Pioneers of the Orange wine region in New South Wales, Highland Heritage Estate proves that winemaking is in their blood.
"It began with Carmelo D’Aquino, who migrated from the Italian Island of Sicily in 1919. After setting up initially in Sydney and running a fruit shop there, he moved to Orange in 1946, with the intention of making and
selling wine locally."
HIGHLAND Heritage Estate, top five recipient for the Winestate Riesling of the Year in this year’s awards, is located in the State’s fast growing premium cool climate wine region of Orange. Its vineyards, cellar door, restaurant and function centre are located on the Mitchell Highway, 3 km to the south of the city.
After a modest beginning, with plantings of just over 2 hectares of vines and raspberries on the 81 hectare property in 1985, it was acquired in 1991 by the D’Aquino family, and has been creatively developed since then under the direction of this family with a long historical connection to wine in this region.
It began with Carmelo D’Aquino, who migrated from the Italian Island of Sicily in 1919. After setting up initially in Sydney and running a fruit shop there, he moved to Orange in 1946, with the intention of making and selling wine locally.
There were no vineyards or winemakers in the region at that time, so D’Aquino Brothers Pty Ltd, the company Carmelo registered in 1952, was the region’s first wine business. He started off making a few barrels of, mostly, fortified wines, but this didn’t really take off as a source of growth for the business. Instead, he began to source wine and various other alcoholic products elsewhere and the business grew to become the major retail liquor business in the region.
But the family’s determination to make its own wines was deep and did not go away. It sprung to life again after Carmelo’s grandson, Rex D’Aquino, went to Roseworthy College in South Australia in 1978 to study Oenology. Practical winemaking is part of that course and he did his stints at Orlando and Jim Barry Wines.
After graduating, in 1881, Rex returned to Orange with a determination to revive the original family winemaking passion. He began quietly, making wine with muscat, riesling and table grapes he was able to source a bit further south, from Cowra. His ambitions grew when his first access to locally grown grapes came through procurement of the Highland Heritage Estate property in 1991. Three hectares of vines had been planted on the 50-hectare estate in 1985. After the acquisition, additional vines were planted and the total vineyard area is now just under 15ha of intensely managed vines.
The vines on the Estate are planted in a range of soils, all derived from remnants of the ancient volcanic eruption of the region’s icon, Mt Canobolas. They range from decomposed basalt to silky clay over andesite.
At an altitude of 890 metres, the vines do have to deal with a wide span of climatic conditions, including ice and snow in winter. Though Rex is not particularly concerned by this, saying “it is not as cold as it used to be, due to climate change”. The vines have budburst in October and the harvest usually begins in mid to late March and finishes in late April.
You would expect to find some Italian varieties in the viticultural profile, given the family’s origin. But Rex says, “our first focus is on what people will buy. So, sauvignon blanc is the largest planting (6ha), and shiraz is number two (3.22ha)”. The next largest plantings are pinot noir (1.8ha) and chardonnay (0.8ha), for both sparkling and still wines. There is also riesling and merlot, each just under 1ha. Cabernet franc is a very recent addition, with 0.6ha just planted this year. And Italy has finally surfaced, though very modestly, with a small planting (0.6ha) of prosecco, in 2019.
The Highland Heritage Estate wines are presented in three tiers – the Highland Heritage range, the Highland Heritage Mt. Canobolas Vineyard range, capturing the outstanding landscape feature of the Orange region, and the Patrono range. The Patrono range was added as the premium third tier in 2016, to honour the man who started it all, Carmelo D’Aquino, the Patrono (Patron).
In the Highland Heritage range there is a chardonnay, a sauvignon blanc, a fumé blanc (barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc), a riesling, a (shiraz-based) rosé, a merlot, a pinot noir, and a cabernet sauvignon.
The Highland Heritage Mt. Canobolas range does not have a merlot or a pinot noir but does have a syrah. There is also a sauvignon blanc, a fumé blanc, and a chardonnay, plus two riesling – one is dry, and the Nikki D Riesling is ‘off-dry’.
The Patrono range has four offerings. There is a Methode Traditionnelle Pinot Noir/Chardonnay Cuvee Brut, the winery’s only sparkling wine (“at this stage,” says Rex), a shiraz, a pinot noir and a cabernet sauvignon.
There are no cabernet sauvignon vines in the plantings at Highland Heritage Estate and the two cabernets in the line-up are made from grapes grown by another regional producer, Woodhouse Wines. But, as Rex says, “we only do cabernet in the good years”.
There is also an extensive range of sweet and fortified wines, a prominent feature of the D’Aquino venture right throughout its 70+ year history.
Rex D’Aquino has been, and still is, the team leader. But he says that, as the business has expanded, his responsibilities have concentrated more on sales, marketing, quality control and consulting. So he has come to rely on others for the functional roles of growing the grapes and making quality wine.
Following a review of strategy to boost quality outcomes the wines are now being made at the Ross Hill Winery. The first vintage made there was 2019, under the direction of winemaker, Luke Steele. The Heritage team now also includes, as a consultant, the long-serving winemaker, Mile De Garis.
Looking ahead, Rex says, “I am 61, and my youngest daughter, Nikki, who joined the business in 2018, makes us now a four-generation wine business and let’s see what happens next”.
The Cellar Door was not closed due to Covid 19, but the restaurant and reception centre were closed. They are expected to re-open early in the New Year.