This tasting focused on the birthplace of Australian wine, the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. Around 100 miles north of Sydney, commercial vineyards here date back to the 1820s, viticulture firmly established in the region by Scottish immigrant James Busby. Busby famously collected European vine cuttings during travels through France in 1832, and today the region boasts some of the world’s oldest vineyards, including Shiraz vines dating back to 1867.
Semillon is undoubtedly the region’s ‘crown jewel’, fashioned into a distinctive style that is low in alcohol and shimmering with vibrant, delicate clarity when young, but which can age gracefully for several decades, gaining honeyed complexity and nutty depth.
Andrew Margan of Margan Wine stressed their 200 million-year-old volcanic soils as being a key factor in creating his Semillon style – pointing out that the famous Kimmeridgean soils of Chablis are 150 million years younger. Acheiving fruit ripeness with good acid and low alcohol are all helped in this part of the Hunter by the soils, and by the climate of this maritime region.
Referring to his Semillon, Bruce Tyrrell talked of changes to the Hunter style; in the 1970s the wines might have 9% alcohol and acid “that would strip the enamel off your teeth.” The wines now are riper – though that might only mean five days or so of extra hang time – but retain vibrant acidity.
Bottle ageing was the other revelation from around this period, as winemakers and drinkers discovered how well these better balanced wines could age. The examples here – including wines from 2015 – proved that, with magical development of these wines given a little patience and reasonable cellaring conditions. Pictured: the vineyards of Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley.
The red wines were represented by Barbera and Shiraz. Andrew Margan explains that his Barbera – planted way back in 1998 – came from an Italian farmer in nearby Orange. His original cuttings were ‘suitcase clones’, smuggled into the country at some point direct from Piedmont. Winemaker for Brokenwood, Stuart Hordern, says the 2018 vintage, as represented by both Shiraz wines shown here, was an exceptional one, with gentle, excellent ripening. Though each weighing in with 14% alcohol, both Shiraz wines impressed with their freshness and elegance, giving them excellent drinkability.
(2022) From soils of red volcanic clay and 50-year-old vines, fermentation was with 'neutral' cultured yeasts, and the wine bottled early to preserve freshness. There is lemony freshness here, but even a hint of succulent pear and peach. Already there are nuances of flowers and Acacia honey in the mix. The palate has lovely fruit, a burst of tangerine juiciness that is a little different from the usual lemony character one might expect. Lovely, ripe style.
(2022) The vineyard here is 116 years old, on free-draining sandy soils. Again, this was made in steel and bottled early. There is a wonderfully honeyed and almondy nose, the toast of 7 years in bottle has already developed so that you would swear this has seen some high quality oak. On the palate there's a lovely sweet edge to the fruit, with real juiciness of ripe red apple and lime, then that thrilling acid, touched with salinity but pure and lemon-juicy, extends the finish. HVD stands for 'Hunter Valley Distillery', as it was originally planted as a source for making brandy.
(2022) Younger vines here, around 10 years old, on sandy alluvial soil. The recipe is very similar: no oak, no malolactic, and bottled early from stainless steel. Again, that beautiful development here, adding a touch of flint to toast and lemon curd. The palate has a little more weight that the Tyrell's it feels to me (though slightly lower alcohol), and a bursting orangy brightness to the fruit. Delicious lemon jelly purity swept up in acidity in the finish, gives this salty savouriness as well as pleasing fruit brightness.
(2022) Surprisingly, this 'alternative' variety is from a vineyard planted 24 years ago - the first in the Hunter. It was fermented in steel, then matured in in a mix of barriques and larger puncheon barrels, all French oak, and no new barrels for 12 months. Creamy oak and a bright raspberry fruit on the nose, the fruit red in character. The palate has a lovely succulence and sweetness; there's intense cherry and ripe plum, some intense spiciness, and lip-smacking acidity. Tannins are chocolaty and rich in a deliciously full and satisfying wine.
(2022) From red clay soils, the Shiraz vineyard is 35 years old, and the 10% Cabernet in the blend is from a 20-year-old vineyard. After fermentaion parcels were matured separately before blending several months later, followed by further ageing in French oak barriques for six months or so. Bruce Tyrell says the Cab not only adds some tannic heft, but gives it a bit more upfront punch. There's a herbaceous aspect to the aroma, a little green olive and fresh black berry fruit. On the palate there is spice and grippy, tight tannin, giving the palate an edge that keeps things lively and fresh, without any sense of heaviness or 'dead fruit'. The finish is fruity, spicy and zippy.
(2022) These vineyards on red clay are 25 years old, the wine matured in French oak, 90% big 500-litre puncheons, and around 12% new oak overall. Riper, fuller and creamier than the Tyrrell's, there is more black fruit character and hints of gravel and coffee. On the palate again there's that spicy, racy edge to this, the pure black fruits underpinned by spice and gravel. There's crispness and elegant freshness aplenty here once again, great juicy clarity and drinkability.