A Stunning Sunset View at First Ridge Vineyard

Sunset from the First Ridge Cellar Door in Mudgee New South Wales Australia

It was sunset of our only full day in Mudgee New South Wales.  We headed out to meet Col Millot, the Viticulturist at First Ridge Vineyard on the south east side of the Mudgee Valley.  While viewing the sunset from their cellar door, we discussed Mudgee, the First Ridge Vineyard site, their wines and soils, as well as, how weather, climate change and drought was affecting them.

The drive to the cellar door at First Ridge Mudgee NSW Australia
The drive to the cellar door at First Ridge

The tree lined drive onto the property from Burrundulla Road is a welcoming entrance.  It’s a moment of respite as you travel slowly through the dappled light through the vineyard and up to the cellar door. 

Col opened up the cellar door for us. When I say, “opened up”, it’s a bit more than you might think.  This building is the elegant connection of two shipping containers. The two red boxes that we saw driving up, transform as he opens the sliding metal sides exposing the windows that bring in the spectacular view of the vineyard.  The interior is modern, but welcoming and the light at sunset was magical.

First Ridge has been a grower for 20 odd years.  They sold, and still sell, fruit around Australia.  In 2013 they made their first vintage of wine, and since then, keep 60 tons of grapes to produce the wines they sell here in the tasting room.  The beautiful tasting room was built in 2015 and has helped to increase the interest in the wines.

Mudgee – the “nest in the hills”

Mudgee, especially from the vantage point of the First Ridge Cellar Door, does indeed look like a “nest in the hills”, it’s aboriginal name.  That “nest” is the giant basin of an old volcano.

The region was colonized during the gold rush.  As Col says, “where there is mining, there is alcohol”.  In the 1860’s there were 400 hectares of vines growing here. 

At the turn of the century, most of the wine here stopped.  This vibrant area continued with mining and agriculture with cattle-grazing and food production. Wine didn’t make a marked come back until the 1990’s, when large wine companies encouraged people to plant more vines.  Then in 2006, most of these companies decided to head back to South Australia, and people started pulling out vines.  Since then, there has been a 40% decrease in the hectares of vines planted in Mudgee.

That’s not all bad.  Wineries here are back to family owned and mostly boutique. The largest owner is the Oatley family, the rest are smaller, 100 to 200-ton size wineries.

This is a unique area that does a wide range of varieties well.  While still less discovered than the Hunter or Coonawarra, people are discovering the region and seeing the wines are high quality.

The climate here is temperate with hot summers and cool nights that lock in the acid causing the wines here to age well.

First Ridge Vineyard

Soil

First Ridge Vineyard started in the mid 90’s.  It is one of the highest vineyards in Mudgee, with the highest block at 600 meters.  The soil here is rocky and volcanic, and these poor soils are great for the vines. 

First Ridge Mudgee NSW Australia
Two shipping containers at the top of the hill hold a tasting room with a perfect sunset view, where we chatted with Col and a glass of their delicious Prosecco.

Col pointed out the block down the hill in front of the cellar door.  At 22 years old, the trunks of the vines were just 2 inches in diameter.  In more fertile soil down in the flats beyond here, these vines would be up to 6 inches in diameter by now.  Here the vines have smaller bunches and berries and wonderful exposure.

The site has all types of rock and soil.  The area was once an ancient riverbed and Col picks up a piece of siltstone that was found in the vineyard close to the cellar door.  It has layers of fossils, of creatures and coral, vegetable matter and shell. 

“This predates anything that has bone, it’s around 300 million years old.”

Col Millot, October 2019

This mud, from an ancient riverbed system is dense and heavy.

“You start to realize that we are very small in the scheme of things, when you look at something as old as that.”

Col Millot, October 2019

Above the vineyard you find quartz and basalt.

“So, you’ve got sedimentary and metamorphic rock all in one.  It’s incredible.  It’s very ancient land.”

Col Millot, October 2019

Why Italian Varieties?

Col said, he had tasted Italian wines years ago in McLaren Vale and found them very drinkable.  They were much easier than the big Shiraz and Cabs that Australia was known for.

These grapes were already growing in Mudgee, thanks to Carlo Carino, an early winemaker at Montrose Wines.  He brought sangiovese, barbera and nebbiolo and planted them here. Knowing they would do well, First Ridge Vineyard planted sangiovese and barbera back in 1998.  Since then they have added, vermentino, fiano, pinot grigio, prosecco (glera) and Montepulciano.

The Wines

Col and I sipping First Ridge Prosecco, while he told me about the history and the soils of this place.
Col and I sipping First Ridge Prosecco, while he told me about the history and the soils of this place.

White Wines at First Ridge Vineyard

We started off discussing the Prosecco, which we had been sipping on as we spoke.  Clean and bright with notes of lemon, it had a little sweetness on it. 

“I was asking an old chap once, what style would sell the best. Is there a market for it being dry or sweet? He said, you make it too sweet you’ll lose half your customers.  You make it to dry, you’ll lose half your customers.  So, we try to find the middle ground.”

Col Millot, October 2019

This wine has won 3 silver medals in its first vintage.

We move on to the vermentino “It’s a beautiful grape.  It’s a beautiful eating grape, it’s a beautiful grape to look at, it’s a beautiful grape to make wine with.  It’s quite lean, quite minerally and quite salty. There is this saltiness about them.  They are a delightful drinking wine”

They are also growing fiano which Col finds to be a bit more structured than the vermentino. He describes it as the most elegant and complex of their white wines.  The last of their white wines is a bright pinot grigio.  Col says it’s “like sticking your nose in a jar of pears.”

Rosé and Red Wines

They grow sangiovese that they also use for a rosé.  To control vigor, they train these to on bud per spur.  This gives them smaller berries and bunches. With just two bunches from each bud this keeps them to 6 tons per hectare with this vigorous grape.  This kind of training also help minimize disease and intensify the flavor.

The Barbera is their flagship and it comes from the rough rocky block up the hill from the cellar door.  It is low yielding at 4 tons per acre and was just converted from spur to cane pruned.  The wines produce intense flavors of black cherry with beautiful aromas, silky tannins and a savory finish.

Lastly is the Montepulciano.  It is arch cane trained and at 2 years old was looking to its first harvest in 2019.

Climate, water and drought.

Drought and water

We finish on the tougher subject of climate and drought.  Col mentions that it has been hotter during the last 4 seasons that he has been here.

“We talk a lot these days about the warming and heating and there is no doubt there is changes in the climate.  It’s getting hotter.  The last four seasons here in Mudgee have been hot.  But those minimum temperatures are still lower. The big difference this vintage was the minimum temperatures were higher and that’s the first time I’ve seen that here.”

Col Millot, October 2019

The Cudgegong River runs past the property, helping with irrigation. Due to the soil, they must irrigate, but the vines also have deep roots.  This makes the vines are economical with water. They average a megaliter per hectare each year. Nonetheless, water is a concern.

“…we’re in the grip of a pretty serious drought right now.  There’s no doubt that we’re a bit worried about where it’s all going. It’s alright to have a river, but if there is no water running down it, you can’t draw from it.”

Col Millot, October 2019

There are cut backs on water entitlements in the region, to preserve water.  Col finds they must be very careful with how they manage water in the vineyard. Luckily, at this point, he has found that it has not impacted the wines.  They have no need to add sugar, acid or tannins.  The wine is simply fermented, filtered, put into oak if needed and bottled. 

Rain

Water comes into play in another way.  Rain in late summer can be hard for the ripening grapes and it’s common to have high rainfall in February during harvest.  With the drought the last 4 years, this has not been an issue.  Col remembers seasons with much more rain.  In 2001 they had 18 inches of rain in February and in 2008, 8 inches fell overnight.

This site is high enough and well-draining enough that the rain runs down through the vineyards into the headlands.  It doesn’t sit in the vineyard and cause the fruit to swell, diluting the flavor in the fruit.

The Future of First Ridge Vineyard

At the time of our visit, in October of 2019, Col was feeling pretty good about First Ridge.  The cellar door had increased interest in their wines.  The wines were getting better every year.  Tourism in 2019 had increased with more people traveling domestically due to the decline of the Australian dollar. 

“I think people are just a little concerned about traveling and moving around as much overseas than they used to be.” 

Col Millot, October 2019

As a result, people in Australia were exploring the wine country in their own backyard.  Mudgee, which is 3 ½ hours from Sydney, through the Blue Mountains, had become a popular weekend destination.

Since then, they had a tough summer, dealt with the possibility of smoke taint from the fires and then like everyone had to close their cellar door due to Covid-19.  They have stayed active on Facebook and Instagram.  Like so many in the wine industry they are finding ways to stay connected with the people who love their wines. For now, you can order online from their online store until they are able to open again, and you can take in the views from their stunning cellar door.

More on Mudgee and First Ridge Vineyard

You can read more on First Ridge and Mudgee from Crushed Grape Chronicles through the links below.

You can also find great resources at the websites for First Ridge and Mudgee

Shale Oak – a holistic sense of sustainability

Shale OAK Winery

In researching for our trip to Paso, I came across CellarPass.  Cellar Pass provides online reservations for tastings at wineries.  I found Shale Oak through them and scheduled a 10 am tasting.

This stunning tasting room is off of 46W on Oakdale road. The winery released it’s inaugural vintage in May of 2011, and opened their tasting room later that year.  This winery was built to be sustainable and the building is LEED certified.  At least 1/3 of the wineries energy needs are supplied by the solar photovoltaic panels on the building. The redwood used on the building is 100 year old reclaimed wood from Vandenburg.  All the items in their gift shop are repurposed items.

The owner Al Good was raised in Virginia and is an entrepreneurial farmer.  He has developed a holistic approach to the agriculture business.  The sense of land stewardship is what drives Shale Oak.  Their winemaker Curtis Hascall is in his early 30’s and grew up in Watford England.  He graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in food-science.  He worked with Consulting winemaker Kevin Patrick Riley before coming on board with Shale Oak.  Consultant winemaker Kevin Riley is well know in Paso and consults for several wineries as well as owning and running Proulx with his wife Genoa. His adventure style shows in the wines.

Before we began our tasting our pourer got us each a small glass of a palate cleanser called evo that was developed by a couple for their senior project at Cal Poly.  The pH is the same as wine, so it is better than crackers or water.  Our tasting began with the 2011 Sui.  Sui is the second element in Japanese philosophy and represents water, fluidity, magnetism and suppleness.  This blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Albarino, Pinot Grigio is bright and clear with honeydew melon and a nice minerality.  We next moved on to the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon.  I know…Cabernet as the first red on a menu?  Seems a little out of order doesn’t it?  But this is  a lovely approachable soft cab with just a little petite Verdot.  The Cab has a very interesting nose.  It is deep rich and smoky.  On the palate it is lighter bodied almost with a Pinot Noir mouth feel, but still a very deep nose.

The 2009 Syrah had berries on the nose and was meaty and smoky on the palate.  This is a fruit forward new world style wine.

The 2009 Petite Sirah has a sense of caramel, this is a bigger wine, but very approachable.  You get violets on the nose.  Unlike many Petite Sirahs this is not heavy or inky.  It has great aromas and flavors but is lighter on the palate.  They once did a pairing of this with an ice cream with a caramel ribbon (yum).

The 2009 Petit Verdot is dry but not as dry as a typical Petit Verdot.  You get a burst of raisin with this.  This one sits at 16% alcohol but is not hot.

The Cabernet and all of their whites are grown on their Pleasant Valley Vineyard on the East side. Here on the property by the winery they grow Syrah, Grenache and Zinfandel.  The Zin is young and not producing much yet so they supplement their Zin by buying fruit from Willow Creek Farms right down the road.  Willow Creek is owned by Kevin Riley.

Their white wines are aged in stainless, and the reds in oak.  Their 2012 Zin is currently aging in New Oak.

The tasting room is stunning with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows on the front, clean lines and a sense of peacefulness.

They have a beautiful patio where they have music on the last Sunday of each month.  They sell wine by the glass and encourage people to bring their lunch and enjoy the patio.

Really this place is stunning and the wines were really wonderful.

If you need a little Zen time, this is the place to come.  Bring a snack, get a glass of one of their wines and relax and rejuvenate on the serene patio with the beautiful water features.

A Cloudy afternoon at the View (Winebar not the talk show!)

View Bar Tivioli Village

I spent an afternoon with Joey at the View Wine Bar (420 South Rampart Las Vegas at Tivoli Village) awhile ago and shared with you  in my Adventures in Sauvignon Blanc blog. Well today I took Michael along for lunch at The View.  The weather was about the same, cloudy and a little windy, but the view was better because the fountain was full and working (as opposed to dry and filled with men in yellow vests cleaning it!).  The location is a little hard to find, which is why we are talking about it here and giving you directions.  You will find it above Brio at Tivoli Village. To get there, walk past the entrance to Brio and around the corner and look for LV Market!  Enter there and cross through the downstairs bistro and take the stairs to the 2nd floor. Head to the front of the building and relax in the industrial decadence of the “View”.

View from View Bar

View from View Bar

You can see the fountain out the front windows and the mix of industrial architecture with exposed ceilings and ducts and tufted couches and seats with natural woods and wine bottle light fixtures in plumbing pipes is enchanting in my opinion.  My advice is to go on a weekday mid day and sit at the bar.  Joey will be working and she is full of great advice on food and wine.  If you like a little more action, well then hit it in the evenings when Joey tells me the place is hoppin’!

Michael and I strolled up and had a seat at the bar to enjoy the view.  The menu is full of great small plate items so you can order a bunch and enjoy.  We ordered the risotto cakes (which I enjoyed last time) the tuna tartare tacos, the Tivoli wrapped dates and the Gnocchi Gratin.  Michael started with the S.A. Prum, Essence Riesling from Germany and I started with the Cloudline Pinot Noir.  The S.A. Prum is from Mosel, and the Cloudline is a Willamette Valley Pinot.  We both enjoyed the wines and felt both were good food wines.  We tasted with the Tivoli wrapped dates which are dates stuffed with goat cheese and almonds wrapped in prosciutto and  then set in a balsamic reduction.  We moved on to tasting with the Tuna tartare tacos, which were mini hard shell tacos with raw tuna, avocado, fresh lettuce and a little creme fraiche.  Then the gnocchi gratin, which went surprisingly well with the Pinot! The acid cut through beautifully with the cheese and paired nicely with the risotto cakes which are breaded fried squares of risotto topped with grated parmesan and lemon zest.  The lemon zest added a wonderful fragrance!  Michael moved on to an Italian Pinot Grigio called VOGA which again paired great with the food.  We talked about European wines and how they are meant to pair with food which makes them different from many new world wines that are blended to drink alone.  As we moved on to dessert, we settled on the Dark Chocolate Nutella Cake and paired it with the Condundrum Red (which obviously is a whole lot of Zinfandel and a bit of Petite Sirah) and Joey’s favorite (that she let me taste when we walked in) Earthquake Petite Sirah from Lodi.  The Earthquake was beautiful on it’s own while the Conundrum was a little hot.  When paired with the Chocolate Nutella cake, both were stunning!

View Wine Bar Tivioli Village from Crushed Grape Chronicles on Vimeo.

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Cougar Winery – Italian wines in the Temecula Countryside

Cougar Winery sign

The Cougar Property is in the midst of lots of change with construction surrounding the winery, but they are still open and happy to take care of guests in the tasting room.

The winery is owned and operated by Rick and Jennifer Buffington.  17 years ago while in Texas the Buffington’s began making wine.  They later moved to Seattle and continued making wine in Washington and labeled under the Cougar Mountain Winery label named after Cougar Mountain in Belleview Washington.  After moving to southern California they eventually purchased the winery property in Temecula planting Sangiovese, Aglianico, Montepulciano and Vermentino.  At La Vigna e Destra they also have Primitivo, Arneis, Malvasia Bianca and Pinot Grigio.  They are making estate wines as well as some wines with purchased grapes that they do not grow.  They do beautiful Italian wines.

Cougar construction

Cougar construction

The last time we were here we did not taste but drove up to see the winery.  It was a large metal warehouse that held their winery and tasting room.  Situated on an a hillside on the De Portola Wine Trail they have a great view.  Since our last visit they have begun their expansion.  They are siding the current building as well as building out for a new tasting room.  Upon entering the building you are greeted by the life size cougar sculpture and then the tasting bar to your right.

Cougar tasting room

Cougar tasting room

The warehouse is segmented by barrel racks, with one section for public tastings, a separate section with tables for club members and music on the weekends and then of course their production facilities.  There was a steel drum artist playing the day we were there and while we couldn’t see them (they were in the member area playing) we could enjoy the music as it filled the building.  We found a place at the tasting bar next to the free coffee and Dani set us up with our tasting.

We began with the 2011 Vermentino.  This was a dry wine, a little dusty on the palate with a little effervescence.  You get lime, light minerals and lime leaf.  It is a refreshing white that leaves your palate clean. I am a Vermentino lover and I enjoyed this wine.  They actually use this for a white sangria base as well as for bloody mary’s here in the tasting room.

We continued with the 2010 Miscuglio de Circulo, which is a blend created by their wine club members.  This blend was a light red blend that would make a great summer wine.  It had pepper on its long lasting finish.

The 2009 Estate Bella Rossi is a blend of 25% each Aglianico, Primativo, Sangiovese and Montepulciano.  You get pepper on the palate but the nose is light and fruity with a medium mouth feel.

The 2009 Aglianico had pepper, eucalyptus and mint on the nose.  The cool mouth feel accentuated the mint taste.  There was a little underlying metallic rusty taste that was not unattractive.  Medium tannins hit the top of my teeth.  This was considerably lighter than the Kenneth Volk Aglianico that we had.  I have tasted very few of this varietal and this was a new interpretation of this grape for me.

On to the 2008 Montepulciano which they have called “The Full Monte”.  This red had big smooth tannins.  This was filled with strawberries and had a little heat on the finish.

I finished off with some of their mulled wine.  It was beautifully done with the spices not overcooked (my home mulled wine making experience did not turn out so well).  The spice on the nose was perfect and the warm wine filled my mouth with gorgeous warm fruit.  It was really lovely.

This winery is old school and the owners are hands on.  We saw Jennifer in the tasting room, picking up bottles for the wine club members area.

I look forward to returning to see the new tasting room when construction is complete. Check out the blog on their website to see the construction updates!  The new tasting room will have beautiful views as well as views into the winery itself. They also have tours and classes available by appointment.