dark chocolate and cherries,” says James Manners.
2017 Burnbrae Vine Keeper Cabernet Merlot (A$35)
A classic blend done in a fresh, modern, medium-bodied style. Easy and thoroughly approachable drinking here. A great wine.
2017 Huntington Estate Grenache (A$29)
Southern Rhône in style, this is possibly the closest thing to ‘Mudgee pinot’ you are likely to come across. Crafted from 15-year-old vines, it’s light, juicy and fragrant.
2016 First Ridge Barbera (A$30)
Cherry and spice aromas, bright acidity and soft, emery board tannins come together to form a delectable take on the Piedmontese variety.