Orange is a contemporary wine-growing region that has clearly started to hit its stride.
It's remarkable, given how incredible Orange is for growing grapes, why the early settlers didn't do it earlier. Borry Gartrell, from Borrodell Vineyard, has a theory. At the turn of the century Orange was full of Methodist Cornish, Borry tells me, who came seeking gold, snapped up all the good land, and wielded their strong conservative influence. "Frankly they would rather have had a cup of tea than a stiff drink."
Thankfully, things started to change around 40 years ago when hobbyists started growing grapes. Even though many thought he was barking mad, Borry ploughed 1200 apple trees and did likewise. Things really gained momentum when one of Australia's most decorated wine makers, Philip Shaw, found his ideal site for growing grapes in Orange's undulating hills in 1988.
Earlier this year, I visited Orange for its 2016 vintage, and by all accounts it's one of the best yet. Surprisingly, Orange is celebrating just 20 years of being officially recognised as both an official wine region and a certified cool climate wine growing region - defined as beginning at 600 metres above sea level. But oh what strides it's made in just two short decades.
High on the slopes of Mt Conobolos (at 1050m above sea level) Charlie Svenson pours me a glass of his 2014 De Salis Lofty Chardonnay. It's superb, and in the quiet of the late afternoon, I hear Charlie's story. "I make wine that I love to drink. We don't use modern technology; we're old school." Charlie and his small team are dog-tired from the harvest, and have pulled two overnighters.
Typically, Orange's vintage is long, slow and fun, but this year's unseasonably warm weather has resulted in a compact harvest, Charlie tells me, pouring another tasting of his Wild Chardonnay. It has no added yeast, is wild fermented, and it too is incredibly quaffable. "It's minimalist intervention, but it takes a lot of work, Charlie explains, as his red cattle dog Tank lies on the cellar floor. Orange, Charlie says, has a tight knit group of 13 wine makers. "The harder you work, the more comradery there is – that's what we live for".
As if on cue, a ute pulls up with a couple of local wine makers who have come to drink beer and chew the fat. "Lots of beer is drunk during the vintage," Charlie says laughing.
It's this wonderful comradery and passion that is clearly evident as I visit a handful of Orange's best wineries, some of which boast brand new cellar doors. Unlike big commercial wine regions, here the consumer often gets to meet the grower or wine maker themselves. Pick your timing, and you may be lucky enough to see the vintage itself. Or you can time your visit for the other calendar highlight – the Orange Wine Festival – which starts mid-October.
On a blue bird day, I watch a team of nimble fingered local pickers handpick the last of the grapes at Brangayne Vineyard. It's here I also meet Justin Jarrett, whose winery See Saw Wines are bringing out the region's first prosecco. On the back of an old truck, Justin pours us a tasting of the still cloudy lees. The finished product will be launched at a Prosecco Party during the two-week wine festival. "Prosecco is all about the fun and joy of wine," Justin says.
Nearby is Philip Shaw's incredible new cellar door in a lovingly restored bluestone barn, complete with vegie garden and landscape terraces. Philip's sons Daniel, also a winemaker, and Damien, the sales and marketing manager, are now at the helm. New label Rowlee Wines likewise has opened a cellar door, as has Heifer Station.
After a tour of Heifer's funky cellar door in an old wool shed, we end up at a table under a willow tree by a picturesque dam, where the winery now offers picnics. "Orange definitely punches above its weight when it comes to great food and wine," says sales manager James Thomas, pouring Chardonnay from Heifer's distinct cow labelled bottle.
To the average punter, like myself, Orange's seemingly endless varietals, cool climate classification, and the number of years it has actually produced wine, doesn't necessarily mean much. What is clear, says David Crawley, chair of Orange Wine Festival, is that Orange is a contemporary wine-growing region just starting to hit its stride. "It's the perfect time to get to know us." As I head for home, wine bottles clanking together in my luggage, I couldn't agree more.
Orange is a 3.5-hour drive from Sydney, or there is a daily train service from Sydney. See nswtrainlink.info. REX Airlines offers a 45-minute direct flight from Sydney up to four times daily. See rex.com.au
Now in its 17th year, the 2016 Orange Wine Festival from October 14-30 features a record 90 plus satellite wine and food events hosted by local vineyards, cellar doors, wine bars, whiskey saloons, restaurants, cafes and tourism providers. See orangewinefestival.com.au
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Destination NSW and Orange F.O.O.D Week.