Vibrancy and diversity have long been the hallmarks of the Australian wine industry. Whether it’s innovation in the vineyard with the adoption of techniques such as biodynamics or in the winery with a more minimalist approach, there is always something happening that will help change the face of Australian wine.
One of the most significant developments of recent years has been the emergence of ‘new’ high quality wine producing regions. The inverted commas are there with good reason, as many of the regions are not new in the strictest sense of the word but are ones that are being rediscovered. One such region is Orange in New South Wales, a cool climate wine region that lies around 260km west of Sydney. Orange is just one of a clutch of cool climate regions that have got winemakers and critics excited.
In this latest blog from Wine Australia we’ll look at the history of this breakout region, at some of the people and wineries who have helped bring it to the world’s attention and consider Orange within the wider context of the ever-changing vista that is the Australian wine scene.
Orange, NSW: Setting the vineyard scene
Orange, NSW belongs to the Central Ranges and sits between 600m and 1,150m above sea level on a sweeping contour, making it the highest vineyard area in Australia. It was granted its Geographic Area (GI) in 1996 and the area is dominated by the now extinct Mount Canabolas which, through a series of eruptions around 11-13 million years ago, gave the region its unique blend of geology and soils. The ground is varied and composed of everything from limestone, shales and slate and greywacke overlain by basalt-rich soils. The mix gives free-draining soils that have sufficient minerals to allow for the production of exceptional quality grapes. It’s not all plain sailing though, and as we’ll see later, site selection is key.
Of course, the earth is only half the story when it comes to Orange’s exceptional terroir, the other being the climate. Given its elevation it will come as no surprise to hear that Orange is a cool climate region – something that can be a menace to winemakers in the spring when frosts can be a real headache. In terms of rainfall, it typically enjoys around 440ml per annum with heat degree days of between 1200 and 1300.
An overnight success in 70 years
Orange maybe one of the newest Australian wine regions, but its grape growing heritage stretches back to the 19th century. Vines have been planted alongside fruit orchards since its settlement, and with the coming of the railway in 1877 commercial crops of table grapes became viable. Such was the promise of those early vines that by 1925 over 450 acres of vineyards were planted.
Vines for wine, however, were slow to take off. An experimental station was established in the 1940s and in 1952 Jack Pryde and Harry Manuel planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz on Pryde’s farm near Molong, but it wasn’t until 1980 that the foundations for the modern Orange wine industry were laid. Between 1980 and 1981, Ted Fardell founded Nashdale Vineyard and Christopher Bourke Sons & Brothers in the sub-region of Millthorpe. They were soon joined by
John Swanson at Cargo Road Wines (which was established as Midas Tree) and Stephen Doyle at Bloodwood Wines.
It is very much thanks to these early pioneers that we have the glory that is Orange, NSW today. Stephen and Rhonda Doyle are perfect examples of the pioneer spirit that was evident across Australia’s nascent cool climate regions at the time. Professional librarian turned talented amateur winemaker, Stephen wanted to build on his winemaking knowledge and took a course at the Roseworthy College. There he learnt about site selection for viticulture from trade legends Richard Smart and Peter Dry and armed with his newfound knowledge he and Rhonda scoured Australia to find the right place to realise their winery dreams. After years of assessment and rejection, they decided that Orange was the place for them.
Precise in all things, they plumped for elevated areas to the West and North West of Orange which enjoyed Middle Ordovician geology and Orange Shadforth soils. The soils had low to moderate vigour, with a warm, free draining gravel-base that provided good air drainage for frost control and plenty of opportunities to construct hillside dams for irrigation.
In the 30-odd years that have followed they have successfully raised a family of vines that includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Riesling which in 1994 was picked as an ice wine in a particularly cold Orange winter. Their approach to winemaking is the same as their approach to the land they farm; respectful, low-intervention and intent on capturing the unique taste of the place.
Enter the Winemaker of the Year…
No history of Orange would be complete without mention of Phillip Shaw. The Rosemount Estate winemaker and double winner of the ‘Winemaker of the Year’ at the London International Wine and Spirit Competition (1986 and 2000) arrived in Orange in 1988. Like the Doyles, his arrival in Orange marked the end of a long search for the perfect site and having spotted the undulating terrain from a plane he purchased Koomooloo.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact that this had on Orange. It didn’t so much put the area on the map as get a pencil out and draw the map. Like some other cool climate regions – one thinks of Mornington Peninsula and Kathleen Quealey – it took a name to bring the area to the world’s attention. Phillip’s industry position meant that people took notice, and whether they were tasting his Pinot Noir, Shiraz or Merlot or even his later added Pinot Gris or Viognier, they knew that this was a match of vine and vigneron made in heaven. These high-profile wines opened a lot of press and trade doors, helping this emerging region to find a market in what was (and still is) an incredibly competitive premium wine field.
Chardonnay: Orange’s king of cool
While in some cool climate regions Pinot Noir is the talk of the town, in Orange it’s Chardonnay that’s really stolen the show. Chardonnay performs brilliantly at all of Orange’s elevations and can produce wines that are ripe, buttery and loaded with minerals right through to styles that are crisp, steely and exceptionally refined, wines that have more than a touch of Burgundy about them. Producers such as Koomooloo, Pepper Tree Wines, Swinging Bridge Wine’s ‘Mrs Payten Chardonnay’, and Printhie – described by James Halliday as being able to ‘fairly claim to be the premier winery of the Orange region’ – all produce exceptional Chardonnays which show not only the range of styles, but the abundance of quality with which this region is blessed.
What next for Orange?
Orange has come a long way in a very short space of time. In a little over three decades it has gone from having no industry whatsoever to having over 60 wineries planting 14 varieties – including emerging vines like Sangiovese, Arneis and Gewürztraminer - world-class Chardonnays and world-class winemaking talent. Its rise matters on a number of levels. It offers consumers a fresh, food-friendly way to enjoy Australian wine, it reveals to the world that Australia has even more glories to offer than its existing regions can afford and points to the future of an industry facing the challenges of climate change.
This last point is by far the most significant. Climate change is real and is happening now. Throughout Australia winemakers are seeing earlier harvests, lower rainfall and higher temperatures. Many are rising to these challenges in a pragmatic fashion with the adoption of the so-called ‘alternative’ varieties’ and with the use of sustainable winemaking techniques. But to know that there is another way, that previously shunned, ignored or simply unexplored regions are out there and are capable of wines of such brilliance as those of Orange is not only hopeful but breathtakingly exciting.
So, what next? Well it seems fair to say that the region and its wines are destined for big things. The refinement, elegance and balance these wineries routinely produce are just what consumers want and as the number of wineries grows, vines age and winemakers learn more about their sites, the sky’s the limit.
One thing that is striking about Orange – something we have also seen with the wines of the Mornington Peninsula and the Adelaide Hills – is that the wines that are marketed as premium wines and that the region itself is perceived as a premium region. Such premiumisation is central to Australian wine’s future and it will be interesting, from a marketer’s perspective if nothing else, to see if others follow suit.
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