I’ve suggested before that due to Orange’s varying elevation above sea level (600 to over 1000 metres), mesoclimates (individual vineyard climate) and soil types, the region can produce almost anything wine-related, depending on the vineyard site. The word I should be using is terroir, but it’s best that those new to wine learn the facts, before the buzzword.
While renowned for Sauvignon Blanc and cooler climate Chardonnay and Shiraz, there are worthy examples of almost any variety. For whites, Riesling continues to excel and may very well become a flagship variety for the region, if it isn’t already. Sizeable quantities of the increasingly popular Pinot Gris are grown, with smaller plantings of Gewurztraminer and Viognier also yielding some elegant and delicious wines. There are also a select few dabbling with Savagnin, Arneis and I even heard a rumour that someone is about to plant Gruner Veltliner.
As for reds, Merlot is a variety that’s excelling at a range of altitudes within the region, not so much as the rich, fuller bodied style common to warmer climates, but softer, elegant and more rounded styles; those “Old World” styles that Bordeaux lovers can relate to.
Pinot Noir, while still being a new variety to the region, is just starting to show its potential, especially at sites of 800 metres and higher. Sangiovese is another variety well suited to Orange’s cooler climate and some impressive wines are being made as a result, although plantings remain relatively small. Tempranillo, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Zinfandel are also planted.
But for me, the red varieties with the greatest potential are Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In fact, I think the best Cabernet in NSW is grown in the Orange region. I’ll also bring Merlot back into this equation, because not only is it excelling as a stand-alone wine, but also as a supporting act with Cabernet. These aren’t necessarily varieties that grow with consistency in the region and have sometimes struggled to ripen in particularly cold vintages, which is why Shiraz does better in the region on a consistency basis. But, when the ripening is just right, they yield what I think are the most amazing reds in the region.
Not every vineyard in Orange is ideal for growing these varieties and the best plantings are usually found at sites sitting between an altitude of 700 to 900 metres and grown in soils derived from red clay or decomposed limestone. The lower altitudes can also grow these varieties successfully.
These varieties can all make powerful wines primarily on their own, but I think their real strength is when they’re blended. Again, drinkers of Bordeaux blends can immediately relate to these wines, as Bordeaux is a region that has long been famous for great blended reds made from a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. As for how much, or little, of each variety is in these blends, it depends on which part of Bordeaux they hail from.
When Cabernet Franc is the most dominant variety, you get very pretty, very vibrant wines with beautiful bright flavours, whereas Merlot dominance tends to yield softer and rounded fruit flavours. As for Cabernet Sauvignon, savoury, darker fruit flavours can be expected. Regardless of the varietal dominance, you can also taste tobacco, chocolate, dusty oak and those subtle, cooler climate characters of mint, crushed herbs and leaf.
The so-called “greener” character in cool-climate Cabernet, which can be identified as leaf, mint, green pepper, crushed herbs or capsicum, is a matter of controversy. The reason – it’s often regarded as a sign that the fruit was under-ripe. Further adding to the controversy is that while some sneer at these flavours, some (including myself) actually like them. As long as these characters are only slight and subtle, it can lead to Cabernets with a greater depth of flavour, which ultimately makes them more interesting and more complex. Sure, too much can just make the wine taste under-ripe. The key is balance.
The same goes for Sauvignon Blanc – a suggestion of green pepper, asparagus or capsicum influences supporting dominant flavours of grapefruit, guava juice and kiwi fruit can make those wines just that little bit more interesting. In fact, Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, so it’s little wonder that I see a likeness.
If a vintage is especially cool, it can be a character that’s almost impossible may to avoid, especially at the higher and slightly cooler sites.
So, if I’ve previously said Riesling is the region’s white smoky, or white horse, it’s only fitting that we have a red, or dark horse. I give that crown to Cabernet blends. But if I were to pick a favourite single variety from these various blends, Cabernet Franc would actually be my pick of the three. They’re such pretty wines with very vibrant bouquets, tasting of either bright red fruits or soft black fruits, chocolate, cocoa and sometimes tobacco with a bit of bottle age. So, if I were to narrow it down further, Cabernet Franc is my regional dark horse and I challenge anyone to suggest a region where Cabernet Franc grows better.
But as I admit to still knowing little about these wonderful wines, I’ve been doing something of a Cabernet reconnaissance of the Orange region. The region’s wine map is divided into a web of five tasting trails.
My first stop was Canobolas-Smith, located on what is referred to as the Cargo Road Trail. Canobolas-Smith is one of the pioneering growers of the region. Vine growth in this vineyard is as old as 27 years, making it one of the most mature vineyards in the region. It’s also unirrigated, which makes the yields small, while forcing the vine roots deeper into the earth and exploiting the soil’s minerality. This leaves the resulting fruit with concentrated flavor that expresses the character of the vineyard. It’s also a vineyard that makes perhaps the most famous red blends in the region.
The moment I arrived at the winery, owner and winemaker Murray Smith gave me a warm welcome and marched me straight to the barrel to start sipping. I tried many Cabernet blends out of the barrel, all of which were delicious, but the finer details will be spoken of in later writings. However, those who are acquainted with the Canobolas-Smith brand will know of that famous red blend I mentioned – the Alchemy; a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and a further new-world twist added, being Shiraz. The ratio of each variety changes every vintage.
As for what makes Alchemy special, according to Murray: “What goes into Alchemy represents grapes well-ripened and showing the characters of each vintage. The blend varies, but I feel we’ve made a wine with a good track record. It shows that Orange can make Cabernets of high quality. It’s a wine that’s had show success, wine writer success and international recognition. It’s a wine that does age well and people do have Alchemy in their cellar. People have come to the cellar door and mentioned that they have a 1998 Alchemy in their cellar that they’re saving, which is nice to hear”.
Murray showed me four outstanding Alchemy vintages (2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009), but sadly, I can only chat about one, so I chose the 2006; a blend of 60 per cent Cab Franc, 35 per cent Cab Sav and 5 per cent Shiraz. This was a vibrant, pretty wine with a brightly perfumed bouquet. I put this down to primary Cabernet Franc fruit, but I’m already becoming biased. Anyway, however it smelt, it beautifully complimented a fresh palate with flavours of bright red fruits and hints of strawberry. The finish is gentle and soft. No sign of even the smallest amounts of green pepper or leaf, as it’s a character Murray tries to avoid in Alchemy.
My next stop took me to another one of the pioneering brands of Orange that certainly needs no introduction – Bloodwood. Located on Griffin Rd, just off the Mitchell Highway, Bloodwood’s not a brand that is positioned on the published tasting map, but they are more than happy to open their doors for a taste by appointment. Like Canobolas-Smith, they have some of the oldest plantings in the region and it’s home to perhaps my favourite red in the region, the Bloodwood Cabernet Franc/Malbec.
Again, upon arrival at their beautiful home, located at the epicentre of a mature vineyard, I received a warm welcome from founders Stephen and Rhonda Doyle. I’ve previously been to their estate for a tasting and expected that due to the lateness of my arrival in the afternoon, it was going to be a quick race in, grab a few bottles and depart so they could enjoy what was left of their Sunday afternoon. But winemaker Stephen insisted he show me some Cabernet Franc out of the barrel. As noted in one of my recent blog posts, all were so beautiful and vibrant; the balancing act between bright fruit and those subtle spice and leaf characters sublime.
The 2013 had perhaps the liveliest flavours of the three; 2012 being slightly softer and more rounded and the 2011 a little lighter-bodied with fresher fruit flavours. But not one was any more delicious than the other. When I asked Stephen why Bloodwood doesn’t release a strict Cabernet Franc his reply was simple: “It’s too hard to sell”.
As for the wine I walked away with, it was the 2009 Cabernet Franc/Malbec blend. Deep red in colour with a purple hue, the bouquet is vibrant and savoury, smelling of dark chocolate, green pepper, earth and a touch of dusty oak. As for the flavour, the palate is medium-bodied with a silk-smooth texture and tasting of black cherry, cocoa and tobacco. All fruit for this blend comes from a block in their vineyard affectionately known as “the Red Blend Block”, which is planted on well-drained gravels over a friable red clay base which, according to Stephen, adds a gentle, invigorating texture to the palate.
As to what influence the Malbec has, Stephen says it adds weight to the palate. The finish is long and firm, suggesting to me there is plenty of life left in this drop. The wine also has a striking freshness, which is a testament to its age and longevity yet.
The last blend I sampled was from another regional hero and icon, Philip Shaw Wines. The company was founded by Philip Shaw, one of Australia’s most experienced and celebrated winemakers, who had long been interested in making his own wines from cool-climate fruit. He searched both the Yarra Valley and Tasmania before purchasing Koomooloo, a block of land that sits at an altitude between 850 to 900 meters and is located just off The Escort Way, putting it on the Borenore Trail of the wine map. Vines were first planted in 1989, making it one of the more mature vineyards in the region and today, it spans 47 hectares and is the primary source of fruit for the Philip Shaw range. While it’s a vineyard that does exceptionally well at Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it’s also a great vineyard for Cabernet and Merlot.
The wine I looked at was the 2011 No. 17 – a blend of 60 per cent Merlot, 30 per cent Cabernet Franc and 10 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon. The colour is a dark cherry red and has bright cherry and leaf aromas supporting a medium-bodied palate with savoury red and black fruits, chocolate and tobacco. The finish is long and firm and, being a young wine, the tannins still have bite. To be honest, while this wine drinks well now, the flavours will continue to develop beautifully in the future. That being said, given the wine’s youth, I’m pleasantly perplexed by just how smooth the texture is.
These are just three examples of great reds from the Orange district. For further proof of the region’s blending potential, Faisan Estate, Patina, Mortimers Of Orange, Ross Hill and Brangayne Of Orange are also doing these wines great justice. I have every confidence that as long as our growers and winemakers continue to give these varieties and styles the care and attention they deserve, this Dark Horse will continue to ripen.