(Photo: Destination NSW)

Sydney native Matt Arthur thought he might have made a huge mistake when he moved to Orange seven years ago. The professional guitarist decamped to the country town to “quit the rat race” and enjoy its slower pace of life—the leisurely clip of which hit home one night as he was taking out the trash.

“It was only 9pm but it was so quiet that I could have fired a gun down our street, which is considered fairly busy,” says Arthur, who also runs Ferment the Orange Wine Centre & Store. “I went back into my house wondering: Have we done the right thing?”

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But it is precisely Orange’s charmingly provincial, “in-its-own-time” ways that have proven irresistible to scores of Sydneysiders like Arthur, who’ve fallen hard for its rolling, sage-green hills, outstanding wines and fantastic heritage apples, cherries and truffles (the area isn’t called “Australia’s Food Basket” for no reason).

Depending on whether you like your transfers scenic or efficient, you can get there via a four-hour drive from Sydney (breaking your journey in the Blue Mountains) or a 50-minute Qantas flight from Sydney to Orange. Sites such as visitnsw.com and www.orange360. com.au offer easy-to-use itineraries whether you have three hours or days to explore.

High-level wines

“We’re the only snobbish wine region in Australia that’s defined by altitude,” says Arthur, referring to the fact that the Orange Wine Region—which spans the city of Orange and parts of Cabonee and Blayney Shires—consists of vineyards with an altitude above 600m, with the highest reaching around 1,000m above sea level.

The area enjoys balmy summer days and cold winters, and the high altitude, combined with the nutrient- rich basalt soils created by the extinct volcano Mount Canobolas form a complex geological terrain that makes for excellent chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris at cooler sites and merlot, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon at warmer locations in the west.

With its distinctive terroir, Orange has risen rapidly in the wine world despite its relative youth (commercial vines were planted here only in 1980), especially after Rosemount Estate winemaker Philip Shaw planted his 47-ha Koomooloo vineyard in 1989.

Orange F.O.O.D Week.
Borrodell Vineyards.

Today, Orange is one of Australia’s top wine regions, with over 60 vineyards planted and 40 cellar doors offering top- drawer cool-climate wines.

One leading winemaker is Printhie Wines, which has achieved international acclaim for its methode traditionelle sparkling wine made using the costly, time-consuming double-fermentation method used to produce French champagne.

Its Swift 2013 vintage recently won 2021’s Best Sparkling Wine at the New South Wales Wine Awards, its fourth consecutive win.

“We’ve always taken a long-term approach to our wines,” says Johann Calchera, Printhie’s Cellar Door Manager, referring to the fact that Printhie leaves its sparkling wines on lees for a minimum of six years, and up to 10 for its flagship blanc de blancs.

Borrodell Vineyards.
Orange F.O.O.D Week is Australia’s longest running regional food festival. (Photo: Orange F.O.O.D Week)

Printhie’s newer (and fancier) cellar door perched on a hill opened early this year. When visiting, look out for the non-vintage cuvee and rosé, both made using 60 per cent chardonnay and 40 per cent pinot noir. Chardonnay, says Calchera, “is the hero grape of Orange”, although pinot noir has become very trendy here as well.

The cuvee is dry, with a lovely citrus acidity and—as we found out on a spontaneous jaunt to an oyster grower in nearby Port Stephens—pairs exceptionally well with the robust minerality of Sydney rock oysters.

The rosé, on the other hand, has a little bit more sweetness to it. “We add a bit more pinot noir that was on skins, which gives it a very subtle pink colour,” says Calchera. Both are delicious as an aperitif but the rosé plays well with sushi, salmon sashimi or red fruit tarts.

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Sparkling wine is just one of Orange’s many oenological surprises. You’ll find crowd-pleasing wines and photo opps aplenty at Philip Shaw Wines—whose 130-year-old barn was voted one of Australia’s best cellar doors by Gourmet Traveller Wine—although its illustrious namesake has left to set up the by- appointment-only Hoosegg, continuously rated one of Australia’s top wineries.

Ross Hill Wines, meanwhile, is Australia’s first NCOS-certified winery and the only Australian producer of carbon-neutral wines. Its sustainable whites and reds are grown using less water, natural fertilisers and grazing sheep, which eliminate weeds and increase soil nitrogen levels with their hooves.

Then, at over 1,030m above sea level, Borrodell is one of Australia’s highest vineyards. Sitting in the sun-dappled shade of its Sisters Rock Restaurant overlooking the pinot noir block and the slopes of the Towac Valley—with a glass of its heritage apple cider in hand—is highly recommended.

Sunset over an orchard in Orange.
Sunset over an orchard in Orange. (Photo: Destination NSW)

One way to sample wines from several wineries in one place is at Ferment the Orange Wine Centre & Store in town, which showcases 18 wineries without cellar doors. Ferment is located in a handsome space with soaring, moulded ceilings that housed the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternal organisation, in 1917.

“It offered health insurance for Catholics at the time, but now it’s a mental health society,” Arthur quips, filling our glasses from three Enomatic wine dispensers, among them one dedicated to Carillion vineyards, producer of premium chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, along with an intriguing single-variety verduzzo.

Best Eats

In April every year, Orange F.O.O.D. Week celebrates Australia’s longest-running regional food festival (31 years) and you can sample Chef Hat-awarded cuisine (Australia has no Michelin Guide) at restaurants like Charred Kitchen & Bar and Lolli Redini.

Locals and day trippers alike tuck into casual, Mod-Oz fare at neighbourhood haunts Byng Street Local Store and Birdie Noshery & Drinking est. There’s also Raku Izakaya, Orange’s first modern Japanese restaurant, and Spilt Milk Bar that offers chilly, creamy relief for the Australian summer.

As a side note, December (when we visited) is also stone fruit season, when Orange’s orchards offer visitors the chance to pick their fill of vermilion fruit that turns jet black when ripe.

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“There is no middle man when it comes to fresh local produce in Orange,” says Dom Aboud, head chef of Schoolhouse Restaurant at the historic Union Bank building, an intimate space where he serves contemporised classics that, thankfully, never feel trendy.

Aboud believes that “great flavours are created by using good ingredients, rather than excess or showmanship.”

“I love it when I get unexpected visits from farmers like Doug Dagg with incredible local potatoes or Su Dennett of Melliodora farm, who could turn up with anything from freshly-picked boysenberries to truffles straight out of the ground,” adds Aboud, who used to work in Sydney. “Orange is such a special place.”

Charred Kitchen & Bar.
Charred Kitchen & Bar. (Photo: Destination NSW)

Dinner is a series of simple, yet thoughtfully-prepared dishes one could eat again and again, like creamy jalapeno croquettes served with an airy house-made aioli, succulent octopus nestled on fresh herbs, and smoky, grilled asparagus spears with crisp kale fragments, macadamia puree and Aleppo pepper.

An Aboud signature is the twice-cooked sirloin with bagna cauda, a vegetable dip he turns into a steak sauce bursting with umami and taucheo-esque funk, thanks to Nana Harada’s Mountain Miso from Orange, which he describes as having “a flavour profile unlike any other miso you’ve ever tasted”.

“It’s an incredibly simple dish that relies on great produce cooked well,” adds Aboud.

See & Stay

It may be a country town, but Orange’s newest accommodation, The Byng Street Boutique Hotel, would fit right in in any cosmopolitan city. The current owner-operators, Kristen and Thomas Nock, bought the 1896 Yallungah mansion, located in the centre of town, in November 2014, and restored it to showcase its original features, such as the slate roof, timber joinery and buff brickwork.

Shortly afterwards, the Nocks transformed it into a 22-room, high-end accommodation venue complete with a large dining room and a 16- seat boardroom.

“We’d travelled to the Orange region for many years and felt the town was ready for an accommodation offering that was not a motel,” says Thomas Nock. “We took our time to find the right place where we could tap into the beautiful heritage architecture in a location with good access to the centre of town, restaurants, pubs and cafes.”

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The hotel, which opened in September 2019 but was subjected to two lockdowns shortly afterwards, offers beautifully appointed guest rooms and suites in the historical style of the Heritage Wing or the contemporary Modern Wing, which was added to the building’s rear.

Design lovers will appreciate the chic colour palette and works by local artists such as Larissa Blake and Natalie Miller, whose rainbow-hued, hand-dyed wool artwork is the centrepiece of the Yallungah Dining Room.

From Byng Street, you can visit nearby wineries, cafes and shops, such as Ferment, Hawke General Store, The White Place and Jumbled at The Sonic, a light-filled, refurbished Masonic Hall now full of brightly-coloured fashion and homeware.

The Byng Street Boutique Hotel.
The Byng Street Boutique Hotel.

While the pandemic has meant scarce international traffic, locals like Nock are confident the situation will improve as VTL arrangements between Singapore and Australia are reinstated, and Singaporean travellers look for new experiences beyond well-trodden Hunter Valley.

“Orange’s four seasons make for different experiences no matter what time of year you come,” says Nock. “We are positive that 2022 will be a strong year.”

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