Thanks in part to an expanding gang of experimental young winemakers, NSW has become a truly exciting winescape in the past several years.
As a wine-growing area, New South Wales is distinctive in Australia. Its 16 wine regions are very diverse geographically, climatically and wine-wise, and together they differ dramatically from Victoria or South Australia – not necessarily better or worse, just different.
There is hearty red wine from the Hunter, Mudgee, Hilltops and Riverina; delicate riesling from Tumbarumba and Canberra, unique dry semillon from the Hunter and lusciously sweet versions from the Riverina, complex chardonnays from Orange, fine sparkling wines from Tumbarumba, and inexpensive quaffing wines from the Riverina and Big Rivers.
The Riverina is the engine-room; take it away and the wine industry would be much smaller and almost free of big-company involvement: three of the biggest corporates quit NSW some years ago. But the dynamic spark of the small owner-operator winery is firing the NSW wine scene along.
Some of the biggest successes in the past year went to small entities. Moppity Vineyards slew the giants and beat all-comers to win the Great Australian Shiraz Challenge with its 2013 Reserve Shiraz. Canberra micro-boutique winemaker Nick O'Leary won the Stodart Trophy in Brisbane with his 2013 shiraz, and the NSW Wine of the Year with his 2013 Bolaro Shiraz, both sourced from the Fischer vineyard in the Canberra District. Like many of the younger small winemakers, O'Leary uses stems in his shiraz ferments – 50 to 60 per cent. Experimentation is all about: witness Lark Hill's 2013 MrV Marsanne Roussanne Viognier, a large percentage of which was fermented on skins like a red wine. These are not feral, faulty "natural" wines; they are cleverly made wines that draw intelligently on some of the techniques espoused by that movement.
NSW viticulturalists are further suiting grape varieties to sites. Hence we see gewürztraminer and nebbiolo doing exceptionally in New England; the white Rhone varieties making great single varietals and blends in Canberra; and Italian reds making a new home in the Hilltops, while Orange has a multitude of opportunities, from chardonnay to sauvignon blanc to shiraz and merlot.
THE 'SWEET 16' STAR WINES OF NSW
Tyrrell's Winemaker's Selection Vat 1 Semillon 2009 $80
Hunter semillon is the great, unique wine of NSW, and Tyrrell's its greatest proponent. These wines build wonderful complexity of fragrance as they age slowly over many years, while retaining their delicacy and refinement. Tyrrell's make several single-vineyard semillons on a par with Vat 1, which is a blend of vineyards on the sandy flats of Pokolbin, but Vat 1 is the star. The '09 is remarkably youthful, the bouquet laced with lemon, herbs, nettle, beeswax and candlewax. A wine of great length and character.
Lake's Folly Chardonnay 2011 $65
One of Australia's icon wineries, Lake's Folly is credited with starting the boutique winery boom in the 1960s but instead of semillon and shiraz it built its fame on chardonnay and a bordeaux blend. Rodney Kempe has been the winemaker ever since the Lake family sold, and he carries the flame impeccably. The chardonnay remains one of Australia's best, the 2011 a wine of tremendous concentration and complexity, vitality and length. It will age long and handsomely like the best of the line.
Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz 2011 $175
Iain Riggs has overseen the winemaking at Brokenwood for more than 30 vintages, and the wines just keep getting better. Continuity has its advantages. Graveyard is one of the Hunter's consistently great reds, always sourced from the same block of vines near the winery. (Although gazetted for a cemetery, it never was one.) From a peak vintage, the 2011 is a great Graveyard with a long cellaring future. It exudes Hunter regionality of the best kind: earth, shoe-leather, spices and sour-cherry, and is powerfully structured and captivating.
Freeman Vineyards Secco Rondinella Corvina 2009 $35
Former wine science professor Brian Freeman and his daughter Xanthe run this substantial vineyard near Young, specialising in Italian grape varieties and winestyles. Secco is loosely modelled on amarone, although the air-drying is fairly minimal. It's a powerful wine with real structure and aging potential. Its deep core of dark-cherry fruit is surrounded by good ripe tannins and the wine has a savouriness that is very Italian. It's a wine of charm and individuality, and although first made in 2002, is still the only rondinella corvina blend in Australia.
Moppity Vineyards Shiraz 2013 $30
Jason and Alecia Brown bought this established vineyard, with vines up to 37 years old, in the Hilltops region near Young, and revitalised it. The accolades flowed at an astonishing pace during 2014. The gold medals and trophies (mainly for Moppity's three 2013 shirazes) were crowned by the 2013 Reserve Shiraz winning the Great Australian Shiraz Competition, a David versus Goliath effort. I actually prefer the regular shiraz (three gold medals) for current drinking. It has a typical spicy, leathery cool-grown aroma with pepper leading the way, along with star anise and violet. It's intense and focused, lively and firm, vigorous and deliciously flavoured.
Lark Hill MrV Marsanne Roussanne Viognier 2013 $35
Chris Carpenter is second-generation winemaker at his family's biodynamic Bungendore vineyard, and he's stretching his wings a little with this new wine. Its full yellow colour and rich, round, full-bodied and slightly viscous texture are telltales that some of the grapes were fermented on their skins like a red wine – an old technique which is newly fashionable. Too much results in an ugly, tannic wine, but Carpenter gets the balance right. It's a gorgeous wine, overflowing with peach and honey aromas and flavours of depth and complexity.
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2013 $90
A candidate for NSW's most illustrious wine of all, this glorious red made by Tim Kirk in his family's Murrumbateman winery pioneered in Australia the fermentation of cool-climate shiraz with a tiny percentage of white viognier. It's a masterpiece of finesse, especially with the stellar 2013 vintage. The alter-ago of warm-area South Australian shiraz, it's lighter in colour, very fragrant in its spice and red-fruit aromas, with great elegance in the mouth, rather than bigness. Its fine tannins caress the tongue rather than grip it. The finish is very long and hauntingly beautiful. Nowhere else in this country does shiraz achieve such complexity and allure so young.
Eloquesta by Stuart Olsen Shiraz Petit Verdot 2011 $32
Stuart Olsen is one of a small number of young winemakers shaking up the sleepy Mudgee region. His reds are produced with some whole-bunch and whole-berry in the fermentation, this one with a splash of viognier. His other red is a field blend simply named A Boy With Fruit. It's also worth chasing down. The '11 shiraz petit verdot is aromatic, spicy, floral and features supple tannins and a fleshy, fruit-sweet intensity on the middle-palate: a wine of concentration as well as elegance.
Lowe Nullo Mountain Late Harvest Riesling 2013 $30
David Lowe has been making wine in the Hunter and Mudgee for more than 35 years, latterly focusing on his family's organically managed farm Mudgee. He recently combined his business with the high-altitude Louee vineyards at Rylstone and Nullo Mountain, all inside the Mudgee GI, the latter growing very fine white grapes at 1180 metres altitude. I don't recall a better wine from this vineyard than the 2013 late harvest riesling. With a bright, light green-yellow hue and a superbly lifted honeysuckle aroma, with evidence of botrytis which re-appears more strongly on the palate, it's very sweet and honeyed, with delicious late-harvest flavour and charm aplenty.
Coppabella The Crest Chardonnay 2012 $35
The Brown family of Moppity Vineyards in the Hilltops bought an established Tumbarumba vineyard, Tralee, planted 20 years ago by the region's viticultural pioneer. It will complement their full-bodied Hilltops reds with delicate dry whites. They nailed it straight away with this marvellous chardonnay, which immediately won gold medals in the wine shows. It's a cool-grown, dare I say chablis-like style, lightly oaked and very stylish, its palate tremendously fine and subtle with refreshing acidity and very long persistence. I sense the start of big things.
Hungerford Hill Dalliance Sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2010 $35
Tumbarumba is a very cool sub-alpine region of grapegrowers largely without wineries. Although Hunter-based, Hungerford Hill has been making wine from grapes purchased from Tumbarumba for many years, none finer than this superb sparkler made from the classic champagne varieties. Straw/hay and smoky pinot aromas combine with yeasty characters from tirage age, and the wine has delicacy and freshness, smooth texture and fine balance in the mouth. Just the sort of wine to dally with.
Philip Shaw No. 11 Chardonnay 2013 $35
A winemaker of enormous experience, Shaw now has his two sons Daniel and Damian working with him, and has recently opened a new cellar door at his Orange winery. Chardonnay has always been Shaw's obsession, and the latest vintage, from a great season, is a cracker. He's come a long way from the oaky blockbusters of mid-'90s Rosemount Roxburghs, and this beautifully balanced wine is a case study. Nectarine, nougat, dried flowers and fluffy lees aromas all combine in a complex package which is fine without being anorexic. State-of-the-art chardonnay.
Topper's Mountain Wild Ferment Nebbiolo 2012 $38
New England is NSW's most northern region, abutting the Queensland border, and Mark Kirkby's Topper's Mountain vineyard is near Tingha, an area pioneered in the 19th century and recently reborn. Fastidious viticulture and attentive contract winemaking result in an array of excellent wines which set the standard for the region. Gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc, tannat and tempranillo are also superb, but the chapeau goes to nebbiolo, an Italian grape which surmounts a high degree of difficulty to win multiple trophies. Leather and spice, liqueur-cherry and violet aromas; the palate rich and dense with softer tannins than are commonly found in this notoriously grippy wine.
Coolangatta Estate Wollstonecraft Semillon 2011 $30
Few places outside NSW's Hunter Valley can produce great semillon in a fine, low-alcohol, ageworthy style, but this vineyard near the heads of the Shoalhaven River is one. It's a small region with few wineries, but plenty of passion. Wollstonecraft is Coolangatta's top semillon selection, not made every year: a bracing, refreshing 11 per centalcohol dry white which drinks superbly young with fish and ages long-term. This one has herbal, lemongrass aromas and lemony flavours which linger long on the aftertaste.
Centennial Vineyards Blanc de Blancs NV $35
This leading winery at Bowral makes several bubblies but this pure-chardonnay wine is the best – the most refined and intense and palate-thrilling. The bouquet has toasty, bready aromas from time in contact with its yeast lees, while the palate is streamlined, crisp and tight, enlivened by lemony acidity which drives its persistence. The ultimate aperitif, perhaps with freshly shucked oysters.
De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2009 $64 (500ml)Riverina
The stand-out wine from this leading Riverina-based family winery, a pathfinder for botrytis wines in Australia. It's tremendously rich and sweet, the sort of wine you sip in small amounts rather than gulp, because of its lusciousness. It's great with blue cheeses. Golden coloured, and barrel fermented (which adds toasty nutty notes), it's very complex with leading nuances of marmalade and mixed peel, vanilla, honey and apricot jam.
The NSW Food and Wine Festival presented by Citi runs from February 7 until March 1. It includes the Lunar Markets in Pyrmont, presented by The Star. And the Sydney Cellar Door in Hyde Park. nswfoodandwine.com.au