There's a slow but consistent rumble on the streets of the industrial port of Newcastle that, thankfully, is not a repeat of the 1989 earthquake that shook the city. Newcastle is settling into a new post-mining, post-BP era in which the inner-city landscape is changing from grungy wasteland to social and cultural hub, with an influx of new cafes and restaurants.
If ever there was a symbol of that evolution it was the appearance of a winery in Wickham, once part of its industrial heartland. Opened, in 2011, by winemaker Rob Wilce, and his partner Janine, in a former car workshop backed by a laneway that was infamous for drugs and prostitution, it was a first not simply for Newcastle but also for Australia.
"Although I know of one that started up recently in Sydney," says Wilce when I meet him for a wine and cheese tasting, "we were the only inner city winemakers in Australia when we started."
Rob and Janine moved to Newcastle from Sydney fifteen years ago, having worked in the Hunter Valley wine industry, around Pokolbin.
"We always wanted to open our own winery," says Wilce. "And looked at the idea of opening up an inner city premises in Sydney, but the costs were prohibitive so we thought, why not Newcastle?"
After developing the concept over a few years and taking time to find the right premises and get the necessary council approvals, the Inner City Winemakers made its first vintage in 2014.
Set in an inviting light-filled space, the walls hung with the work of local artists and upturned wine barrels used for tasting tables, it is nonetheless a production area with wine fermented on site, aged in oak and blended, before being sent away for bottling."Everything is done on a shoestring," says Wilce, who still uses an old wine press he purchased from "an old Portuguese guy in Marrickville."
Grapes are sourced from the nearby Hunter Valley but also from other NSW regions like New England, Orange and even Young. Wilce likes to play with unusual varietals, producing a Gewurtztraminer, with a rich bouquet of lychee and pineapple, that is a good accompaniment to spicy food, and a full-bodied Spanish-style Tempranillo.
The winemaker is already attracting plaudits, most recently when his 2015 Hilltops Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded five stars and best in its class by November's Winestate magazine.
"My philosophy on wine making is that 95 per cent of it is made in the vineyard and my job is just to guide it through the final process," says Wilce.
"Our methods are extremely rustic. The wines are all hand-pressed and the reds are hand-plunged during fermentation, so it's very much a hands-on process."
The artistic feel behind the winery comes partly from Wilce's partner Janine, who is an artist, and is partly inspired by Wickham's colourful street work, formerly known as graffiti. The winery not only houses exhibitions every two months but also makes a series of "Street Art" wines, featuring some pretty out-there labels created by local talent. It also plays a prominent role in the biennial Wickham street art festival.
"Wickham is changing dramatically, " Wilce tells me as we stroll through the art-splattered lane behind the collection of miner's cottages in which I've completed my enjoyable tasting. "And the winery feels like a rite of passage for new residents."
Still mostly frequented by locals, Newcastle's inner city winemakers, like much of this once grim industrial city, seems destined to attract a wider audience.
Newcastle is a two-hour drive, or a short flight (rex.com.au) north of Sydney. It is accessible by direct flights from Melbourne with virginaustralia.com and jetstar.com. Flight time is one hour and 30 minutes.
The Junction Hotel is an award-winning boutique pub with rooms in Newcastle's inner city. It has beautifully appointed but good value rooms and a great location, a stroll from Bar Beach and Merewether. Rooms from $139 per night. See junctionhotel.com.au.
The Inner City Winemakers, 28 Church Street, Wickham. Phone 02 4962 3545. Open 10-5pm Tuesday-Sunday, bookings recommended. Innercitywinemakers.com.au
Daniel Scott was a guest of Visit Newcastle.