It’s an easy-going Wednesday morning and I’ve picked up some buttery treats from Althea by Zin in the heart of Mudgee. The birds are chirping, the sun’s shining down on the region and the combination of Mudgee’s fresh country air and the peacefulness of this small town – compared to the usual Sydney hustle – has reacquainted me with an old friend called relaxation.

I hop back in the car and begin to weave between the lush green farmlands while a small cloud of dust follows my car like I’m travelling with purpose. Well, I certainly am. One of Mudgee's most acclaimed vineyards awaits at the end of my GPS route. When I pull up at First Ridge, I’m completely taken aback as I stand on the top of the hill, gazing over the vibrant, rolling hills of the Cudgegong Valley and of the most unique cellar doors I’ve come across to date.

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‘The best small cellar door in Mudgee’

It doesn’t take long to understand First Ridge’s mighty collection of accolades. Most notably, winning Gourmet Traveller’s ‘Best Small Cellar Door in Mudgee’ award not just once, but consecutively in 2020 and 2021.

Nestled into the rocky ridges of Mudgee’s rolling hills at an altitude of 500 metres, the view from First Ridge is awash with sprawling green vines coated with the sun’s honey-gold tones. It’s one of the most breathtaking views in the region, but what’s inside makes this cellar door all the more enticing.

From the bottom of the hill, it looks like a red shipping container. Because that’s exactly what it is. But on closer inspection, this brilliantly bold design reveals a sophisticated, modern cellar door that’s been designed like a viewing platform over the picture-perfect landscape. Sit next to the floor-to-ceiling glass walls that open up in the summer, or contain the sunshine’s warmth like a greenhouse in winter. On those cooler days, you’ll no doubt appreciate the crackling corner fire; the perfect companion to a glass of red and a view of vines on a crisp winter’s day.

While you soak in the scenery, the next – and perhaps the best – part of your First Ridge experience awaits. Let the wine tasting begin.

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First Ridge wines

It’s not just the views or the architecture that sets First Ridge apart from fellow small cellar doors. First Ridge is not only a single vineyard (meaning, all of its wines are produced from the grapes grown onsite), but it’s the only vineyard in the entire Mudgee region to produce ‘Italian Varietal’ wines, exclusively. During your visit, let cellar door manager, Oliver Smith, guide you through a tasting of vibrant Italian wines. These drops are true to their heritage with subdued, earthy aromas that come alive with food. Notice the flavour profiles develop and adapt as you bite into the creamy cheese and sharp olives served by Oliver.

“Exceptional wines, impeccable service, enlightening conversation, spectacular views, and a good measure of fun, is a winning combination,” says Oliver, “and that’s what you’ll find at First Ridge”.

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Ancient rocky ridges meet a serendipitous climate

Why Italian grapes? You might wonder. The First Ridge story began in 1998 when John and Helen Nicholas established the vineyard. But they weren’t alone in their venture. With them, was one of the most impressive wine-making minds in the world. Dr Richard Smart, an Australian viticulturist was so celebrated in the industry, he was often dubbed “the flying vine doctor”.

Richard carefully considered First Ridge’s landscape and came to a solid conclusion. The vineyard landscape, combined with the Mudgee Region’s climate, was perfect for the cultivation of selected Italian grape varieties. The first Italian Sanvgoise and Barbera varieties were planted at the tip of the estate soon after. As it turns out, the generally volcanic soils that sit 520 metres high on the ancient ridges of the region, are primed for producing fruit with exceptional depth and flavour. From 2013 onwards, additional Italian varieties were introduced to the vineyard – including Vermentino, Pinot Grigio and Fiano – and have since flourished.

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As I sit, still gawping at the view that sits in front of me like a painting, I relish the ambience of First Ridge. The genuine friendliness and hospitality, complimentary tasting and the feeling of being invited into a thoughtfully curated space to share an experience. Then I heard that the cellar door only opened in 2015. The owners decided that a vineyard with views this picturesque and wines of this quality deserved to be shared and savoured. It all made sense.

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