Orange is blooming, with exciting local wines wowing the locals and visitors alike, writes Max Allen.
It's Saturday night and Percy's Bar & Kitchen is pumping. The new, dark, fashionably loud venue, windows wide open to the street outside, is full of young people noisily enjoying local craft beers and small-producer wines, and sharing plates of crab, pan-fried dumplings and zucchini fritters. We could be in the heart of Sydney, but we're three and a half hours west, in the high-country town of Orange.
This part of the world already has a solid reputation for fine wine and food. The town and surrounds boast a disproportionate number of good cafés, restaurants and family-run cellar doors. The 24-year-old FOOD Week ("Food of Orange District"), which takes place each April, is enormously popular and well attended.
But as I sit at Percy's, sharing a bottle (or three) of sensational riesling, merlot and cabernet with a couple of local winemakers, it's obvious there's a new buzz around town - particularly when it comes to good things to drink. Sydney hospitality professionals Nick and Emma Bacon took over the town's Union Bank Wine Bar in August 2013 and have breathed new life into the Orange institution: the bar has been renovated and now features beers from three local breweries, 1859, Badlands and Borenore Brewhouse, eight mostly local ciders, 26 wines by the glass and 300 by the bottle, half of which come from the region. As at Percy's, the crystalline Sunday afternoon I'm there, Union Bank's beer garden is chockers.
Around the corner, in a lovely heritage building, is the new Orange wine centre, Ferment. Owner Simon Forsyth installed three Enomatic wine-dispensing systems, and stocked his fridges and shelves with a staggering array of Orange's finest bottles a year ago - and it's been packed ever since.
"People really love being able to come and sample more than 50 different wines from all over the region," he says, pouring me a glass of excellent, silky, spicy 2013 Montoro Pepper Shiraz, one of the best discoveries of my visit. "Not just the tourists; the locals love to drink their local wines, too." When Forsyth tells me the Montoro wine was made by Charlie Svenson, I'm not surprised. Svenson and his family run De Salis, one of Orange's newer and more exciting wineries, and I'd been mighty impressed with his wines - particularly the whites - when I visited the day before.
De Salis is the quintessential Orange boutique cellar door - it's located down a tree-lined lane, across a cow paddock, about 1000 metres up on the slopes of Mount Canobolas, the extinct volcano responsible for the region's rich red soils. Svenson poured me taste after taste of good wine: a gorgeously textural spontaneously barrel-fermented 2010 sauvignon called Wild Fumé; a wonderful rich, balanced 2013 Lofty Chardonnay; and a sneak preview of an intense, crisp sparkling 2013 blanc de blancs, which will be aged for another five years on lees before release.
"We're the only people in Orange to do every part of the sparkling winemaking process, from fermentation to disgorging ourselves, on site," he says. "It's bloody hard work, but I love it. There's an excitement to being in control of the whole thing that's very rewarding. We (he and wife Loretta) used to live 100 metres from Manly Beach, but being here and doing this is more fun."
Someone else who's having a lot of fun is veteran winemaker Philip Shaw. I visit Shaw at his new and still-evolving cellar door Philip Shaw Wines, built around a marvellous old two-storey bluestone barn, for a tasting of wines from around the region. Charlie Svenson and two more of Orange's best winemakers, Phil and Rochelle Kerney from Ross Hill Wines, join us.
At the end of the tasting, I get a strong sense of where this region's wine strengths lie. The aromatic whites - riesling, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc - are exceptional and, for me, eclipse the chardonnays, despite the fact that the last grape is more popular.
Some of the pinot noirs are good, but the shirazes and, particularly, the merlots and cabernets are much more impressive: the 2013 Philip Shaw No 17 Merlot Cabernet and the 2013 Ross Hill Pinnacle Series Cabernet Franc are exquisite, characterful, elegant reds that speak eloquently of the country they're grown in.
Shaw has ambitious plans for the landscaping around the cellar door, including a truffle plantation. It's a hugely exciting project that captures much of the energy and excitement across the region itself.