The Hunter Valley is credited with being the oldest wine region in New South Wales but, 200 kilometres away, Mudgee claims to have the state’s oldest wine bar. As I sit on a stool, Roth’s Wine Bar co-owner Jordan Rowlands waves his hand across the small front section.
“The bar used to be just this big, used to be just this room,” he explains.
“They used to put a folk band in the corner and there would literally be a hundred people here drinking.”
The wine bar was founded in 1923 by the Roth family, who planted the first grapes here in 1858. It’s expanded since then, with indoor dining areas (try the delicious woodfired pizzas), a large courtyard and a shed with more tables.
And, like Roth’s, Mudgee has also grown a lot since then. I think the time’s passed when it could be described as a ‘hidden gem’. On the weekends, it’s full of tourists, many coming for the food and wine that it is now rightfully acclaimed for. But as Jordan puts it, “Mudgee’s got a soul”.
Perhaps that soul is personified in people like Thelma Beechey, who I meet when I pop into a small gallery in the historic train station. I ask if she is from Mudgee and she says no – “I didn’t move here until after the war”. (But, after more than 70 years here, I am going to consider her a local.) Some of her paintings are on the wall, along with other arts and crafts by local artisans.
“Painters tend to want to paint,” she tells me with a smile, “so this sort of shop gives a place where people can put their things, otherwise you end up with a house full of stuff.”
Mudgee has been attracting old and new residents for decades. James O’Neill, originally from Sydney, opened a cafe here 20 years ago in an 1873 butchery, keeping much of the original interior. Even today, I notice the unique style as I’m walking past the Butcher Shop Cafe and so pop my head in to have a look at the old tiled room and ask James how Mudgee has changed.
“It’s very competitive, we’ve actually got chefs here now, running cafes and restaurants,” he says.
“It used to be a little bit more loose and casual.”
Just wander the streets in the heritage centre (with cherry blossoms bursting at the moment) and you’ll realise you’re spoiled for choice – a couple of great lunch options are the garden courtyard of Alby & Esthers and Eltons, in an 1896 pharmacy building. A bit further out of town, you’ll find incredible food at winery restaurants like Zin House and Pipeclay Pumphouse.
For many visitors, the main allure of Mudgee is outside the centre, in the dozens of wineries that surround the town that have made a name for themselves in recent decades. There are about 40 cellar doors and most offer tastings.
I head out to discover a few of them with Debbie Shorter, who runs a small tour company taking visitors to the wineries and mixing in stories about the region.
We start at Lowe Wines, one of the most popular cellar doors in Mudgee, with its tranquil garden setting and fine wine selection (the Zinfandel is exquisite). Winemaker David Lowe is known for his unconventional approaches, like not irrigating or trellising.
“We exist because we provide an experience,” he explains.
“It’s authenticity and we always have a winemaker on the cellar door seven days a week.”
Nearby, the relaxed facade of Bunnamagoo Estate hides the enormous winery behind it, where about 10 per cent of Mudgee’s grapes are processed. You can arrange tours of the modern facilities and enjoy a free tasting – I would suggest trying the sparkling and the Shiraz.
And then Debbie takes me to the Baker Williams Distillery, started by Helen Baker and Nathan Williams in 2012. It seems logical now that Mudgee would have locally made spirits and liqueurs, but that probably says something about the evolution of the town.
Nathan tells me they’ve made an effort to use regional ingredients – like the Mudgee honey in the lemon myrtle liqueur that I’m trying.
“It’s such a beautiful citrus flavour with a little herbal note too,” he says, as I sip.
“And we’ve got the local honey in there too so to me that tastes like a liquified barley sugar.”
No matter how long you spend in Mudgee, I fear it will be too short. Not only are there too many wineries for a single trip, the town is also an excellent base to explore other parts of the region – the towns of Rylstone and Gulgong, in particular.
Gulgong still has its original charm from when it was founded in 1870 by gold miners, with a quaint old street with original verandas and iron-lace balconies.
A lot may have changed out here in recent years, but there’s also much that hasn’t. An old wine bar that’s just been extended; a butcher that serves coffee instead of meat; a 19th-century town with tourists rather than miners. These are the things that give the Mudgee region its authentic soul.
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