There is wine in them there Highlands
(This is a longer version of an article printed recently. I’m interested to hear about any Southern Highlands feedback too – favourite wines in particular)
With a grapegrowing history that dates back to 1820, you’d think that the NSW Southern Highlands wine region would get a little more respect.
In reality, however, the ‘Highlands’ are a somewhat forgotten part of the NSW wine world, its cellar doors better known as wedding destinations and B & Bs than wine hotspots, with the regions wines rarely spotted outside of said cellar doors.
So why the lack of recognition? Surely any wine region this close to Sydney (just an hour’s drive from the CBD), that can produce fine cool climate wines, should have a greater profile?
The most obvious answer, I think, comes down to a simple lack of established, high quality wine producers. Sure, the region is currently home to more than 60 vineyards and 350 hectares of vines, yet there are very few ‘commercial scale’ wine operations. Indeed most Southern Highlands wine producers operate on an utterly ‘boutique’ scale, their volumes small, the wines often made in bigger wineries under contract.
What this scenario ultimately leads to is a dearth of recognisable ‘regional heroes’. Names like Tertini, Centennial Vineyards, Artemis and Cuttaway Hill all continue to make quality wines, yet few produce large enough volumes to really make their way onto bottle shop shelves or crack restaurant wine lists.
Further hampering growth is that, whilst the region can claim that the first vineyards were indeed planted in the 1820s (by Dr. Charles Throsby at Throsby Park near Moss Vale), there was no further vineyard activity until the early 1980s. Even then the scale was small, with the Joadja plantings (the oldest vineyard in the region) totalling just 6.5ha. In fact, it wasn’t really until the late nineties/early noughties that there were any sizeable vineyards in this quite large, cool climate region.
Scale aside, If I was to pick a part of NSW that could potentially produce some very fine wines (and is not exploited yet), then surely the Southern Highlands would be right up (alongside New England) as the favourite.
Much of the attraction with this region is that cool climate tag – with altitudes of up to 1000m above sea level, the Southern Highlands enjoys one of the ‘longest growing periods in NSW’. Such a cool, long growing season makes the region much suitable for the production of delicate and aromatic Pinot Noir and aromatic whites than much of NSW.
It’s not all beer and skittles, however, as this part of the world also can experience plenty of rain during the growing season, making the pursuit of fine wine all that much harder (and less profitable).
Still, I often feel that what the Southern Highlands needs is its own Clonakilla – an iconic producer, backed by a proud local maker – to act as an ‘umbrella winery’ for the region. Such a producer, you see, would focus attention on the region, which brings money, which brings higher prices for the wines, which ultimately brings quality (theoretically at least).
It’s not like the groundwork isn’t there already – while judging the NSW Wine Awards last year Patrick Haddock pulled me over to check out what he thought was a very impressive Pinot Noir that blitzed its category. That wine turned out to be the 2009 Tertini Southern Highlands Reserve Pinot Noir and it took out the trophy for Best Pinot Noir, adding to its haul of seven other trophies at various wine shows to date. The only other Pinot in the 2012 NSW Wine Awards Top 40 was also from the Southern Highlands, and turned out to be the standard 2010 Tertini Pinot Noir!
There is potential beyond table wines in the Highlands too, with the cool clime also reasonably suitable for sparkling wine production. Centennial Vineyards is leading the way there, picking up 6 sparkling wine trophies in the last 2 years alone, even despite the wine being only entered in a small number of competitions (the Blanc de Blanc I particularly like).
Perhaps the only challenge, really, is actually tracking down the very best in Southern Highlands wine, with release from the likes of Tertini available basically through cellar door and mailing list only.
That does, however, sound like a perfect excuse for a visit, no?