While making our way to a sabbatical stay in New Zealand, Jean and I
made a stop in the Hunter Valley of Australia for a bit of R&R coupled
with learning more about the wines of the region. Our home base was a
B&B in the town of Pokolbin, which is where most of the wineries of
interest (ours) are located. The Hunter is Australia's most northerly
growing region, which means that the weather is more tropical than
elsewhere in Australia. It is also Australia's oldest wine growing
region, having started in 1870 with the efforts of Edward Tyrell.
Australian wine tourism most closely resembles that of the US, with
well-established tasting rooms staffed by winery employees. To us, the
Hunter most closely resembles Sonoma in its current state of
development, as it has quite new and large facilities but lacks the
glitz of Napa and still retains much of its charm. Winery "cellar doors"
do not charge tasting fees for the most part and all that we visited
serve a dozen or more different wines. One noteworthy feature is that
all the wineries we visited had a well-stocked library of earlier
vintages, most of which were available for tasting (and usually free of
charge).

Our first stop was Tyrell's, the oldest winery in the Hunter (and, by
extension, Australia) which began with a land grant in 1858 to Edward
Tyrell. Because all the more attractive land had already been taken, he
received a plot on the leeward side of the Brokenback Mountains which is
where most of the vineyards remain to this day. He was the first person
to plant Semillon in the Hunter, under the mistaken impression that it
was Riesling (a misconception that persisted until the 1970s). The
winery remains in the Tyrell family's possession. We were given a tour
of the facilities and saw the wax-lined concrete fermenters still in use
for the red wines there. The Hunter Valley vineyards are hand picked
apart from the young vines which are machine picked. White wines are
cold stabilized and fermented at 10-16 C using cultured yeasts for
usually about 2 weeks. Semillons only see stainless steel throughout,
whereas Chardonnay does get barrel aging. Reds get a cold soak, are
pumped over and kept below 30C furing fermentation in concrete. 50% of
their grapes come from their own vineyards, 40% from vineyards under
long-term contract and 10% from the bulk market. Their barrels are
mostly 560 gallon, French oak and on a 15-year rotation. Some barriques
are used for the Chardonnay, and they are on a 5 year rotation.

The wines we tasted started with a 2011 Lost Block Semillon which is a
step up from their Long Flat series and was grassy with some minerality,
light and a tad creamy. Clearly made for near term drinking, it was
quite appealing if simple. We next got 2006 HVD Semillon which had a
whack of sulfur in the nose and, beneath that, a minerally character and
more bracing acidity on the palate. We next got a 2011 'Moon Mountain'
Chardonnay which sported a stony, apply character overlaid with
butterscotch. The oak was too dominant for us but there was good acidic
structure and decent fruit. We next got a pour of the 2010 Brookdale
Semillon which is next in the pecking order and just below the flagship
wine, the Vat 1 Semillon. This wine had more green apple character than
the previous Semillons had, and was yet mroe acidic. We finished off the
whites with a 2011 Old Winery Vedelho which was a huge surprise for us:
flamboyant floral nose, spicy and acidic in a light-bodied package. I
haven't had many (if any) table wines made from Verdelho and this was a
revelation.

Although it had been our intent to mostly sample Semillon in the Hunter,
our tour guide (an assistant winemaker) was quite insistent that we
should try a Shiraz, so we swallowed our prejudice and tried the 2009
Brokenback Shiraz, with a nose that was lactic but also with bright
berry fruit that put me in mind of a young St. Joseph. On the palate,
the wine was well structured, of medium body with plenty of acidity, At
this point, I cornered our guide and asked him about the acidity of
their wines: did they ever acidulate? He replied that it was rare for
them to, though they at times would adjust acidity after MLF in
challenging years. His explanation for the acidity and lightness of the
Shiraz were the early picking times in the Hunter. At the time of our
visit (Jan. 14) they were 4 days away from harvest, which is the
equivalent of mid-July in the Northern Hemisphere. Our guide said that
the shorter, hotter growing season didn't allow the grapes to ripen as
much as they did further south, so they ended up with lighter, more
acidic wines. This left me scratching my head as they violated so many
closely held beliefs. In the Hunter, they plant on relatively level
land, on clay soils, in a non-Mediterranean climate with a ridiculously
hot growing season (although the weather was quite temperate while we
were there, though it did rain). Yet there is no arguing with the
results, and this Shiraz was unlike any other Aussie Shiraz I've had. To
back up that point, he next served a 2009 Heathcote Shiraz from South
Australia, which showed much more typical eucalyptus, licorice and black
fruit, along which greater density and more oak in the finish. We
declined a few other reds and made our farewells, though we came away
with a heightened appreciation for Hunter Valley Shiraz. Although we
weren't offered any Vat 1 Semillon while we were there (three vintages
were available to taste, for a fee) I had several glasses of it while in
Australia and it lived up to its reputation as perhaps the finest and
most ageworthy example of Hunter Valley Semillon.

Still to come: visits to Brokenwood, McGuigan and Mount Pleasant.

Mark Lipton