Visit Orange to sample the dynamic food and wine scene thriving within its heritage streets and landscape.
Walking down the street in Orange is a somewhat dangerous proposition, bound as you are to stumble across an old heritage building crying out to be turned into a sourdough bakery or coffee shop and divesting you of your life savings in the process.
Me? I’ve got my eye on the old cinema and imagine restoring it to its former glory with the contemporary twist of a cold-climate wine bar. And I’d be in good company.
Ever since vines were planted on the volcanic slopes of nearby Mt Canobolas in the 1980s, Orange has been making a name for itself as a boutique wine region, complementing its long-established reputation as the food bowl of NSW; European settlers took advantage of its fertile soil to plant abundant fruit orchards in the 19th century.
The Central West city has many other attributes: elegant Edwardian architecture, wide streets and deciduous trees whose riotous autumn leaves lend Orange the moniker ‘City of Colour’ (the name itself was a tribute to the Prince of Orange, later to become King of Holland); it’s also the birthplace of Banjo Paterson. And until five years ago it was, says Orange City Council tourism manager Glenn Mickle, “a sleepy town”. But things have changed in Orange.
An influx of tree changers and returning residents with energy, vision and blue-sky ideas began shaking up the city’s hospitality landscape with dynamic new offerings tucked into its heritage streetscape, redefining Orange as a foodie destination not to be missed. “Each time one of them comes to town, it gives the rest more momentum,” says Glenn. “It just raises the bar. When you’ve got a couple of hatted restaurants in town, the pub has to improve its meals.”
We don’t make it to Orange’s two hatted restaurants, Lolli Redini and Charred Kitchen & Bar (the latter has just been anointed for the first time when we visit), but instead make a beeline for the newly opened Schoolhouse Restaurant in the historic Union Bank building, which first opened its doors in 1858 as Orange’s first bank. (This came 12 years after the settlement was proclaimed a village and seven years after Australia’s gold rush began when a significant deposit was discovered near Orange.)
The building later became home to the Kinross Wolaroi School, a well-regarded boarding school that also served as Orange’s original art school – a fact reflected in the naming of The Arthouse Bar & Courtyard, where my partner and I sip on amber ale and local wine before heading to dinner.
Helmed by a stellar team (head chef Dom Aboud and manager Sarah Crowley are ex-Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney), Schoolhouse Restaurant showcases Orange region produce in a simple and vibrant way through a brasserie-style menu with nods to the Mediterranean. We order lamb with fig, labneh, za’atar and a house-made pasta with zucchini, ricotta and pine nuts and settle into the atmospheric dining room, with its high, vaulted ceilings and pendant lighting; the place is positively buzzing.
Just out of town at Borrodell Vineyard, a lofty 1000 metres above sea level and also a cherry, plum and heritage apple orchard and trufferie, Sister’s Rock Restaurant is also elevating the local dining experience. With experience at some of Sydney’s top restaurants, head chef Richard Learmonth is clearly enjoying the spoils of what’s available to him here: from locally farmed meat and vegetables to fresh produce grown right on the vineyard.
Our al fresco lunch the following day bursts with colourful flavours of cherry vinegar, heirloom tomatoes, wild-foraged pine mushrooms and sweetcorn slicked with truffle butter. But nothing can surpass the Borrodell dolmades, made from the leaves of the pinot noir vines growing just metres from our table. While it’s an atypically blistering weekend when we visit, summer temperatures here usually hover around the clement mid-20s.
Stretched out over the mineral-rich contours of extinct volcano Mt Canobolas, Orange is Australia’s highest-altitude wine region; these conditions conspire to create world-class cool-climate wines of the classic (pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, shiraz) and emerging (viognier, tempranillo) varieties.
The industry was first cultivated almost 40 years ago by a handful of innovators including Murray Smith (Canobolas-Smith), Rhonda and Stephen Doyle (Bloodwood Wines) and Philip Shaw (Philip Shaw Wines), whose cellar doors you can still visit now. The passion and individualism of those early pioneers has set the tone for the region today.
“When you go for a wine tasting here you tend to be talking to the owner, the winemaker, the winemaker’s son, or the winemaker’s husband or wife,” says Glenn. “They’re all boutique type of operations, which means that you get the story. It’s not a PR exercise. That’s our point of difference.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Tanya Segger at Nashdale Lane, where she runs a vineyard and winery with on-site glamping alongside her husband Nick, as she guides us through a wine tasting in the old apple-packing shed they’ve transformed into their cellar door. “Nick and I are pretty much hands-on and that, I think, is the unique Orange experience,” she says.
The bucolic village of Nashdale, a 10-minute drive from the centre of Orange, is well-known as a fruit-growing hub and Nashdale Lane’s cellar door, which opened two years ago, pays tribute to this while being purposefully sustainable in its repurposing. “These old apple-packing sheds are dotted around the area from the days when orchards ruled and they occupied the region,” says Tanya. “We think the corrugated iron and their shape is strikingly iconic and beautiful in a unique Australian way.”
Inside, original floors of well-worn concrete are warmed by eclectic rugs and pieces of furniture, and an old billiard table rescued from a country pub and winemaking barrels double as tasting tables. It’s rustic yet strikes a contemporary tone, too, in harmony with Nashdale Lane’s vibrant collection of award-winning, single-vineyard wines.
A few kilometres further west of Orange, Heifer Station Wines runs its cellar door out of an old woolshed. It too is a proud family business, and one that plays a big role in the local community. For four years it has hosted an annual drought-relief lunch, Feast for Farmers, and the morning of our visit is the night after Cold Chisel played A Day on the Green here on the property.
It was the first time the Orange region had hosted an iteration of the popular winery concert series and it had an energising and visitor-boosting effect on a rural community that’s been suffering the effects of drought since October 2016.
“Orange is really tight-knit in terms of community, so we’re all in it together,” says cellar door manager Nick Garton. “Everybody supports each other, nobody’s in competition, especially during drought – everybody’s in it together.”
Back at Nashdale Lane, we sit on the deck of our glamping cabin nursing a bottle of tempranillo bought earlier from the cellar door. A storm builds and rain teases the patchwork of vineyards and cattle farms rolled out before us.
Eventually, and blissfully, it breaks overnight and I couldn’t feel cosier inside the canopy of Rustig’s four-poster bed; after all, the name of our cabin (one of just two) means ‘calm’ in Dutch. In the morning we wake to coffee, fresh pastries and the sweet scent of a landscape refreshed, if only a little.
Check into Orange’s colourful new digs
If there’s one place that epitomises all facets of Orange’s new energy, it’s Byng Street Boutique Hotel – a historic homestead that has been transformed into a 4.5-star hotel by proprietors Thomas and Kristen Nock.
Of its 22 guest rooms and suites, three are in the heritage wing – Kit Kemp-inspired affairs, with luxe finishes and original features including a balcony and fireplace. The rest are part of the hotel’s modern wing, which has been juxtaposed onto the back of the house with strong lines, light-filled spaces peppered with local artwork, and a pop artist’s palette.
“We wanted a little bit of quirk, a sense of fun,” Thomas tells me of the property’s striking design. “We worked closely with our designer on colour, and embraced it. You might not have this much colour at home but for the few days that you’re here, we wanted to give you a sense of place. The last thing we wanted was long, white corridors.”
I look up at the leadlight window set against the old exterior brick wall of the original house, now an arresting feature of the lobby in the modern wing.
“The Instagram moment is definitely here,” he confirms, “but that’s not what we set out to achieve. We wanted a surprise around every corner.” Thomas and Kristen have spent their entire professional careers in hospitality and ultimately, Thomas says, they designed somewhere they would want to stay.
This being Orange, Byng Street doesn’t fall short in the culinary department either. A two-course, à la carte breakfast showcasing fresh local produce is served in the Yallungah Dining Room in the heritage wing. And that’s not to mention that the hotel basically has its own back door onto a wine bar…
Add these to your itinerary, too
Tucked next to Byng Street Hotel in a quirky heritage building, this gem of a wine bar and cellar door is a perfect intro to the region’s offerings.
Based out of an old print works in downtown Orange, this hip little cafe is joined by a boutique and florist to form a cool retail hub called The Collective.
A couple of blocks away and located in an old Masonic hall, this concept store combines fashion, homewares and coffee.