When vigneron Phil van Gent picks a grape from his vine and savours it, you know he’s processing deeply in his mouth a growing season and how a vintage may go.
He’s lived amongst vines all his life in Mudgee and his ancestry goes deep into winemaking and distilling.
Nestled under a small hill at picturesque Eurunderee, the Pieter van Gent winery is one of those family winemaking ventures that just keeps on giving.
Having taken over the winery from his father, Phil keeps a 50 year-old Mudgee tradition going, with ancient vines, chardonnay, that even have a connection to the first vines grown in Australia.
His ancestry speaks of distilling that goes back four generations in Holland. That expertise his father Pieter brought to Australia, at first working for the then nearby Craigmoor, and then setting up his own winery at Eurunderee just outside Mudgee.
As winemaking again looks at a new boom, the van Gents are doing what they’ve always done, producing their famous Pipeclay white port, alongside their many wine varieties, including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, sangiovese, with desert wines and a number of fortified wines, and many other lines. The winery’s diversity is amazing. It’s all about distilling and winemaking, and being still in what you’re good at, stilled in tradition.
Phil now shares his enterprise with his partner Amelie, who conducts yoga classes in town, a now not so sleepy Mudgee, bustling with the boon in winemaking, mining and agriculture. Quite often you will see a Robert Oatley B-double truck laden with wines heading through town and quite often you’ll see Phil cycling about town or past the vineyards. He even cycles in front of his grape harvester to steer the machine through the wine lanes towards the larger grape bunches.
Chinese demand is driving a new enthusiasm in the industry but at Pieter van Gent, it is family business as usual. It’s about tradition, it’s about family, it’s about the future, and it’s about lifestyle. They don’t court the tourist buses, and a restaurant facility lies dormant. They just do what they’ve known for generations.
Phil is a keen cyclist, mountaineer and is often seen enjoying a coffee in town. Life is a sensual experience for him. He loves to savour every moment. He savours the wine and puts his heart into what eventually ends up in the bottle. Bottom lines for wine sales don’t always matter for him as much as keeping his employees happy and in work, his visitors and farmstayers happy, and dealing with a mountain of paperwork, which is always trying.
His winery is organic certified but not the vineyard itself. The 2018 harvest was fantastic, despite the long dry in much of NSW. Mudgee has sat in a lucky weather pattern in the last year, gaining good rain, while just 20 kilometres west there wasn’t a drop. Climate change is something he’s just dealing with, not stressing over.
“Every year you are given different parameters to work with,” Phil says.
It was a cold start to the growing season with a hot finish. “We have a lot of different varieties and they all went well, it was a good year. Our wines are organic but they are not certified as such - its more to do with the paperwork.”
The 2018 vintage was finished in late April, with a few travellers helping, alongside the mechanical harvesting of the grapes.
Phil’s friend does the harvesting and has altered the harvester’s beaters by 100 beats a minute slower to reduce the amount of leaf loss on the vines while harvesting. “Quite often the vines look like they haven’t been harvested at all,” Phil says. They use the same harvesting machine as they’ve done for many vintages just changing the harvesting equipment on board to suit the season. Phil will ride in and out of the lines of vines on his bike to direct the harvester to the right areas.
The white port is one of the van Gent’s main products, The art of distilling was handed down from generation to generation. “My great grandfather was a distiller in Holland, my grandfather was a distiller and so was my father so it something you grow into and get attracted to,” he says.
His father Pieter has retired. Pieter brought over from Craigmoor some early cuttings of Chardonnay grapes, which were originally grown from the famous Busby vines first distributed in the 1830s in Australia – the birth of viticulture in Australia. History runs deep at van Gent. Phil thinks Cabernet is an under-rated Australian wine.
The van Gent winery is beautifully decorated and has a dramatic moody entrance, the path down to the tasting bench lined with massive wine barrels. You can sit in an old church bench and taste your wine, probably served by Mel, who has been offering the wine tasting to visitors for 10 years. Walking through one barrel you enter a small gallery and museum of van Gent memorabilia and old bottles. You may also come across the winery’s cat sleeping in a bowl. Out the back, Ben is pumping the wine as he has done for nearly 20 years or driving the tractor in the field.
People often talk of a Mudgee terroir - and perhaps you can taste what Mudgee is in the wine you drink at van Gent’s - peaceful, earthy and resonant.
And they can be enterprising: when they thought one variety was not suitable for picking, Amelie, suggested an alternative, and they turned it into a fine product.
The van Gents carry on their tradition, not thinking of exports, their white port a mainstay product they sell through major liquor retailers including Dan Murphys. Many other wineries in Mudgee are licking their lips at the big potential for wine sales in China. Recently, Wine Australia announced that in 12 months to March Australian wine exports increased by 16 per cent in value to reach $2.65 billion – the highest value in a decade – and volume also increased by 10 per cent to a near-record level of 844 million litres or 94 million 9 litre case equivalents. Wine Australia said this was due to the high quality of Australian wine plus historically low Northern Hemisphere harvests. The growing middle class in China were preferring Australian wine.
But this is not what they talk about at van Gents’ winery. It’s more, what coffee will we try today?, what mountain will we climb (literally)?, and how can we improve our vintage for next year?. Life is taken in its stride, and the visitors keep coming, and tasting. Wine booms and busts ride over them like a wave as if they never existed, and life carries on somewhat magically amongst the grapevines, smelling the roses, savouring what is special.