80 vineyards, 30+ cellar doors, 6 wine trails and 47 cafes: a red-hot gourmet scene led by families of passionate winemakers awaits in the New South Wales town and surrounds of Orange
I don’t know about you, but when I leave the Big Smoke for a weekend away, I’m all about embracing those things I can’t find in the city: country cooking, green pastures, farm animals, really nice people that don’t cut you off on the road…you get the idea. It goes without saying that the further away you get from New South Wales’ capital city, the more heightened these attributes get, so as I begin the 3.5- to 4-hour drive from Sydney to Orange on a Friday afternoon, I presume the long drive can only be a good thing. On arriving in Australia’s colour city for the first time, amid unrelenting rainfall, no less, my theory proves true: when it comes to places to spend the weekend, the grass is definitely greener in Orange… and I’m not just talking about the scenery.
This New South Wales town and surrounding, picturesque region have been kicking gastronomic goals in recent years. As the highest vineyard area in Australia – 600 metres to 1150 metres above sea level – the cool climate wines coming out of the Orange wine region have been stacking medals left right and centre. Add to this a rapidly-emerging gourmet dining scene, and it’s no wonder this ‘new’ wine region (Orange was officially recognised as such in 1997) welcomes 1 million visitors every year to smell, swish and swirl its much-lauded chardonnay and pinot noir.
I’m in Orange ahead of the 14th Orange Wine Festival to experience for myself why this region is so highly regarded among oenophiles. Taking place from Friday 18th – Sunday 27th October to coincide with ‘budburst’ – when the grapevines produce new shoots following winter’s dormancy – this year’s festival comprises seven signature events and over 80 satellite events taking place throughout the region. But first thing’s first: where to stay?
Just add (more) colour
This artsy and uplifting Byng Street Boutique Hotel in the centre of town is a breath of fresh air in Orange. The luxury traveller to the region has long been limited to a small spread of three- and four-star accommodation options, and with the opening of this 22-room hotel in August comes a place to rest your head that ticks all the discerning wanderer’s boxes. An historical homestead with a far-reaching, contemporary extension, guests can choose from three rooms in the original, Heritage Wing of the hotel, or a room or suite in the Modern Wing of the building, where I end up this stay.
As soon as I arrive in the hotel’s petite but immaculately-appointed reception area with its sky-high ceilings I know owners Thomas and Kristen Nock mean business with their hotel venture – their hospitality pedigree is evident, and I can immediately detect no expense has been spared on making this hideaway the place to stay in Orange.
Our suite is just as colourful as the eclectic, rainbow-coloured guest lounge areas would suggest, and huge to boot. The floorplan is brilliant, with a king size bed and adjoining lounge area, as well as a kitchenette and walk-through wardrobe, but the ensuite is the design highlight for me. Oversized, bright and breezy with an airy, grey palette, oak joinery and a standalone bathtub perfectly positioned under a skylight, it is beautifully appointed and I shamelessly take photos of the space as a reference for the day when I design my dream home.
I’ll admit, though – I do miss the mini bar. For a gourmet destination like Orange I expected a locally-inspired bounty of snacks to choose from, in the vein of another premier wine region I’ve visited – New Zealand’s The Marlborough Lodge, but instead guests are limited to bottled water, juice and milk – albeit complimentary. To combat this expectation, the hotel sends guests an email a few days prior to check-in with a menu comprising a selection of local wines and specialities to customise their own mini bar, but options are limited to drinks, a cheese board, charcuterie board and a mysterious Dish of the Day. As the hotel’s dining room, Yallungah, is not open for lunch or dinner, this is the only menu you can order from during your stay. Given the lack of grab-and-go snacks, it’s a good thing the restaurant serves a breakfast of champions. A gorgeous, light-soaked and art-adorned room in the Heritage Wing of the building, it’s a pleasure waking up to a continental offering, barista-made coffee and a full à la carte hot breakfast menu each morning.
Let’s talk about wine
Ross Hill, Philip Shaw, Swinging Bridge and Rowlee Wines: these four impressive wineries are on my must-visit list during my time in Orange, and each is an utterly different experience. As Australia’s first certified National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) carbon-neutral winery, Ross Hill is ahead of the curve, and not just when it comes to the environment. Opt for the Wine Tasting and Food Pairing Experience to get a tasting plate of morsels paired perfectly to its Pinnacle Series wine lineup, or better yet, book in for a cooking class at the onsite wine and food school, Barrel & Larder.
If you’re short on time in Orange, Philip Shaw is my pick for best all-rounder: beautiful wine, gorgeous interior, great service, and even a friendly, farm-roaming goat called, well… Goat, that follows winemaker Daniel Shaw around the property like its life purpose, too, is to work with grapes. The Winemaker’s Selection tasting experience is gourmet, to say the least, comprising nine delicious wines paired beautifully to savoury and sweet bites.
As for Swinging Bridge, this is an absolute must for wine snobs. The chardonnay at this family-owned, understated cellar door with sweeping views is second to none in Orange for me, with the 2016 and 2018 Mrs Payten Chardonnay and 2017 Block A Chardonnay lip-smackingly good.
Nicole Samodol and James Manny of Rowlee Wines really know their stuff – which becomes apparent as soon as you sip their 2018 Single Vineyard Nebbiolo – or better yet, 2016 R Series Nebbiolo. Located 950 metres above sea level, the family-owned and run vineyard produces some interesting cool-climate varieties for the region, including Arneis and Gewurztraminer. The couple’s wines are hand-harvested and produced in small batches with a focus on sustainability and minimal intervention.
Anther reason to visit Rowlee? You can stay there for the night (or two) in a gorgeous two-person homestead surrounded by vines and farmland where Angus cattle and miniature horses roam. Dating back to the 1800s, the historical house is a bucolic beauty, the modern and minimal yet country-chic interior creating an ideal retreat away from the rat race. Better yet, when you feel like a drink and a chat with Nicole and James you can meander up the driveway to their cellar door, which is open daily.
You can visit all four of these wineries and any others you request with Orange’s leading wine tour operator, Orange Wine Tours, and if you are keen to taste more of Orange, there’s trendy Ferment in The Orange Wine Centre and Wine Store in town. Serving as the cellar door for twenty boutique wineries in the region, all wines are available on the pour, and the state of the art Enomatic wine dispensers let you try before you buy. With a great vibe and its heritage building position right next door to Byng Street Boutique hotel, it’s a must for a taste – literal and figurative – of local life in Orange. Don’t be surprised if you drop in for one glass and end up staying for three.
Where there is good wine, there is good food
The good thing about Australia’s wine regions is you can pretty much guarantee where there is good wine, there is good food, and Orange is no exception. The region is still a relative newcomer to the wine scene, and the dining landscape is in a similar boat – there are plenty of excellent options, but it helps to know where to go, especially as Orange is not yet on board with on-site restaurants in its wineries.
A hands-down must-visit is Racine, where owners Shaun and Willa Arantz have created a culinary experience that is, essentially, Orange on a plate: elegant dishes that are full of character with locally-sourced produce. Their website says, ‘we want you to feel like you’re in our house’ and it does – albeit a really nice, really beautifully-decorated house with some of the best chefs in town at your disposal. On my plate, picture: kipfler potato and bacon consommé with parmesan custard, beef cheeks with carrot escabeche, celeriac puree and green peppercorn and a sensational, completely original parsnip cake with mandarin sorbet and lemon curd – the restaurant’s take on a modern day lemon meringue tart surrounded by a toffee casing that you need to put some serious elbow grease in to cracking. Outside the restaurant’s four walls is a picturesque setting typical of Orange – rows of vines and in the distance the famous extinct volcano, Mount Canobolas, making it a gorgeous spot for an alfresco lunch as the weather warms up.
Charred Kitchen & Bar in the centre of town is also worth experiencing for the Asian fusion food, yes, but even more so, for the wines. Sommelier David Collins is an absolute wealth of knowledge and his passion for wine is evident in every drop he pours. Charred’s extensive 627-bottle wine list – one of the largest in the country – has already received various awards including a Gourmet Traveller Wine Readers’ Choice Award, with the publisher stating “Charred has produced one of the great Australian lists of recent years”, and a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Don’t pick a wine to pair with your dinner without consulting Collins first… wondering what he’s going to choose is half the fun in this atmospheric restaurant.
When hunger strikes again, Sister’s Rock restaurant at Borrodell Estate makes an excellent lunch spot thanks to its position 1030 metres above sea level that grants diners panoramic views of the pinot noir block and sprawling valley. Expect to come across families of kangaroos roaming the vines on your drive up – this pretty spot is their home as much as the local residents’, who know the can rely on Head Chef Richard Learmonth for a true farm to table dining experience. The food is simple but delicious, with produce sourced from local artisans and the estate’s very own vineyard, orchard, trufferie and kitchen garden. The lamb parpadelle I experience here is hands-down the best I’ve ever had.
As for white tablecloth fine dining, it’s got to be Lolli Redini, or ‘Lolli’s’, as the locals affectionately call this Orange institution. Now operating for 18 years, Lolli’s has maintained one or more Good Food Guide chef hats for 16 of those years. You know you’re onto a good thing when even the hunger-busting bread is mouth-watering, and Lolli’s warm homemade herb sourdough with whipped truffled butter is exactly that, setting the tone for the rest of the meal. The food really is delicious here, with Orange’s local produce – orchard fruits, Clyde Rivers Moonlight flat oysters, Milthorpe truffles, wild forest mushrooms, free range Somerlad chickens et al. – once again star of the show. The traditional, formal ambience wont’ be for everyone, but the food is a crowd-pleaser and a must for true foodies to experience while in Orange… even if it does mean you’ll be rolling back to Sydney.