Orange – Genuine Cool Climate in Australia

The charming tasting shed at the Cumulus vineyards.

Orange is not a place I would have visited in Australia had it not been for this trip. Tucked away in inland New South Wales, several hours drive from Sydney beyond the Blue Mountains, it is certainly not yet on the epicurean radar. I suspect that with the way the wine industry is moving in this viticulturally young region, it soon will be.

Prior to this trip my knowledge of Orange was more or less a footnote on the map of the great Australian wine regions. The region as a whole is not particularly well-regarded in James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion, which is the consumers’ benchmark guide to Australian wine. I thus did not really know what to expect.

Firstly, I was struck by the beauty of the place. The sparsely-populated region presumably experiences long drawn-out autumns that lead to splendid shades of yellow, ochre and vermillion in the foliage. (Not the reason the town is called ‘Orange’, by the way: the Dutch King William III of England has that honour.)

The eccentric label for Philip Shaw’s delicious traditional method sparkling wine with the man himself in the background.

My second impression was of the rigourous knowledge of their region the winemakers and viticulturalists have. Orange is a very young region in terms of viticulture. 30 years ago you would have found the region more prized for its apples, apricots and pears – though grapes have been grown in the region since 1846. However, a substantial scientific review of the region’s geology, climate and soils has already been produced – mostly driven by the knowledgeable Peter Hedberg of the Hedberg Hill winery. This passion and rigour, combined with a hearty community spirit, have translated into some very fine wines. I feel the region is still finding its feet, and definitive styles have not yet emerged, although this is only a matter of time.

The region’s landscape is dominated by the extinct volcano Mount Canobolas (1396m) which has provided an elevated plateau and gentle slopes; Orange earns its ‘cool climate’ tag through this elevation. For a wine to be labelled with the Orange region it must come exclusively from grapes grown in the region above 600m altitude. The altitude makes a huge difference. The mean temperature in January – Australia’s hottest month – is just under 22ºC at 600m and drops to 18.5ºC at 950m. Rainfall and moisture from dew formation also increases with elevation supplying much needed water in this relatively dry environment. This variation in temperature and rainfall gives viticulturalists a broad and nuanced canvas to work with. At 800m+, the region sees similar temperatures and rainfall to Beaujolais and Burgundy, whereas at 600m, the climate is similar to that of the Rhône. By selecting sites at the appropriate elevation, a wide range of grape varieties can be grown – from Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc on the upper slopes through to Shiraz and Merlot at lower elevations.

Peter Hedberg explains the soil structure of his vineyard.

Elevation does have its drawbacks, however with the region experiencing a lot of sunshine over the ripening period (it is one of the sunniest cool-climate wine regions in the world). The elevation combined with the thin ozone layer in this part of the world leads to increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation, which can burn the grapes. The response to this problem has been suitably scientific. Peter Hedberg explained how sites are selected on slopes that face away from the setting sun (which is harsher than the rising sun). Rows are also oriented similarly. Canopy management techniques are employed that see the east-facing foliage trimmed significantly to let the morning sun onto the fruit and the west-facing foliage allowed to grow larger to protect the fruit from the afternoon sun.

Merlot: One of the future stars for the Orange region?

With its cool climate and long, dry, mild autumns, the region seems ideal for Riesling and it is no surprise that Riesling plantings have increased over the last few years. Merlot is also an exciting proposition, with many indications that Australia may finally find a home for this variety that simply has not really worked anywhere else. Chardonnay, however, is today the most consistently performing stand-out variety. As one Orange winemaker put it: “To make a good Chardonnay in Orange, you hardly need to try.” The different styles of the winemakers certainly came through in their wines, however the quality of the fruit corresponding to length down the palate was clear in all examples.

A number of Orange wines are finding their way to the UK; notably Peter Logan‘s wines through Patriarche Wines, Cumulus and Philip Shaw through Sandhams. Other notable producers we tried were Hedberg Hill, Printhie, Orange Mountain, Angullong, Highland Heritage and the boutique but delicious Faisan.

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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5 Responses to Orange – Genuine Cool Climate in Australia

  1. Thiago Mendes says:

    Well done James

    You said it all…

    • James says:

      Thanks Thiago, though I don’t think I could claim that! Still have plenty of tasting notes and all this just starts to scratch the surface…

  2. Sarah Lowe says:

    James, I knew SO little about this area before reading this blog. How they use the altitude differences are amazing! Really cool.

    • James says:

      Yes, it is fascinating – and the very minute, detailed planning that goes into vineyard site selection and matching it to the ‘right’ variety. Altitude, aspect, frost pockets, high or low moisture, to name a few!

  3. Pingback: australian cool climate wine country « Cloninger Wine Cloninger Wine

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