By Tom Neal Tacker
The Mudgee vintage is in full swing. Wine makers and purveyors are looking bleary eyed. Grape juice stained hands tightly grip glasses, while tempers and humours are in high alert. It’s an adrenaline fuelled and fascinating time of the year, particularly in drunken Mudgee, the self-styled ‘Woollahra of the West’.
Frog Rock Wines and Riedel co-hosted a wine and food matching dinner at the Butcher Shop Café (49 Church St Mudgee, NSW Tel: 02 6372 7373) last weekend. I would drive even further to get my hands on another set of Riedel glasses by the way but I rarely need an excuse to visit Mudgee. It’s a writer’s paradise. So many characters just waiting or wanting to have their stories told…
The old butcher shop contained a crowded and rowdy Riedel wine dinner with aplomb. Frog Rock rose to the occasion with good wines, even adding a couple of rare museum releases, including their 1998 premium Shiraz/Cabernet blend which with the 2004 Merlot, accompanied the ‘Chilli blue swimmer crab with rice and kimchee’ as a main course. It was an interesting food choice and nearly but not quite worked (hunger pangs won out over exactitude perhaps) though the Shiraz/Cabernet really needed another course unto itself. The chilli/kimchee overwhelmed this wine in its prime but the Merlot managed to survive by virtue of its rich berry fruit palate and subtle tannins.
To begin the 2004 Old Vine Semillon was served outside with hors d’oeuvres in order to allow the staff to re-set the tables after the Riedel class that preceded the dinner. “You’re not allowed to drink on the concrete footpath, council laws, so drink on the asphalt in the street instead,” said Fiona Turner, Frog Rock’s marketing mistress, the night’s emcee and a whiz at on the spot innovation. Frog Rock’s wines are made by David Lowe and Jane Wilson (surely Australia’s most unsung dynamic winemaking duo-those Henschke’s get a lot of press) and Simon Gilbert using fine fruit sourced from Frog Rock’s own Edgell Ln. vineyard as well as from a number of other Mudgee growers who’ve been unceremoniously dumped from Southcorp/Rosemount after years of honourable association.
The Semillon was refreshing and true to form, low alcohol, pronounced acidity and zesty. ‘Tassie oysters natural’ and ‘Smoked eel puree with cucumber’ were good matches for this racy wine.
Back inside for the entrée, no arrests despite a crowd of over sixty drinking and noshing noisily on the outlawed footpath, we had a ‘Three cheese pinenut torta with warm olives’ and the 2003 Chardonnay. If you like ripe, leaning towards an oxidised state and very peachy, apricot-ish chardonnay, then this is for you. All front with little back Chardonnay isn’t my preference but that’s a matter of style and regional characteristic.
We finished with a ‘Yellow box honey semi-freddo’ and the 2004 ‘Sticky Frog’ botrytis Semillon, a very good example of botrytis affected Semillon made with restraint. It has a nice marmalade-y nose and finishes tight without the blowsy loose aftertaste of too many stickies made here in Australia.
Prior to the Riedel/Frog Rock dinner we made our way for an aperitif to Roth’s Wine Bar (30 Market St. Tel: 02 6372 1222) a Mudgee institution and the holder of NSW’ oldest wine bar licence. Simon and Mandy Gilbert acquired the premises not long after Christmas. They’ve given it a fresh lick of paint and a good clean. Who knew it had a back garden that also contains a tiny kitchen? The Gilberts intend to provide a “tapas like menu of simple food” in the near future and will include a comprehensive retail selection of Mudgee wines. In the meantime, some things remain the same: ‘Diesel’ and ‘1080’ still sell at $2 per tumbler, clearly one of the country’s best value for money drinking dens; full of history and some of Mudgee’s more notorious characters. If you want to catch up on Mudgee gossip, (la plus ca change at the grapes of Wrath’s Wine Bar) stop here first. Ask Mandy to tell you about some of the local ghosts.
Apart from my usual favourites: Huntington Estate, Lowe Family Wine Co, Miramar Wines, Botobolar (quixotic but always interesting), Elliot Rocke Estate, Abercorn, Blue Wren Wines and Thistle Hill Vineyard we visited Peterson’s Glenesk Estate (02 6373 3149) and Di Lusso Estate (02 6373 3125). The Petersons set up in Mudgee some six years ago (also still in the Hunter and recently in New England close to Armidale) and makes the exceedingly rich red wines that Mudgee is famous for: Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend of the two. Gold medal winners at the recent Mudgee shows, these reds are massive, dense, almost chewy wines. There’s also a well-made Verdelho that I liked a lot. It’s fresh and attractively ‘green’ with a sharp finish and is pleasant drinking now. Their Chardonnay was similar to the Frog Rock, made from very ripe fruit and lacking the finish I prefer. However if you like in-your-face Chardonnay, then Mudgee has it in abundance, most of it for less than $20 too.
Di Lusso is a wonderful surprise. It’s one of Mudgee’s untraditional wineries if you think that an exclusive Italian varieties range is indeed untraditional. Mudgee’s history includes Italian migration and grape growing so this is a matter of conjecture. There used to be a lot of Trebbiano grown in Mudgee (that Italian heritage) at one time, but most of it was pulled or grafted over to suit the changing times. That’s too bad I think. It could be used now to make a light easy-drinking white or blended into some of their monster reds much as Viognier is used now in the Barossa. Just a thought, but I propose that the Sangiovese could use it.
Unfortunately the Pinot Grigio and Vino Rosato were sold out but they did have left just a tasting sample of the 2004 Vermentino (fruit sourced from a grower near Mildura), a fine example of this unusual variety. Tropical fruit notes, crisp long finish; I was thinking of a plate of fried calamari as I tried it. At $21 it’s a good buy. I really liked both the 2003 Sangiovese and the 2003 Barbera. $25 for either is a bit pricey but the $285 per dozen is slightly better value. The Barbera is a wonderful quaffer and the Sangiovese is stunning, full of black cherry varietal character, dusty tannins, like a good Chianti Classico. The 2004 Nebbiolo was interesting but ultimately disappointing. Mudgee is simply too warm for this fickle grape variety. Di Lusso is grafting its Nebbiolo over to Lagrein to solve the problem. It’s to their credit that they’ve recognised the necessity. The 2003 ‘Il Palio’ a 50% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet and 25% Shiraz ‘Super Tuscan’ style is good value at $25. I liked it for its food accompanying strength. We finished with a 2003 Aleatico ($23 for a 500ml bottle) and liked it enormously. After so many overwrought stickies, I’m more than ready for a sweet but lightly pinkish coloured finish to a meal, or on its own as the case may be. It’s redolent with peaches, almonds and guavas. We sampled some fresh figs with the Aleatico and also tried the house olive oil. Di Lusso has a charming cellar door using to great advantage their fig and olive groves as they ‘value add’ to the wines on offer with preserves, chutneys and pickled olives for sale.
Sunday the day after lunch at Deeb’s BYO Lebanese in a garden (Buckaroo Ln. almost opposite Huntington Estate Tel: 02 6373 3133 open weekends and holidays) is another Mudgee institution. (Many of the winemakers from the Riedel dinner were there the next day nursing their hangovers.) Jane Wilson brought her Tinja Range 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (fruit sourced from Orange) and the amazing 2004 Nullo Mountain Riesling. David Lowe turned up later and told me that Len Evans said to him that it was the best Australian Riesling he’d ever had and, “Why didn’t you ever make a wine like that when you worked for me you bastard?” The 2004 vintage has sold out but the 2005 will be available later this year, “in a drier style” David tells me. Tinja Range wines sell for under $20. Incredible value!
Deeb’s is a curiosity. Proprietors Sybill and Bechora are original ‘tree-changers’ having given up big smoke jobs at Sydney’s Hilton to escape to the country quiet of Mudgee’s outer fringe. Bechora cooks delicious Lebanese home-style food. The ‘Lebanese Tomato omelette’, ‘Grilled Chicken with Chilli’, and ‘Mixed Plate’ with bastourma, stuffed vine leaves, labna, olives, eggplant pickle, hummus and yogurt dip, priced from $15 to $17 were excellent. Sybill commands the small patio and larger garden dining areas like it’s her personal fiefdom. Beware the customer who treads on the unwritten law of the land. Sybill will unleash her inner Medusa faster than you can say, “May I have… please?” But the ‘service’ is part of Deeb’s charm, I think.
We stopped in at Frog Rock to check out the cellar door, have a coffee and de-brief with Fiona. Her dad Ken Turner, founder of Frog Rock in about 1974, (about the same time that his mate Bob Roberts started Huntington Estate) was in hospital recovering from a quadruple bypass. “He’s keen to get back here for vintage of course,” said Fiona. They’re breaking ground on a new cellar door facility soon. “It’s designed by Glenn Murcutt, first time he’s designed a cellar door. He’s a friend of my parents.”
Mudgee is full of surprises. It doesn’t get the foodie press that Orange does. It doesn’t get the numbers (thank heavens for this) that the Hunter does. The wineries are within easy reach of the town. It’s even possible to bicycle to many of them, giving the designated driver some exercise and a break. Mudgee moves along doing what it does so well: producing underrated wines for good prices, value adding to the best of its abilities with olive groves, apiaries, cheese making, bush-walking and history. Mudgee doesn’t have a gross suburban mall (what suburbs?) so the high streets of the town have maintained a friendly atmosphere. The locals go there to shop, gossip and peruse. The cafes and restaurants are doing their best at cooking up local produce and often doing it very well. There are seven pubs in town. The old theatre, The Regent, is up for sale now just waiting for a new owner. Certainly Mudgee is stock full with characters wanting their time on a larger stage. There’s no lack of stories or interest here.
Contact Mudgee Visitor Information Centre: 84 Market St. Tel: 02 6372 1020 or
www.mudgee-gulgong.org for maps, accommodation advice and events. Some wineries are open by appointment only during the week. Ring first to confirm.