Tucked just north of Sydney on Australia’s east coast, the Hunter Valley is known for different things to different people: Winemakers acknowledge it as one of the most difficult places to grow grapes in all of Australia. International tourists in Sydney recognize it as a picturesque day trip into the country, where they can visit boutique wineries’ tasting rooms away from the big city’s bustle. Stateside enophiles know it as the seat of some of Australia’s big wine brands—Tyrrell’s, Lindemans, De Bortoli, Wyndham, Rosemount and McWilliam’s, among them—whether or not they are familiar with the Hunter Valley-appellation wines that these companies produce.
Shiraz and Semillon are the region’s key grape varieties. Verdelho and Chardonnay, which is the most widely planted variety in the Hunter, are other whites that have found success. Chards here are usually full bodied, and follow the Burgundian model. Rosemount’s Hunter Valley Chardonnays (Giants Creek, Show Reserve and the flagship Roxburgh) are probably the most well-known and easily found Hunter wines in the U.S. As for reds, notable Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines, such as Lake’s Folly (1999 vintage, 91 points, $69) and Margan (90 points, $17) are giving the variety a good reputation. But for the most part, wineries focus on the big three: Semillon, Shiraz and Chardonnay.
|A MIXED CASE OF HUNTER VALLEY WINES
Broadly speaking, Hunter Valley wines are Old World in style, have moderate levels of alcohol, and are built for the cellar. Next to wines from other parts of Australia, they can seem delicate—lean, even. A comparison of Hunter Shirazes with Barossa Shirazes, for example, might yield descriptors like "leathery," "stably," even "cherry," for the former, and "ripe plum" and "jammy’" for the latter. Semillon, the Hunter’s particular treasure (Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell’s Wines calls it "one of the things that we do in Australia that is not replicated anywhere else on the globe"), is a wiry white that, in its youth, typically demonstrates straw and lemon flavors. South Australian versions of Semillon feel corpulent in comparison. Hunter’s wines don’t often exceed 14 percent alcohol (Semillon usually clocks in at a low 10 or 11 percent), while some wines from South Australia easily sail past 15 or 16 percent alcohol. Hunter wines frequently suffer in blind tastings because they are so easily overwhelmed by their brawny neighbors, and because blind tastings are rarely formatted to take into account the two circumstances under which Hunter wines show best: with food, and with age.
Food friendliness and age
Food-friendliness and ageability are indeed the two characters that area winemakers most appreciate about their wines, and want consumers to understand about them. Iain Riggs, who has been winemaker at Brokenwood for 23 years, enthuses that "these wines are perfect food wines, either as young wines or with age—and age they can," he says, pointing out that the O’Shea flagship wines from the McWilliam’s brand, Mount Pleasant (unfortunately not exported to the U.S.), are "still drinking well at 50-plus years." Geoff Krieger, Brokenwood’s general manager, agrees about Hunter wines’ ageworthiness, saying that both Semillon and Shiraz become "mature, elegant" wines at just "10 to 15 years of age." (The 1991 vintage of Brokenwood’s flagship Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz, probably the Hunter’s most iconic Shiraz, was tasting great just last year.) As for potential food pairings, Michael Hope, winemaker and owner of Hope Estate, prefers Verdelho, "our daytime wine," with barbecued prawns. Shirazes like those from Tyrrell’s and Allandale are beautiful with a wide variety of savory foods, particularly roasted meats. Fresh oyster and young Semillon shooters (the wine poured directly into the half shell of a fresh-shucked oyster), a match "almost as good as sex," as Riggs puts it, is a favorite at Brokenwood.
The favorite match far and wide, even better than the aforementioned bedroom act? Semillon, plus lots of bottle age. Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon is the best known, and most revered; McWilliams and Lindemans makes very well-regarded bottlings, too, though they are not available in the U.S. Tyrrell is so dedicated to the idea of his wine benefiting from bottle age before being consumed that he doesn’t release the Vat 1 until it has had six or seven years of bottle age. ("We have a bloody big shed full of aging Semillons in the bottle," he says of the winery.) Until just now, the 1997 had been the current release of the Tyrrell’s Vat 1; the next release, the 1999, had not reached the U.S. at press time, but will be available this spring. In this reviewer’s mind, they need even more time than what Tyrrell allows, because they seem spare and a little understated in their youth.
"Aged Semillon is one of the great wine joys of the world," Riggs declares, citing its attractive secondary toast and almond characters.
"I have seen these wines live for up to 50 years," says Tyrrell, "and any wine that has the ability to do that must be considered an international classic." Tremendous aging potential and a moderate $40 price tag still hasn’t been enough to sway many consumers. Hope says that Semillon is a tough sell in general, even in Australia, but Tyrrell says that the variety’s meager sales in the U.S. are more a factor of the limited supplies of Hunter Valley Semillon overall. But the thing about this region is, there’s really no way to drastically increase its wine production.
Not ideal growing conditions
Though Hunter Valley has a storied history of winemaking dating back to the 1830s, the Geographical Indication only produces 1 to 2 percent of all of Australia’s wines. Located just 75 to 100 meters above sea level, its terroir, says Riggs, is "difficult and not very profitable." Generally speaking, the climate is a hot, tropical one, reaching past the 100°F mark in summer, but is tempered by humidity, some light sea breeze and harvest-time rains. Extreme heat plus these rains, says Hope, "is a disastrous combination because of the risk of disease" to the vine. Given these unpredictable conditions, he says, "big companies have become South Australia-focused [because of] the price of land, and the consistency of growing season down south versus challenge of growing in the Hunter." When big Hunter Valley companies want to build their business on the export market, they have to rely on wines from more consistent regions, or multiregion wines, to do so. (Yet there may be more Hunter wines coming our way soon enough: McWilliam’s winemaker Scott McWilliam says that the winery "plan[s] on bringing more McWilliam’s products to the U.S. in the future. …I would like to see our bottle-aged Hunter Semillon there one day.") Many boutique-sized wineries, at the other end of the spectrum, sell most of their wine to tourists at their local cellar doors, hence the dearth of Hunter-appellated wines on these shores.
The Hunter Valley brands that do have a presence outside of Australia, however, want to gently remind their international consumers what their wines are good for, however contrary in style they may seem to what’s in fashion now.
"I think there is a groundswell of support again for more elegant, food-friendly styles," says Brokewnood’s Krieger. "The pendulum, if you will, of taste for the overextracted fruit-bomb styles is on the back. How long it takes to swing to center is anyone’s guess…The more that is written about wine matching food, not overpowering it, the more Hunter styles will come back into vogue."
Making a day trip to the Hunter Valley from Sydney? Read Hunter winemakers’ recommendations on must-visit local spots!