Wines with Altitude: Orange

Not to be confused with the trending movement towards skin-contact ‘orange wines’, there’s another Orange on the wine scene: the hight altitude vineyard region west of Sydney in New South Wales. Situated on the slopes of the Great Dividing Range, Orange’s vineyards begin at 600 metres altitude, and extend to 1,300 metres. Given that average growing temperatues fall by around 0.7 of a degree celsius for every 100 metres of elevation, vineyards at 1,300 metres can enjoy conditions that are a full 9ºC cooler than those at sea level.

Orange is a relatively small area, with 1,000 hectares of vineyard, many planted on the slopes of the extinct volcano, Mount Canobolas. Planted originally in the 1840s, like so many Australian regions, it experienced a fallow period in the early 20th century before moving into a new era of professional winemaking in the 1980s. Orange was officially registered as an Australian ‘GI’ in 1997.

The Lie of the Land

The three winemakers present, Damian Shaw (Philip Shaw Wines), Peter Robson (Ross Hill Wines) and Ben Crossing (Angullong Wines), stressed that though atitude and cooler climates was a common factor across their estates, there were some differences too. Angullong at around 600 metres is perfectly positioned to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon for example, while most Cabernet from the higher vineyards at 900 mteres has now been grafted or replanted to other varieties. Soils vary too, mostly reflecting the volcanic origins and lava flows, with deep clays over basalt rock in some places, others over shale and gravel. There are also areas of ‘terra rossa’ red soil over limestone.

The GI zone begins at that 600 metre mark, so these are genuinely among Australia’s highest vineyards. Damian Shaw recounts how snow has fallen on New Year’s Day – remember, this is the southern hemisphere, so that is the height of summer.  Frost is a perennial risk, though sunshine and summer warmth are guaranteed in this area of clear skies and high UV levels, so ripening is rarely a problem.  Colder nights are a factor of altitude, that diurnal summer shift between hot days and cool night helping retain acidity and giving the wines freshness – as demonstrated in the six wines below.

The Wines

(2022) From one of the pioneering estates of the modern era, and a vineyard that runs from 860- to 950 metres. Fermented with indigenous yeasts, 75% in old barrels, it was matured on the lees with stirring and pnly partial malolactic. Lovely oatmeal and toasty crushed almond aromas over ripe stone fruits, a hint of flint. Lovely, mouthfilling fruit that becomes peachy-sweet, but the cool-climate structure with firm acidity and a taut finish balances really very nicely. Note price and stockist are for the previous vintage at time of review.
(2022) Vineyards run from 750- to 820 metres here on basalt soils. Whole bunch pressed into French oak barrels, 50% new, where it matured for nine months. Very aromatic and nutty, a little hint of mint or menthol. Very fresh and bright on the palate still, lots of flashing lemon peel and zest, a crispness and citrus drive, but wrapped in a little butterscotch to very pleasing effect. Very different from the Philip Shaw, but another really lovely expression of Chardonnay.
(2022) From vineyards between 860 and 950 metres, this is 40% whole-bunches feremented in open vats with wild yeasts. It is aged 10 months in French oak barriques, 30% of which are new. Nice pale but vibrant cherry colour. Lovely perfume here, lots of buoyant, juicy red fruit, but spices, pepper and nuttiness, a little note of hessian. In the mouth it is an elegant and crisp style, the fruit is clear and pure, the wine relatively light- to medium-bodied, with a gravelly precision to tannins and acidity, a hint of espresso just in the background. Certainly a fresh style. Note that price and stockist are for a previous vintage at time of review.
(2022) Originally a sheep and cattle station, the family diversified into vines in the late 1990s. At 600-650 metres, on silty clay soils with some limestone, the wine was matured in oak puncheons for 12 months, 30% new. From a slightly warmer site, but still a fresh style, the nose has chocolate and mint, as well as a mix of blackcurrant and brighter cherry fruit. The palate has a lovely bounce and freshness, plenty of acidity here, gripping along with fine but sandy tannins. Juicy with plenty of tang and some herby-spice notes.
(2022) Lift, brightness and cool-climate elegance immediately on the nose here, from vineyards at 750- to 820 metres on basalt. It spent 15 months months in French oak, only 10% new. There is a herbal character too, then moving on to a racy, cool, quite lithe palate with a bittersweet plum skin quality to the acid and moderate but tight tannins. Its a savoury style.
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