6.05pm: A Gooree Park Crowned Glory 2016 Shiraz.
Just over three hours north-west of Sydney and, as it turns out, two worlds away – more on that later – lies a town of just over 10,000 which has reinvented itself over the past decade as a beacon for those who love a tipple and a nibble … welcome to Mudgee.
(Early aside, if you’re driving from Sydney at least, the country escape starts about an hour along the Castlereagh Highway – the scenery and its bouncy inhabitants are a stunning reminder of the beauty which lies just outside of Australia’s cities.)
Back to business – the Crowned Glory. As it warms the soul, Pam and David Stewart welcome Bianca and I to their luxury bed and breakfast The Birches. In stark contrast to the windy evening outside, heat radiates from the crackling fire.
This evening the windows are closed, the fridge is stocked with local cheeses and scientific inquiry is the topic of conversation: is there any proof a fire makes red wine taste nicer?
But for warmer days, their homely abode also features a swimming pool for those wanting to cool down.
7.15pm Cup of tea – 2018 English Breakfast.
John and Patricia have one of the best shed’s in Australia – truth be told it’s one of my favourites anywhere. It’s an absolutely fascinating place, and then there’s the fact it happens to be attached to their pride and joy, The Mudgee Observatory.
On a cloudless winter night, deep in the NSW countryside – about 20km out of town – and without a competing light in the sky, the majesty of the universe is unveiled in all its glory.
John’s classically understated Australian passion for it – and supreme knowledge – delivered in one-liners, make this evening a cracker.
And then there’s the planets. Watching the rings of Saturn through the lens is a genuine, ‘Wow’ moment.
But, it has to be said, Saturn, with all its bling is a bit of a celestial show off, because the real star up there, the planet with all the style and class, is Jupiter.
As John describes it’s importance to Galileo’s theories of the universe, you watch in awe as its four moons Io, Europa, Ganymese and Callisto float there quite literally in space and take your breath away
“I just feel so tiny,” Bianca says.
A problem that would be fixed, for both of us, by dinner …
8.47pm Blue Wren No913 Shiraz Reserve.
“What’s the best way to make a million dollars from a vineyard? Invest two-million in it!,” Blue Wren manager Paul Mallet, says.
Set on 65 acres with 18 under vineyard, The Blue Wren is one of the new kids on the block.
The modern-feel venue, with echoes of European charm – such as the beautifully lit tree-lined driveway leading up to the main building – offers a range of very drinkable wines which to end the day while talking about Jupiter.
After an invigorating walk into town we arrive at something of a local institution.
“I’ll have a regular cappuccino please,” I ask Alby and Esthers’s owner of the last three years Leigh Sargent.
“There’s nothing regular about it,” she replies.
And she’s right.
Down a brick alleyway which opens up into an intimate courtyard, Alby and Esthers is a rustic café, set around a silver birch tree with vine’s overhead.
It is named after the previous owners’ grandparents, Leigh says that’s because her grandparent’s names did not make for a good café moniker.
Even in winter it’s a lovely venue, but you can easily imagine sitting under the vines on a summer evening nibbling local delicacies and local wines – Leigh features the ones with no cellar door. While it’s homemade fruit breads, pastries, and relish and pomegranate jam are delicious, Alby and Esther’s is famous for its jaffle.
Leigh tells us she gets a lot of Queenslanders visiting who come to the town to get a real sense of winter, and wear those knits and jackets we all love to jump into but all-to-rarely have real reason to wear. (I’m looking at you Sydney.)
Whilst I’m being brought back down to earth by Leigh, I realise the real charm of this tiny town that has reinvented itself as a gourmet’s paradise … it’s all done with a beautiful Australian twist.
Mudgee might have wines and food to match the vineyards and restaurants of Europe but at its heart it’s as Aussie as can be; the flavours and tastes are all delivered with a down-to-earth, self-depreciating, engaging charm too rarely found these days in the cities.
Across the road from the café in the church foreground are the Mudgee Farmers Markets with everything from home-made honey (the ginger is outstanding), to freshly baked bread, olives, plants and cupcakes that look like they’ve been thrown together by more artist than chef.
But as well as the high-end, there are thankfully still stalls which sell clearly homemade backed goods.
And then there’s Dennis “The Menace” Grimshaw from the Castlereagh Seed Savers, an organisation he founded to ensure the survival of traditional plants used for food and even medicine.
The sparkle in the eye, and cheeky delivery point to the mischief which would have earned this charming old boy his nickname.
And he has all the seeds you could possibly want from poppies to chilis and all the vegetables in between.
What you get from Dennis is more an educational than sales experience and learning what you should plant with what and how plants cross pollinate is intriguing.
10.37am: Goree Park Sparkling Shiraz 2015.
“The bigger the bubbles the bigger the headache,” Jackie Trott tells us at the Goree Park Cellar Door.
With Goree Park 15km out of town, about 10 months ago they set up the first in-town cellar door.
The history of Goree Park is fascinating, 40 years ago Filipino business man Eduardo Cojuangco (of San Miguel fame) chose Mudgee over Kentucky, USA, to breed thoroughbreds and now is the largest local landowner with 555 acres on the vine and 2200 acres dedicated to wagyu beef cattle.
Such is his love of the horses he names his wines after them and industry stars like Gai Waterhouse are no stranger to his property.
And while he can obviously pick a winning trainer … his has an eye for a fine wine too.
Before we go on, a very quick note of some of the other things to do in Mudgee – in the short space time you have before eating and drinking again.
There is a small shopping district in the heart of the town, featuring names like Mudgee Art House, homewares stores Whatever and Cedar Cicada and fashion shopfront Edited and Co. It’s great for a post-prandial stroll and purchasing the country hat you always thought you needed.
12.22pm: Mudgee Pale Ale.
Gary Leonard set up the microbrewery and restaurant, The Mudgee Brewing Company, 11 years ago after – unsurprisingly – a few beers with his mates and then googling brewing companies for sale.
Brewing Monday and Thursday, he has a pretty simple approach: “I brew beers I like to drink … which probably isn’t the smartest.”
Maybe not financially, but they do taste good … and his range all have a unique personality and like most the sustenance down this way, come with a yarn.
Mudgee, it turns out, has been brewing beer since 1883 – but back then the local water supply had more than its fair share of sediment, so much so the local beer became known as Mudgee Mud.
In a cruel twist of fate, when the breweries turned back to town water and lost their cloudy edge some of the local wines inherited that unflattering label.
Not on Gary’s watch, he’s taken the name back calling his 8.5 per cent Imperial Stout, the Mudgee Mud.
Settling in for a beer tasting you won’t go wrong as there’s a wide and tasty range.
The Porter voted No1 after the appropriated research.
It’s wine tasting time.
Ditch the car keys, and jump on board the traditional winery bus tour with Ben and the Mudgee Tourist Bus.
The beauty of Ben and his bus is that, not only will his company customise your tour through the local wine country to any of the 40-plus celler doors, but if you get hungry mid tour he will also organise an emergency cheese and meat platter – you couldn’t want for more.
“I do offer a helicopter tour too but I haven’t had any takers yet,” he says.
Lowe Wines – check out the tastes of Nappa Valley celebrity investors with the 2010 or 2011 Zinfadel.
Walter Wines – I don’t say this often (for which I blame the 2004 movie Sideways) but the 2016 Merlot Rose goes down an absolute treat.
Baker Williams Distillery – for those with a penchant for the stronger stuff this micro distillery offers liquors and spirits harnessing regional flavours. There’s gins, Limoncello, coffee liquors, vodkas but it’s tough to go past the butterscotch schnapps.
Vinifera Wines – sample it offers award winning organic tipples.
7.37pm: 2017 First Ridge Fiano.
And now for one of my favourite dining experiences in Australia.
But first to find it, The Zin House – which takes its name from the Zinfandel vineyard it overlooks – is about 20 minutes out of town. Drive slow, this time of night the wonderful nocturnal creatures of the western plains savanna tend to the think the winding bitumen belongs to them.
As you walk up to the path the bubbling delights of the kitchen waft across the pathway before you even see into the restaurant.
It’s organic, it’s biodynamic but most of all its delicious – Kim Currie’s Hat is well deserved.
(For those planning an immediate visit to Mudgee, just be aware the Zin House is currently (almost) closed until July 2019 – so give them a buzz.)
Bianca and I are sat by the fire in the old reading room of the house, books still align one wall.
The one thing I will always love about this place is that you occasionally see a chef nip out the front door and come back holding some fresh tomatoes or greenery – these tastes are hot off the press.
The six courses are a celebration of the local produce – not over fancy just delicious – and they are complimented by the wines of David Lowe.
There’s also no rush. Between courses you can take your wine to the fire bowl outside and say, ‘G’day’, to the local cat.
The highlight of tonight’s meal is the Grassland’s chicken roasted with truffle mashed potato, today’s vegetables verjuice and preserved lemon jus.
This next line is not for the purists, I sometime wander if we haven’t got the menu order wrong – I wish I had come face to face with the main dish straight away. It wouldn’t have stood a chance. It still doesn’t but it’s in the fight longer than it should be given the other courses.
I don’t like saying anything is a must, but for those who love food in a homely venue … knock on this door.
11.50am: 2016 ‘Marie Louise’ Prestige Cuvee.
After a glorious breakfast courtesy of Pam and David – who prove once again you don’t need flavour-destroying vinegar to poach a delicious egg, we’re on the road to Rylstone, one of the oldest towns west of the Great Dividing Range.
About 45 minutes out of Mudgee and past the eerie Lake Windamere and its dead trees hauntingly projecting from the water, lies de Beaurepaire wines run by Richard and Janet for the last 20 years.
You can’t help but notice the history of the property which has housed highwaymen and a Melbourne Cup winner. Richard greets us at the 1850 Grafter’s room.
His philosophy is straight forward when it comes to drinking wine: “If it’s not going well, tip it out – life’s too short to be drinking wine you don’t like.”
But de Beaurepaire, has another fascinating secret.
Courtesy of limestone landscape brought about by an inland sea many moons ago, the terroir is the closest in Australia to Burgundy and Champagne in France.
And when you have terroir like that, you go French.
Since Richard and Janet accepted the geology and focused on wines styles from a different hemisphere they have gone from strength to strength.
Tasting award-winning French-style Australian wine is possibly the last thing you expect deep in country NSW.
And that’s what I mean when I say: you are three hours from Sydney but two worlds away … Bonjour Rylstone.
12.37pm: Green Tea.
And now for the most unexpected of unexpected gems – the best dumplings I have ever tasted. That’s not saying much but Bianca is a dumpling connoisseur from way back and the knowing nod is all I need to realise these from 29Nine99 are top shelf – in fact 10 dumplings in and we’re already planning a trip back from Sydney to get amongst them again. As we chow down, we sit in her courtyard underneath eucalypts, the Aussie theme continues.
29Nine99 was set up by Na Lan 10 years ago and the culinary magic she works in her truly tiny kitchen is worthy of Hogwarts.
I ask her secret, “That you enjoy them,” she says.
2.45pm: Whiskey and Kahlua.
We then meet Sandy at the Royal Hotel in the tiny village of Capertee, a welcome relief from the relentless discussion about my inability to put petrol in the car.
Country Escape Tours – which offer bespoke farm gate tours, cooking classes and sister hood of the traveling lunch trips – know this part of the world like few others and as well as safe arrival, you’re guaranteed some solid history.
After 15 minutes off road, we land at the stables in the Capertee Valley. On a beautifully crisp day, we spend a couple of hours riding along the Turon river on horseback. Right on cue the local wombats join us for part of the stroll.
While a Whiskey and/or a Kahlua would be lovely right about now as the evening closes in, for the first time on the trip we don’t have a drink in our hands – this time, alas, it’s the names of our horses … but even here in the forest in the middle of nowhere there’s no escaping the general theme of this part of the world.
WINTER WEEKEND IN MUDGEE NOTES:
Relax at Birches B&B Mudgee: 02 6372 9005
Stargaze at Mudgee Observatory 02 6373 3431
Visit the Blue Wren Winery: 02 6372 6205
Breakfast at Alby and Esthers 02 6372 1555
Potter at Mudgee Farmers Markets Cnr Market and Church Streets
Drink at Goree Park Cellar Door 02 6378 1800
Lunch at Mudgee Brewing Company 02 6372 6726
Jump on the Mudgee Tourist Bus 0428 699 945
Drink at Lowe Wines, Walter Wines, Baker Williams Distillery and Vinifera Wines
Settle in and dine at The Zin House 02 6372 1660
Tasting at De Beaurepaire Wines 0429 787 705
Descend into dumpling heaven at 29Nine99 02 6379 1984
Take a horse ride with Country Escape Tours 0450 654 260