Big surprises await in a small New South Wales country town, where porcini risotto overshadows pub grub and the wine is increasingly fine
By Brian Johnston
photographs by Erin Latimore
The road inland from Sydney mocks the harbor city’s re-nowned beauty. Belching trucks accompany me on a busy four-lane highway with views to warehouses and fast-food chains. It’s well over an hour before I smell eucalyptus in the air and my spirits start to stir. Finally, over the crest of the Blue Mountains, vistas open up to reveal the rich, wide land early European settlers dreamed of finding, where lazy rivers gurgle and parrots screech in a blue sky.
I’m told that the town of Mudgee—270-odd kilometers northwest of Sydney in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales— has no traffic lights. That’s reason enough to visit. But before I even arrive, the countryside satisfies with vignettes of quintessential rural Australia: cud-chewing cattle, hopping kangaroos, white-barked eucalyptus trees standing against an ocher landscape. Over the next few days, other pleasures present themselves. Nearby 19th-century gold-rush villages such as Gulgong may be peeling paint, but they retain a certain bygone charm. Vineyards sweep across the hillsides. Dining is unexpectedly good, hotels chic.
Mudgee is suddenly on the map, buzzing with an energy and optimism not always apparent in rural Australia. As I pull up just in time for lunch, I quickly jettison my expectations of meat pies and pub grub. Market Street Café has a menu in French scrawled across its windows and photos of the Eiffel Tower on its walls. Edith Piaf warbles on the sound system. Yet chef-owner Aaron Cole is a local lad, infectiously enthusiastic about Mudgee’s possibilities.
Soon I’m tucking into a salad: Ormiston free-range coppa ham with organic vegetables and vinaigrette dressing from the nearby Robert Stein Winery. Practically everything on the menu is local, from the South Mudgee honey and Gilgandra-raised chickens to the peaches from Bathurst, a 90-minute drive down the road. “I don’t buy commercial produce,” Cole tells me. “It all depends what local producers turn up with. So everything is in season and full of flavor.”
The café’s constantly changing menu is more Mod Oz than French, but its chef, who spent time in France, brings a Gallic sensibil-ity to his cooking. “What I learned in France was that people there have a respect for food, where it comes from, how it’s prepared. That’s something we’re now appreciating here.”
That afternoon I set off to explore the area’s best-known asset: its vineyards. Grapes have been grown in the Mudgee region since the 1840s, and Australia’s first Chardonnay vines were planted here in 1971. It’s taken a while, but local wineries are now flourishing. Mainstream grapes such as Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay still account for most of the production, but other varieties such as Sangiovese and Petit Verdot have been adding more dimension to the wine scene. I stop at Vinifera Wines to find it specializes in Spanish reds: Tempanrillo, Graciano, and Gran Tinto.
“I noticed the similarity of Mudgee’s climate to that of Spain’s Rioja region,” explains owner Tony McKendry. “I thought, why do the same old thing when something new could be better?” His Tempanrillo has garnered particular attention. A medium-bodied red that goes well with both Mediterranean and spicy Asian dishes, it’s an increasingly appropriate vino for the multicultural Australian table.
Farther into the countryside at Lowe Wines, Zinfandel is the grape of choice. But Lowes also makes the kind of cool-climate whites you’d normally expect from New Zealand, growing Riesling and Pinot Gris at its Nullo Mountain vineyard, 1,100 meters above sea level.
Owner David Lowe, a sixth-generation descendant of graziers who settled in the region in 1829, is as exuberant as Aaron Cole when it comes to Mudgee’s potential. “I still love what I do. No other agricultural product displays its regionality quite like wine. Taste my wine, you taste the region,” he enthuses. “We have two blocks of Shiraz, both organic, dry grown and untrellised and just 15 meters apart. Yet each shows a distinctly different terroir in the wines. Isn’t that marvelous?”
Lowe hosts renowned Winemaker’s Tables at his tasting room, usually comprising nine courses and 16 matching wines spread over a leisurely afternoon. They’re all part of a concerted effort by Mudgee wineries to offer visitors an alternative to just sipping and spitting. Gooree Park hosts Wagyu beef barbecues and visits to its horse stud. Di Lusso Estate tempts with wood-fired pizza. Others offer cooking or art classes, sculpture exhibitions, even a motorcycle museum.
The next morning at Pieter van Gent Winery, I rent a solid, retro-looking bicycle that has me feeling like an extra in an Agatha Christie movie as I pedal through the countryside, stopping at tasting rooms as the spirit takes me. Van Gent is itself worth visiting: its wine bar is set in a cellar flanked by huge, shadowy oak barrels. There are interesting varieties here too—Müller-Thurgau, Durif—but the signature drop is the Mudgee White, a port that, surprisingly, makes a delightful summer drink when served on ice.
I lunch at High Valley Wine’s Fromagerie Café, surrounded by vines just outside town. Its courtyard, scented with rosemary bushes and lavender, conjures up Provence, and its macaroons and lemon tarts are French-bakery good. Yet this being rural Australia, there’s no pretention. Owners Rosemary and Grosvenor Francis are former sheep farmers; they “retired” nearly a decade ago to run the café and adjacent cheese factory where, through windows, you can see brie and blue maturing. They make a Welsh-style soft Caerphilly and feta, too, but I reckon the winner is their oozing Mudgee Rouge, scraped onto the end of a baguette.
The afternoon passes in a pleasant blur. I pop in to visit a photography exhibition at the Fairview Artspace before stepping next door to the Small Winemakers Centre, where I find myself joining in drinking songs with owner Johnnie Furlong, who cultivates a larrikin personality and unites some of the area’s smaller wineries in an old woolshed turned one-stop tasting center. By early evening I’m back in town, the trunk of my car clinking with wine bottles. Those are for much later. In the meantime, I settle for predinner drinks at Roth’s Wine Bar. I’ve been told this is where local winemakers hang out, indulging in blind tastings of each other’s wines and enjoying live music in the rear courtyard. A glass of Grady Reserve Shiraz 2009 goes down well with the bar’s gourmet tapas, which includes chorizo-and-mushroom croquettes and whitebait tempura. I also sample Roth’s own 1080, a fortified wine whose innocuous smoothness belies its 43 percent alcohol content. Not for nothing is it named for a fox poison.
Fortunately, dinner involves a walk across town and some fresh air. Wineglass Bar & Grill is an informal place of rustic wood and corrugated iron. It dishes up old country favorites such as steaks and lamb rump, but with a bit of a modern edge. It pulls in miners from surrounding gold mines and travelers alike. I dig into a barbecued pork cutlet with onion, roast tomato, and grilled zucchini and potato. This doesn’t really leave room for a Sauternes crème brûlée, but I order one anyway. After all, there aren’t many places in the Australian countryside where you can utter the words “Sauternes” or “crème brûlée” without sounding like a conceited ass. But in Mudgee, even the tattooed miners don’t blink. In fact, one of them has just ordered porcini risotto and a side of sautéed green beans. Out here, that’s the new norm.
Mudgee is 270km northwest of Sydney via the Great Western and Castlereagh highways, a three-and-a-half-hour drive; Aeropelican (aeropelican.com.au) flies the same distance in 40 minutes.
—where to stay
A stylish 2012 conversion of Mudgee’s historic Mechan- ics Institute building, De Russie Suites (Gladstone St.; 61-2/6372-7650; derussiehotels.com.au; doubles from US$173) has just 13 smartly furnished suites, all with kitchenettes.
—Where to eat
FromagerieCafé 137Cassilis Rd., 61-2/6372-1011; highvalley.com.au
Market Street Café 79 Market St.; 61-2/6372-0052
Roth’s Wine Bar 30 Market St., 61-2/6372-1222; rothswinebar.com.au
Wineglass Bar &Grill Cobb& Co Court Boutique Hotel, 97 Market St., 61-2/6372-7245; cobbandco court.com.au
—where to sip
Lowe Wines Tinja Lane; 61-2/6372-0800; lowewine.com.au
Pieter van Gent Winery 141 Black Springs Rd.; 61-2/6373-3030; pvgwinery.com
Small Winemakers Centre Corner of Cassilis Rd. and Henry Lawson Dr.; 61-2/ 6372-2133; furlongwines.com.au
ViniferaWines 194 Henry Lawson Dr., 61-2/6372-2461; viniferawines.com.au
Originally appeared in the Feb/March 2013 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Mudgee On The Map”)