An abridged version of this article appeared as an entry to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Writing Competition in January 2017.
I like a technical winery visit as much as the next wine geek, but this was something else. Peter Hedberg was up to his chest in an excavated pit in the ground of his own vineyard, Hedberg Hill, gesticulating enthusiastically at the layers of vermillion soil using the depth indicator staked to the wall to make his points. The bases of vine trunks and net-ensconced autumnal foliage framed his head, while the lateral roots of these vines poking through the quarried earth were cause for additional indications. He emerged from the earth, kicked soil off his boots and led us over to the tasting shed – a custom-built, glorified ‘hut’ perched halfway up the mountain and surrounded by vineyards. Peter presented us all with an 18-page, full colour booklet detailing the history, geography, geology and climate of viticulture in the region, complete with topographical maps and rainfall charts. Before the tasting began in earnest, we were shown to a long trestle table, clothed in a paper tablecloth and arrayed with newly clipped bunches of grapes, labelled by variety, and invited to taste and compare the fruit of this year’s harvest sourced from different sites around the volcano.
Welcome to Orange, New South Wales: the hottest place for cool-climate wine in Australia.
The producers in Orange clearly take their wine Very Seriously. On my visit, as part of a Wine Australia tour of Australian wine regions, the typical Aussie banter was muted in favour of even more technical specs than usual: yields, harvest dates, sugar densities, soil drainage rates, wind speeds, mean temperatures, planting aspect and orientation, and rootstock identification numbers. There is an element of the new kid on the block in the approach of the Orange vignerons – the ambitious yet unproven overachiever eager to show off not only what the region can do right now but also what its enormous potential is. Everything with our visit was laid out with a precision and attention to detail that you can tell is also executed in the vineyards and you can taste it coming through in the wines.
It strikes you immediately how close-knit the relatively small community of Orange winemakers is. The majority of them had all descended (or rather, ‘ascended’) on the Hedberg Hill tasting shed for the evening’s tasting and the banter, jokes, and good-natured one-upmanship on technical data of their own vineyards flowed as freely as the wine. There is a clear sense of the delight they all took in each other’s company during our tastings and visits, and professionally they have clubbed together to form the Orange Region Vignerons Association. But if you’re in an isolated town of 40,000 people, over 3½ hours’ drive away from Sydney, and trying to prove yourself on a global stage, you need all the support you can get. There’s no room for big egos and certainly no way to go it alone. While the wines of Orange are yet to make it large on the world stage, the winemakers are certainly proving themselves – and the region – by the barrelful.
The wine region of Orange is organised around Mount Canobolas, an extinct volcano rising 1396m above sea level to dominate the landscape some 120km inland of the Blue Mountains. Visiting the area in autumn, you would be forgiven for thinking the name comes from the spectacular autumn foliage afforded by a long, dry lead up to winter, or from the ancient, mineral-deprived, volcanic soils, rather than the more prosaic reason of being named for yet another royal from half a world away (in this case, Prince William of Orange). Well over a century ago, the region was recognised as having an outstanding climate for fruit trees – apples, pears, stone fruit (too cold for oranges, ironically), although the modern wine industry dates from the 1980s. In 1997 Orange was recognised with a Geographical Indication (GI) – Australia’s version of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Unique in Australia, and unusual throughout the world, the region’s GIs are determined by altitude as well as location: for vineyards above 600m you can have ‘Orange’ on your wine label; below this, you’re in the Central Ranges GI. This makes sense for two reasons: firstly, the climate is noticeably different the higher up the mountain you go; and secondly, the soil structure also changes as you ascend the volcano, with the results of more recent eruptions to be found closer to the summit.
For the Orange GI, plantings range from 600m to 1,000m above sea level, making Orange the highest wine region in Australia. The mean temperature during Australia’s hottest month, January, is just under 22ºC at 600m and drops to 18.5ºC at 950m. At this altitude the mean temperature is cooler than that of Burgundy’s hottest month – to say nothing of other Australian regions – leading to much excitement over whether Orange can be Australia’s answer to genuine cool climate viticulture. The climate of the lower reaches of the appellation lends itself to comparisons with the Rhône and – slightly higher up – Bordeaux. Altitude comes with its challenges, however. Orange is a sunny spot (over 1,800 sunlight hours between October and April) and the ozone layer above New South Wales isn’t what it used to be. Slopes for planting are typically selected to face away from the harsher setting sun. To further mitigate damage from ultraviolet light, canopy management techniques are employed, with east-facing foliage trimmed and west-facing foliage allowed to grow large for use as personal parasols by the grapes.
Throughout the tastings, I found wines from the region to be pretty, floral and well structured. There were no blockbusters or alcoholic fruit bombs. Whites and reds alike had a taut leanness from punchy acidity offset by a depth of fruit flavours that could be rich without being overbearing. The technical enthusiasm that is clearly shown in mapping out the vineyard sites in the region has gone through into the winemaking itself. Traditional winemaking techniques (wild ferments, punching down, gravity-fed systems) are in vogue, accompanied by a sharp eye on technical measurements in the winery throughout the vinification process. There is also hardly an American oak barrel in sight – unlike many other Australian regions.
One of the most fascinating features of the various tastings (and here is where you can see my inner wine geek really coming to the fore) was being able to taste varietal wines made in the same way from vineyards planted across the full 400m altitude range of the altitude. This is like tasting wines on different floors all the way up the Empire State Building and realising they all taste different. Shiraz, for instance, went from a generous fruit-jam-and-baking-spice expression at the lower climes, through a Rhône-like cured meat and black pepperiness midway up the appellation, into a taut, herbal, linear wine reminiscent of New Zealand Syrah, towards the top of the mountain.
Unsurprisingly for Australia, Shiraz is the most planted variety in the region, with Cabernet Sauvignon a close second. The real star red wine of Orange’s future may be Merlot, with plantings racing ahead to catch up with Cabernet. Australia is yet to find a really successful spot for Merlot and there is quiet excitement in the Orange community that the plentiful sites on the side of Mt Canobolas with sandy soils and a kind climate may be the best thing to hit Merlot since Pomerol.
White varieties are about half as popular as reds as far as plantings go, but as the word gets out about the region’s success with cool climate varieties, this is changing quickly. With autumns as reliably long, warm and gorgeous as they are, Riesling promises to be a future star, especially on the upper slopes. These top elevations are also home to an interesting expression of Sauvignon Blanc – light, floral, delicate and a far cry from anything made ‘across the ditch’ in Marlborough, New Zealand. However, in the meantime, Chardonnay reigns supreme amongst the whites. It comes in a variety of styles throughout the elevation range – round with tropical fruit hints at lower altitudes through to lean and lemony at the top. One Orange winemaker told me “to make a good Chardonnay in Orange, you hardly need to try.” Although even a cursory flick through the Orange Region Vignerons Association’s impressive guide book to the region will tell you that plenty of trying is going on in crafting wines of elegance and poise. And it’s good news for the rest of us that it is!