Mudgee: More than just mud
|The view from David Lowe's cellar door: Mudgee doing a good Tuscan impersonation|
The picture above was taken last Saturday at David Lowe's leafy Mudgee cellar door, snapped during what was a very interesting, perspective changing weekend of Mudgee wine.
It's a particularly apt picture actually (though I can't vouch for my photography skills) simply because it is surprisingly attractive. And that's what my weekend spewed up - plenty of surprises.
But before I start detailing all the surprises, I'm interested in the answer to one nagging question:
Would you consider Mudgee to be a wine region of interest, or just another ageing also ran?
Personally, I'd answer that Mudgee is a wine region of interest, but also one of the more variable regions in Australian wine, often producing good drinks, but so rarely producing the sort of wines that you would travel to Mudgee purely to taste.
Do you agree?
Building on my answer, and helped along by the personalities - and wines - of the 'New Mudgee' (I'm coining it that, just because I can) that I was lucky to meet last weekend, I'd argue that Mudgee can, and will, produce the sort of wines that people will find very desirable once again.
It's just going to take time.
So, to help focus on desirable wine then, I've detailed below some of the good, hidden, desirable features of Mudgee wine - and there are plenty - with a few of the not so good/hard bits thrown in for balance.
As always, feel free to comment on these observations in the 'comments' section below the post.
The good bits
Mudgee terroir - The biggest surprise of all. Mudgee has large tracts of lovely red clay loam soils, flecked with glinting blocks of quartz. Lovely dirt that. Combine the nice dirt with some surprisingly steep slopes, plenty of sunshine and a big diurnal temperature range and you have some seriously good viticultural potential.
Mudgee Chardonnay - Mudgee makes surprisingly good Chardonnay. Chardonnay grows just about anywhere, we all know that, but Mudgee can get Chardonnay ripe at low alcohols, whilst retaining plenty of acidity and without sacrificing palate intensity. In fact, many producers see Chardonnay as one of the best grapes for the region.
Some of the prominent 'New Mudgee' winemakers, inc. Jacob Stein (Robert Stein), James 'good' Manners (Robert Oatley) and Peter Logan (Logan), have actually undertaken a very secret project this year, quietly known as the 'Chardonnay experiment', where they have each made the wildest early picked Chardonnay, from the very best Mudgee fruit, in an attempt to show just how modern, and interesting, Mudgee Chardonnay can be.
I tasted three different winemakers attempts (out of barrel) and they were all quite divergent, but high quality, Chardonnays, all of which I could see appeal in. All three had plenty of winemaking influence, minimal oak, high acid, low alcohol and bewildering depths of flavour. I can't wait to see the wines in bottle, for they were so razor sharp and contemporary that they could really propel Mudgee back into the limelight.
|Oatley land as far as the eye can see. Expect big things..|
Experimentation: As shown by the Chardonnay project above, there is no shortage of experimentation and innovation at work in Mudgee, focused particularly on the new generation ('New Mudgee'). From David Lowe's unique high altitude project wines (more on that further on) to Peter Logan's new Mudgee Shiraz vs Orange Shiraz terroir project, the 'innovate or perish' dictum is being well followed in Mudgee (and you could argue that it is well overdue too).
Sustainability: Organic, biodynamic and preservative free wines are impressively concentrated in Mudgee, almost as if it these things are de rigueur for the region. Think what you will about such principles/methods, they are nothing if not progressive.
Old vines: Old vines are everywhere in Mudgee, including some of the oldest plantings of the Italian alternates Barbera and Sangiovese, as well as plenty of old vine Chardonnay, Shiraz and Merlot. Potential! Potential!
Tourism: Mudgee has a vibrant tourist scene (or at least there was no shortage of tourists around over the weekend - always a good sign), with plenty of good eateries, decent pubs, good accommodation etc.
Ormiston Free Range Pork: Mmmm. I have some Ormiston Pork Belly lined up for Sunday dinner this weekend. Excitement is building. Would go well with Mudgee Chardonnay too.
Olives and Olive Oil: High quality local olives and olive oil not only flesh out the experience, but also mean that more wineries have oil/olives to taste/devour in conjunction with the wines. Big plus in my world.
More local good things: Excellent cheese and quality local beer, both further add to the appeal.
I'm just throwing out some opinions here. Feel free to comment
Climate: Like the Hunter (and Orange to an extent), it rains at all the wrong times in Mudgee. The rain is actually pretty constant all year round, but the odd summer thunderstorm can devastate Mudgee vineyards. Combine that with late frosts, inconsistent flowering plus very hot summers and you have an environment with seriously high disease pressures, making Mudgee an occasionally challenging place to grow grapes.
For instance, in the last five years alone there has been at least two very challenging vintages (2008 & 2010, though this varies according the producer) where the red grapes - in particular - have faced less than ideal conditions. Equate this to an average decade and that is some serious vintage variation...
Fragmentation: The last five years have also seen the almost total withdrawal of the 'big boys' from Mudgee with both Pernod Ricard and Fosters now fully divulged of their local vineyards and wineries. Whilst that could be seen as a good thing, it has also, arguably, done little for the regions profile.
Of the rest, the Oatleys are now the biggest vineyard land owners, but having only been making their own wines for 4 years, their true impact (and finest wine) is yet to be seen. Andrew Harris, the other somewhat high profile producer, is apparently producing less wine these days too (for undisclosed reasons).
The end result is a large group of often divergent producers, many of whom rely more on the flow of tourists through their cellar door restaurant, than the quality of their wines, to survive. Watch this space for some new allegiances though...
Looking for a hero: Maybe I've been brainwashed by Wine Australia, or perhaps I need to take my marketing hat off, but not one producer could name a single variety or blend that Mudgee does better than anywhere in the land. Even Chardonnay, that I talked up earlier, is not produced as a stand alone 100% Mudgee wine by many producers, so could hardly be called a 'regional hero'.
I believe this is a big problem that could hinder the rebirth of the region in the longer run, yet the producers were more happy to just talk about winery heroes - a certain wine that each winery does well.
I'm not convinced.
Orange (and the Hunter) Only 65kms as the crow flies (though 2.5 hours in the car), yet this neighbour has not only the momentum in the marketplace (plenty of Orange wines in the press) but also a burgeoning tourist trade; a better road out to it from Sydney; a larger local population and arguably better quality (at the moment at least) wines.
The Hunter is even closer to Sydney; has ten times the number of visitors (though that number is unconfirmed); more cellar doors; more established producers and at least two identifiable 'hero' varieties (plus a very active and tight knit local winemaking association).
Eventually, and some producers (like Logan) are already seeing this, more Mudgee wineries should just admit defeat (of sorts) and work wines from the Hunter and Mudgee into their ranges (rather than trying to grow everything themselves).
In this fashion, you could be a Mudgee producer with an Orange Pinot Gris; an Orange Sauv Blanc (mmm turnover); a Hunter Semillon; a Chardonnay from all three regions (terroir at work); a Shiraz from each region (ditto) and then a Mudgee dry red (my pick? Shiraz Cabernet - just like old Mountain Blue).
The (Wine) Highlights
Logan Vintage 'M' Cuvee 2008 ($35)
An unusual (for Australia) 1/3rd each of Chardonnay/Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier blend, this is salmon pink in colour (just like the label) with notable refreshment and proper chalky acids (rare for Australia that). Really smart bubbles (and absolutely flying sales wise).
Lowe 'Tinja' Riesling 2009 ($23)
Sourced from the 1050m Louee vineyard at Nullo Mountain (the highest vineyard in Australia!), this extremely dense Kabinett style Riesling needs years to settle in the bottle (the 04 is drinking wonderfully) but it shows real potential and style. Lots of interest here.
di Lusso Pinot Grigio 2009 ($26)
Sourced from a vineyard near Molong, Orange, this was more like a Gris in weight, with delicious richness and texture with well enough acidity to hold it together. I really liked this!
Logan Chardonnay 2008 ($23)
Also sourced from Orange, this mealy, dry and layered Chardonnay is finely flavoured, dry and almost pretty in a way. Already a fine Chardonnay (and already a medal winner of some description) and with plenty of happy bottle age ahead.
Lowe Family Shiraz 2005 ($28)
Off David Lowe's organic vineyard, this is a good example of a medium bodied, yet richly flavoured, Mudgee Shiraz. There is something about this ageless rich style that is wonderfully appealing, though it needs a decant to get through the rather full extract. A sleeper methinks.
Montrose Black Shiraz 2007 ($29)
The original Mudgee Shiraz, this is incredibly regional, almost to the point of fault. Lots of red dirt, prominent acid and rich, yet savoury flavours. Whilst I am not a massive fan of the style, it deserves to be highlighted just for it's authenticity. Polarising..
Clonakilla Vintage Fortified Shiraz 2007 ($28)
We're not in Mudgee anymore! I brought this along as the ultimate options stumper, purely to cause trouble perhaps. Sourced from a component of the 2007 O'Riada, it doesn't actually taste much like Canberra Shiraz at all, but it is a wonderfully elegant and sweetish 'dry' VP style. Really more-ish, though not for the long haul.