Walk into any restaurant, sit down and consult a wine list. You will be hard-pressed to spot a wine from NSW. This has long been a gripe of local wine producers. Several years ago the NSW Wine Industry Association spearheaded a concerted effort to improve the situation. It enjoyed real success, but this momentum has now evaporated.
Indeed, it has reversed. Listings of NSW and ACT wines on wine lists in this state fell 18.5 per cent during the past year.
According to data collected last year by Wine Business Solutions, NSW and ACT wine lists contain only 15 per cent NSW and ACT wines. Compare this with other major wine-producing states. In South Australia and Northern Territory combined, 63 per cent of the wines on restaurant wine lists are South Australian. In Victoria, 31 per cent are Victorian wines. In Western Australia, 43 per cent are Western Australian wines. Even in Tasmania, with its tiny wine industry, 46 per cent of the wines are Tasmanian.
What is wrong with NSW and ACT wines that they figure so poorly in their home-state?
''It's all about the offer,'' says Wine Business Solutions principal Peter McAtamney. What he means is that the NSW wine industry is simply not producing the kinds of wines the market wants. At the same time that imported wines' market share has risen, NSW regions are among the least innovative.
''At the core of the problem is a lack of ability to adapt to change, and develop an effective on-premise [restaurants, hotels and bars] offer,'' McAtamney says.
Then there is the fashion thing. NSW doesn't have a fashionable region, with the arguable exception of the Canberra District. In a market groaning with labels and a bewildering number of choices, a sexy image can count for a lot.
What does NSW have to compete with Yarra Valley, Margaret River, Mornington Peninsula or Adelaide Hills? NSW's answer could be Orange, Tumbarumba or maybe even Southern Highlands, but these regions are not well known or understood. They have relatively few top wines that are consistent and their leading producers are not pushing hard enough to make an impression.
The Canberra District is the exception. It is still quite small and has a relatively small number of top producers, but it has the closest thing to a critical mass with enough gravitas to take on the high-profile Australian regions. Put Clonakilla, Lark Hill, Helm, Ravensworth, Mount Majura, Collector Wines, Nick O'Leary and Eden Road together in one room, and you would have a small but impressive bunch.
There are exciting things happening in the NSW wine industry. But you have to know where to look and what styles to try in each region. Here is our guide:
Thanks in large measure to the inspired winemaking and tireless promotion of Tim Kirk, of Clonakilla, this region has a high profile and modern, exciting image that transcends NSW borders. Kirk's innovative shiraz viognier blend, various other shiraz bottlings, and viognier and riesling dry whites are standard bearers.
Ken Helm has done the same with his rieslings under his Helm label. The more understated Carpenter family of Lark Hill makes beautiful wines from their biodynamic vines. Nick O'Leary, Alex McKay, of Collector Wines, and Andrew McEwin, of Kyeema (Capital Wines), have also run with the shiraz baton. Bryan Martin, of Ravensworth, makes an arresting Rhone Valley-style dry white blended from marsanne, roussanne, viognier and chardonnay, The Grainery.
Frank van de Loo, of Mount Majura, has made a superb red wine, ''TSG (tempranillo, shiraz, graciano). The wines he makes from those varieties separately are also excellent.
Of course, NSW has a lot of great wine and the Hunter Valley still leads the charge, thanks to its sheer weight of winery and brand numbers, as much as its proud history. Hunter Valley semillon and shiraz are two of Australia's greatest wine styles, even if the punters do not love them. The 2011 and 2013 vintages will provide plenty of top examples of both, and - stop the press - Lindemans, silent for years in the Hunter Valley, is about to launch a new range of wines.
The great names to look for here are Tyrrell's, Lakes Folly, Mount Pleasant, Brokenwood, Audrey Wilkinson, Peppertree and Hungerford Hill, to which we can add the more recently established Thomas Wines, De Iuliis, First Creek and Meerea Park.
The latest newbies to make an impact are Leogate Estate and Tinkler's, the first based on the former Rothbury Estate vineyard, Brokenback, and the latter a family business now occupying the full attention of young Usher Tinkler, feted former winemaker at Poole's Rock. Other proven performers are Allandale, Gartelmann, Keith Tulloch, McLeish Estate, Margan, Scarborough, Tulloch Wines and Two Rivers.
Semillon and shiraz are the specialties, verdelho is the crowd-pleasing white quaffer, and chardonnay has proven itself in the hands of a few - Lakes Folly, Tyrrell's, Scarborough and Mistletoe - but alternative varieties have mostly failed to produce interesting results. Stick with the tried and tested ones.
Tumbarumba is arguably the region with the most exciting activity of late. Jason Brown, of Hilltops vineyard Moppity, has bought a Tumbarumba vineyard and launched a range of excellent wines, under the label Coppabella. McWilliam's Armchair Critic brand won 2013 NSW Wine of the Year with its superb 2012 chardonnay. Courabyra Wines won the same award the year before with its superb 2001 sparkling wine, and has turned out several good table wines (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris) to go with its vintage bubblies.
Alex Retief is another young gun making fine Tumbarumba wines (his label is A. Retief), while Chalkers Crossing and the McWilliam's Barwang, under the Granite Track label, have been doing it for some years.
The leading varieties, apart from sparkling wines and chardonnay, are riesling and sauvignon blanc. The occasional pinot noir (eg, Excelsior Peak) and shiraz (Hungerford Hill) have been noteworthy.
Orange is a region that is loaded with promise, but appears to have been treading water for the last few years. This is partly a result of difficult seasons and economic factors. What it needs is more people with the technical savvy and creative juices of the likes of Philip Shaw, Phil Kerney, of Ross Hill, and Drew Tuckwell, of Printhie. Angullong has perhaps Orange's best-value range, including some smart alternative varieties (tempranillo, sangiovese, barbera and savagnin), while Bloodwood wines are invariably full of character and fairly priced.
The region's most successful variety is undoubtedly chardonnay, at which Philip Shaw, Printhie, Ross Hill, Canobolas-Smith and Bloodwood excel.
Sauvignon blanc is also better in Orange than most parts of Australia, and names to look for are Angullong, Philip Shaw, Patina, De Salis, Brangayne, Brokenwood Forest Edge, Ross Hill and Printhie. In reds, initial enthusiasm for cabernet has shifted to shiraz: Philip Shaw, Ross Hill and Logan have made some crackers, while Printhie and Cumulus also have runs on the scoreboard. Riesling is also very good: Cargo Road, Brangayne and Patina make some beauties.
Riverina and Murray Darling
NSW supplies some of Australia's best value-for-money wines.
Trentham Estate, De Bortoli (with the Deen De Bortoli vat series and Sacred Hill labels) and McWilliam's Hanwood Estate regularly produce high-quality wines at prices that defy belief. For reference, go no further than Trentham's 2012 cabernet merlot and 2012 La Famiglia Nebbiolo, both $14 at full retail price.
Far from being typecast as a cheap and cheerful region, the Riverina is also a paradise for sweet table wines made from botrytis-affected grapes. The names to seek out are De Bortoli Noble One, Lillypilly Estate, McWilliams Morning Light, and Westend 3 Bridges Golden Mist.
Dry white vermentino is a new grape that is creating plenty of interest. These are simple, fresh, cheerful and inexpensive light whites. Trentham Estate and Berton Vineyard are worth trying.
This high-altitude, humid region just south of Sydney can produce surprising wines, but summer and autumn rains are often problematic. Early-ripening grapes do best, especially whites and sparkling varieties. Its strengths are riesling and pinot noir, and names to seek out are Tertini, Centennial Vineyards, Cherry Tree Hill and Artemis. Tertini's pinot noirs have enjoyed considerable show success (the Reserve is extra special), while almost every wine Centennial produces is of a remarkably consistent standard and seldom disappointing. Some of its wines are from Orange grapes. The best from its own Bowral vineyard are the various sparkling wines, Woodside chardonnay, rose and late-harvest sweet wines.
This is a small but impressive region for serious, well-structured red wines, mainly from shiraz and cabernet, but also several of the newer imported varieties. Look for Freeman Vineyards' Secco Rondinella Corvina blend, tempranillo and nebbiolo, and Grove Estate Nebbiolo. The shiraz is also very good. Try Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz, Grove Estate Cellar Block and Moppity reserve shiraz.
The organic Lowe Family Wines and dynamic Logan continue to give this small and much-diminished region a boost of excitement.
Robert Stein Wines is the area's hidden gem, making sturdy modern reds and very fine rieslings, while Huntington Estate continues in its ultra-traditional red-wine style.
Di Lusso is devoted to all things Italian, from arneis to olives, sangiovese to saffron, and picolit, greco, pinot grigio and vermentino.
Robert Oatley is the region's biggest winery and vine grower. The high-altitude Rylstone sub-region is adding an extra cool-climate dimension to the diversity of Mudgee styles. Look for De Beaurepaire and Louee brands.
Building a cellar of NSW wines? Try these for starters:
Clonakilla O'Riada Shiraz 2012 $44
Capital Wines The Whip Riesling 2013 $19
De Iuliis Steven Vineyard Shiraz 2011 $40
Scarborough Green Label Semillon 2012 $22
Armchair Critic Chardonnay 2012 $20
Courabyra 805 Pinot Noir Chardonnay Pinot Meunier Brut 2001 $65
Bloodwood Schubert Chardonnay 2011 $30
Ross Hill Pinnacle Series Shiraz 2011 $36
Riverina & Murray Darling
Trentham Estate Cabernet Merlot 2012 $14
Lillypilly Estate Noble Blend 2008 $22/375ml
Centennial Vineyards Blanc de Blancs NV $37
Tertini Pinot Noir 2010 $55
Moppity Lock & Key Reserve Shiraz 2012 $22
Freeman Secco Rondinella Corvina 2009 $35
Robert Stein Riesling 2012 $40
Quilty Running Stitch Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 $28
NSW wines go on show for the NSW Food and Wine Festival (Feb 21 to March 21), including the popular Cellar Door event in Hyde Park. For the festival program see nswfoodandwine.com.au