Mudgee magic

By Dave Brookes

Standout wines, stunning scenery and warm hospitality converge in Mudgee, making it one of the shining stars of regional New South Wales.

It had been a long time between drinks for Mudgee and me. It was around 1990, maybe earlier. The memory is foggy because I was working in the music industry at the time – far from the wine-obsessed geek at the keyboard that I am today. Back then, the base of my food pyramid consisted of Jack Daniel’s and my strongest memories of that visit were noisy gigs at the Soldiers Club, greasy hamburgers and milky truckstop coffee.

It seems a bit silly for someone who was involved in all sorts of dubious life choices to have lamented the lack of culture in a rural town; it is, after all, where Henry Lawson lived for some time. But after my most recent Mudgee visit to judge at the NSW Wine Awards, I can report that the coffee and food offerings have improved exponentially. It is a beautiful place to spend some time, and the wine has never been better.

The town’s name is derived from the Wiradjuri term Moothi meaning ‘Nest in the Hills’ and it became an important focal point during the gold rush, prospering from the money flowing in from those seeking their fortune. Wool and farming was a big thing and the winemaking lineage stretches back to the mid-1800s. You could say it’s got a rich history.

It’s a town of majestic country avenues, wide-verandahed country pubs and a lovely war memorial clock tower in the middle of the main roundabout, which serves as a handy waypoint for the directionally challenged. I presume that its proximity to Sydney – a four-hour drive for me, taking in a pie stop at Hominy Bakery in Katoomba – has seen tree-changers move to town, in turn adding to the diversity of hospitality offerings the region sees today.

For those planning a visit, there are festivals and events throughout the year, with September a prime time with the month-long Mudgee Wine and Food Festival a highlight. This culminates in the Flavours of Mudgee street festival, with the region’s winegrowers, producers, bakers, cooks, distillers and brewers coming together for a heaving street party with a wonderful atmosphere.

There are plenty of different grape varieties planted in the region, from the classics to the alternatives, but the revelation for me was the region’s riesling. We know it is a variety that is seriously undervalued – delicious when young and blossoming into something really special with careful cellaring – but the purity, drive and inherent drinkability of the top rieslings from here were a real eye-opener for me.

Robert Stein Vineyard
One of Mudgee’s top riesling producers is the Robert Stein Vineyard (pictured above). In recent times they’ve established an enviable show record, snaffling trophies and gold medals for their wines – and for good reason. They are outstanding. The old riesling vines are planted on gentle slopes around 550 metres above sea level. It is cool and that comes through in the wines, which show scintillating focus and fruit purity with plenty of drive across the palate. From the fantastic entry wine to the Reserve Riesling, only released in outstanding years, they are gorgeous examples. Of course, the quality across the range, from sparkling to fortified, is excellent and the Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant is one of the region’s best.

The Lowe Wines cellar door is one of my favourites in the region. The vineyards are organically farmed and it’s got a relaxed country feel with a wisteria-draped outdoor area perfect for hanging out with a glass of wine and a few plates of local produce. Again, riesling is a star, especially the Icon Riesling, but there are many highlights. The Tinja and Nullo Mountain wines are uniformly excellent, and the Organic Zinfandel is a beauty; opulent and intense with incredible fruit purity.

Leave yourself plenty of time here to wander around the cottage garden, and check out the sculpture garden and farm walking trails. The winery’s Zin House restaurant is an amazing place to eat and is at the top of its game. Few winery experiences beat a long lunch enjoying Kim Currie’s beautiful cooking and David Lowe’s wines. It’s a must-visit.

For wines from classic grape varieties that have a strong sense of tradition, Huntington Estate should be on your list of visits. Tim and Nicky Stevens’ wonderful estate produces a range of elegant, ageworthy wines of the highest quality. Among the highlights are classically structured, grassy-edged semillon, one of the region’s few grenache wines, plus vivid, rich merlot, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon wines.

Keep an eye out at Huntington Estate’s cellar door for the Special Reserve and Museum Release wines, and don’t forget to check their website before you go as they host regular events. Included among these is the annual music festival, which features a dazzling array of prominent international artists alongside Australia’s finest musicians.

If the weather is fine, the large deck at Moothi Estate is a great place to stay a while, with its sweeping views over the Mudgee region. Excellent pinot grigio, riesling, merlot and shiraz provide the highlights, and there are great platters teeming with awesome local produce, including cheese from High Valley and house-made pastrami for those who need to refuel.

The stunning, contemporary Logan Wines cellar door (pictured below) lies down a side valley from Mudgee township. It’s bright and airy with super staff and a wicked range of wines to boot.

Logan cellar door
Highlights include the Ridge of Tears Shiraz, the great value-for-money Apple Tree Flat range and the particularly impressive Weemala range of wines, which are a bit more quirky and wild-eyed than the other offerings; think textured wines including skin contact whites and fruit-pure reds, and you are on the right track. There is also a solid range of wines from nearby Orange on tasting, and this is the place to grab a coffee and cake if you need a pick-me-up before heading to your next tasting.

Sometimes, the most memorable visits are those you have to work for. Eloquesta doesn't have a cellar door, so you’ll have to email or call to organise an appointment. But you will be rewarded with an awesome tasting of small-batch, handmade wines with winemaker Stuart Olsen.

The wines sit at the lo-fi end of the vinous spectrum – vibrant, nervy, textured wines that are exciting and display a dangerous drinkability. The A Boy With Fruit Orange Chardonnay is great, as is the Mudgee Chardonnay, while the reds show stunning fruit purity and clarity, in particular the A Boy With Fruit No 2 Red and Shiraz Petit Verdot blend.

It’s hard to do Mudgee justice in the scope of this article. The region has more than 35 cellar doors and we’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s Skimstone, Gilbert Family Wines, De Beaurepaire Wines, Bunnamagoo, Thistle Hill, Gooree Park Wines, Blue Wren, Baker Williams Distillery… I could go on, but do just one thing: visit! You will be rewarded with wonderful food and wine experiences, and a cultural depth making it one of the great little towns of rural New South Wales. I certainly won’t be leaving it too long again before my next visit.

This article originally appeared in issue #41 of Halliday magazine. Read more about Mudgee in our essential guide.