The following review of the Hilltops region of NSW is based on an afternoon spent with Brian Freeman from Freeman Vineyards in June 2024, as well as the information contained in the 7th edition of the Australian Wine Guide.

The region

Hilltops is centred around the town of Young, the cherry capital of Australia, located some 380 km south-west of Sydney. The region has a warm climate (MJT 23.5°C, GDD 1921) with approximately 621mm of rain per year, predominately in winter. Vineyards are located amongst the ‘hill tops’ between 400 and 600 metres above sea level. The region is not close to a river system so solely relies on rainfall or deep bores for its water. Brian Freeman regards the climate as ideal for viticulture. “The dryest month is March and grapes tend to ripen mid to late February and keep going to April. We don’t get tropical weather from the north that Mudgee and Orange get. Night time temperatures are in the mid 10 -15 degrees and daytime temperatures are around 25 to 28 degrees centigrade which is ideal for flavour development.” He explains.

However, the region can suffer from frost and hailstorms, both of which struck Brian’s vineyards recently. First the frost last October affected 55 hectares, and on Christmas day a hailstorm wreaked havoc.  These come on the back of a cool turn in the weather over the past three vintages and the loss the 2020 crop with smoke taint. A run of events like that would drive some people ‘over the edge’, but his approach seems pragmatic, resolute and even stoic.       

The Hilltops topography consists of rolling hills. Whilst touring Brian’s vineyards we travelled along a ridge which is the watershed between the Lochlan and Murrumbidgee rivers. The region sits on top of a huge and long granite rock (150km by 50km wide) on soils of decomposed granite that can be 15 to 18 metres deep. On the leeward side of the hills there is a layer of red earth, which was dust blown 5 million years ago from inland Australia. In the depressions there are some sandier grey soils that can become easily boggy. But overall, the soil provides excellent water retention and the growers have a choice of dry land viticulture or drip irrigation from bore/dam water.

Freeman Vineyards

Freeman Vineyard and winery is located in Prunevale, a ten minute drive out of town. The area is an old soldier’s settlement area where land was given to returning men and their families to grow plums to make prunes. The scheme didn’t last for long and there are more grapes grown than prunes these days.
Brian has a total of four vineyards covering 200 hectares which makes him the largest producer in the region and accounts for 1/3 of all vineyards in the Hilltops. His first vintage was in 2002.

It is a large undertaking that requires mechanisation to be a successful business. He sells grapes to around 20 wineries, the most common customers are from the Hunter Valley and Canberra. It is interesting to spend time with Brian and talk about his business, and some of the logistics involved with that size of vineyards. Take the decision to machine harvest grapes. Firstly, you cannot get the pickers to hand harvest. Secondly the time it takes to pick and the speed you can deliver fruit into the winery to press is so fast it avoids any risk of oxidation. Fruit gets into the winery in better condition. His efficient harvester can pick 35 tonnes of grapes in one hour.

“Occasionally I get clients that want to pick their own grapes. So, they get a group of friends together and spend all day picking a couple of tonnes. I tell them that we could have picked that in 5 minutes with the harvester!” But there is a cost involved with machine harvesting. Firstly, it takes $50,000 a year to maintain it, as “there are sensors everywhere and around 300km of wires are built in” he adds. You cannot get it done locally so the machine has to be shipped to Griffith to be serviced. The cost of a new machine can be in the region of $800,000.

Photo: Brian Freeman

Securing water is another major consideration. Brian has used a few different methods to find aquifers on his land, including employing ‘divine intervention’. A water diviner, who happens also to be a Priest was used to look for water. Brian picks up the story “After Brother Clemence told us where to drill we went down 100 meters and no water, the priest said go deeper, at 200 meters we stopped and still he said go deeper and at 210 meters we hit water.” This bore can deliver 9 litres a second and now fills a large dam. Brian has attempted water divining, but with no success. Obviously he didn’t have the right connections.
It is also interesting to listen to his remarks about organic grapes. From his customers he doesn’t see any demand at all. But to be ready to respond to requests he still manages some sites organically.

Freeman Vineyards contains over 20 different grape varieties. Pinot grigio and prosecco are successful varieties for them. There is still plenty of cabernet and shiraz vines, but some has been grafted over to malbec, nebbiolo, sangiovese and rondinella. Parts of his vineyards containing shiraz and cabernet haven’t been pick for a couple of years due to the oversupply caused by the Chinese boycott. He is developing a block of grenache which should tolerate the dry conditions. “We haven’t had dry conditions since we planted it” adds a laconic Brian. Other varietals include graciano, furmint, viognier and fiano.
Brian is famous for producing some outstanding Italian wines. His prosecco, pinot grigio and fiano are all recommended. His nebbiolo is outstanding and one of my favourites in Australia.

His unique Secco Rondinella Corvina is another favourite and in a class of its own. 10% of the grapes are dried in a prune dehydrate for 7-10 days. The dried grapes are then placed at the bottom of the fermenter and fresh grapes put on top. This practise resembles a Ripasso method made famous in Valpolicella. But the wine is more intense than the Italian wines. Aged for up to 4 years in old barrels then kept in bottle before release.

The 2015 Robusta is an all corvina wine where the fruit is semi-dried. Brian allows a wild fermentation to take place using the naturally occurring local yeasts. Brian says these unique ‘prune yeasts’ (he calls them the Prunevale Princess) have been hanging around the old sheds on the property for 100 years and they can stand fermenting at high alcohol levels. Robusta reminds me of the delicious recioto wines of Valpolicella. The nose has rich dried fruits such as raisins and sultanas as well as cooked fruits. It comes across as oxidised, but not, an enigma on the palate. Fruit driven rather than sweet, not hot, maybe warming, you definitely don’t feel the 17% alcohol. The more it opens the more you see recioto. Intense, rich with an amazing silky mouthfeel. A highly recommended wine for fireside sipping.

Freeman Dolcino is an outstanding botrytis viognier dessert wine that is rich and sweet with honey and apricot flavours. Simply delicious. The photo show the colour of the juice before its magical transformation into honey looking nectar.

For detailed tasting notes on the wines I tasted follow the link to the review page.

Freeman Vineyards is open by appointment only. A tasting takes an hour and is held in a rustic cellar door which can accommodate only small groups. Click here

Other wineries

Barwang is the oldest vineyard in the region (planted in 1969 by viticulturalist Peter Robertson), and enjoyed enormous commercial and show success when it was owned by McWilliam’s Wines producing excellent chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. With the break-up of the McWilliam’s group the vineyard was sold in 2021 to a local who now plans on opening a cellar door.

Grove Estate has a 100-ha vineyard planted at a height of 500 metres on volcanic red soils. They have done particularly well with their Cellar Block Shiraz. They also produce an award winning Sommita Nebbiolo.

Moppity vineyard is located 12 km south-east of Young on the slopes of the Black Range and has some old vines in the region dating back to 1973, they produce a second label called ‘Lock & Key’ which in the past has over delivered on quality for its price. Wines are made by owner Jason Brown from their 66ha vineyard

Clive Hartley is an award-winning wine writer, educator and consultant. Check out his fortnightly radio show on Hepburn Community Radio called “put a cork in it”. Now out on Spotify. Want to learn more about wine? Try his book the Australian Wine Guide (7th ed) – available for purchase through his website –

Feature image is of Freeman Vineyards cellar door