(This is a version of an article I wrote for a recent edition of National Liquor News magazine. There’s a different tone here to the usual Australian Wine Review style, but there’s some worthy thoughts about the Hunter Valley).
Something to smile about
The Hunter Valley is on a roll.
Historically, Hunter winemakers have battled with the weather gods every year, with ill-timed rain ruining as many as 3 in 10 vintages.
But not in 2018. Or 2017, or 2014. In fact, the region hasn’t lost a crop since 2012 – a true golden run of vintages, leaving everyone smiling.
It’s not just the sun that has been shining either, with visitor numbers up and Sydney trade sales on the increase.
But it’s not all pats on the back and pallet orders for Hunter Valley winemakers. Rather, there is a pair of challenges to face – how to sell wine outside of NSW and how to crack into more wine lists everywhere.
Right now though, there is enthusiasm a go-go. If given one word to describe the 2018 vintage, Andrew Thomas of Thomas Wines knows what it is.
‘Outstanding’ he said.
What made it outstanding was the weather. Or the lack of bad weather more like it, with a growing season that was unusually dry, with low humidity – both of which meant healthy crops and minimal disease pressure.
This really wasn’t your normal Hunter vintage, with Jeff Byrne of Agnew Wines noting it was his shortest and earliest harvest in twenty years.
Of course, while Byrne thought it was odd to be picking Shiraz in January, he’s ‘pretty excited about what’s in the tank now.’
Indeed was a year where the weather gods were nice on many levels, as Gwyn Olsen of Pepper Tree and Briar Ridge suggests:
‘Vintage 2018 has been pretty exceptional’ she said.
‘Whilst it was very dry, we escaped any serious heat events this year when compared to last year’.
‘There were many cool nights and mornings which allowed for great acid retention and floral fruit notes. I wore a jumper the morning we picked the Dairy Hill Semillon!’
Such perfect conditions meant that picking decisions were made solely on ripeness, and fruit came into the winery in peak health.
For a reference point about where 2018 sits, many believe it’s akin to 2007 – one of the more celebrated red vintages of recent times.
Indeed Shiraz looks to be the early standout, as Chris Tyrrell of Tyrrell’s explains:
‘I would say this vintage personally reminds me a little bit of 2007, and a little bit of 2014’ he said.
‘Whites above average and reds exceptional if I had to grade them’.
‘Shiraz is very much like 2007; incredible colour with great natural chemistry and lower alcohols than 2014’.
‘They are going to be great, (with) impeccable balance in the wines already even at this early stage’.
The hero at Tyrrell’s is more unexpected though:
‘Pinot Noir may be the best I have seen in my time here, it all looks fantastic’.
Enthused Hunter winemakers are everywhere at present, like Angus Vinden of Vinden Estate.
‘The Hunter Valley has been experiencing an amazing run with 2014, 2017 and 2018 all being vintages of exceptional status’
‘2018 has been praised by both growers and winemakers alike, we are buzzing about the quality of these wines’.
Of course, there was a negative to the very dry (only 150mm since Easter 2017) vintage, as Vinden notes:
‘The only real downside of this vintage was the yields, with most vineyards slightly down’.
Not just the same old Semillon and Shiraz
If you’re looking for an example of what the fresh face of the Hunter Valley looks like, then Vinden is definitely your man.
Since taking over his parent’s estate four years ago, Vinden has branched out into a smorgasbord of different varieties and reinventions of classic styles. That has included smart single vineyard Tempranillo; a Pinot Noir Alicante Bouschet blend that is built to be ‘light, funky and delicious’ and an especially vibrant Nouveau Shiraz.
That’s just the start of what’s to come for Vinden, with plantings of Gamay, Mourvedre and Cinsault in the pipeline.
Speaking of Gamay, it is a grape that ‘so hot right now’ in the Hunter, especially after the success Tyrrell’s has had with the variety. Chris Tyrrell explains:
‘The 2017 Gamay was incredibly well received and we sold out in 3 weeks’.
‘I wish we could have made more, this year is s similar volume however we will planting some here on site to increase our production in future years’ he said.
Another alternative variety (whatever that means anymore) which has found traction in the Hunter is Fiano, with a handful of makers delivering some beautifully crisp and vital wines. Briar Ridge have already found success, but this year will be the first with both an estate Fiano and an Albarino.
For The Little Wine Company, it has been a host of Italian grapes that have delivered (plus their benchmark Gewurztraminer), with the new 2016 Barbera and Sangiovese freshly released and the 2016 Sangiovese already a trophy winner.
Over at Mount Pleasant, the alternate varieties under the B-Side label have been hits too.
Originally conceived as a label for winemaker’s experiments, the label has now apparently morphed into ooe f the more popular ranges at cellar door. New releases include the B-Side Tempranillo Touriga, Shiraz-Montils and Fiano wines with a very exciting pair of Italians in Sagrantino and Mencia to follow in 2020.
In other words, there is no shortage of experimentation afoot, even if you wouldn’t always realise on the surface.
The vines they are a changing
While the flow of alternative varieties continues, there has been a change for some of the oldest vineyards in the Hunter Valley too.
Mount Pleasant, for one, recently completed replanting parts of the original Old Hill Vineyard (established 1880) to 100% Shiraz.
That follows a shift in ownership for some of the Valley’s finest vineyards, with two of the most famous blocks in the region recently sold.
Tyrrell’s announced the purchase of the famous Old Hillside Vineyard – aka the Stevens Vineyard – off Neil and Bernadette Stevens. First planted in 1867 from cuttings believed to be part of the pioneering Busby collection, this 13.52 hectare vineyard includes a block that is considered to be the oldest vines in NSW.
Andrew Thomas has also bought the Braemore Vineyard off Ken Bray, securing access to some of the most desired Semillon vines in the region.
As Thomas notes, it’s been a long-term project to get there.
‘The purchase of this vineyard has been in the pipeline for about the last 5 years, and it’s awesome to see it all come to fruition’ he said.
‘It’s pretty much business as usual though. Ken Bray has done a great job over the last 30 years, and will continue to manage the vineyard for me on a day to day basis.’
‘The purchase of the vineyard is mostly about securing long term supply of fruit from one of the Hunter Valley’s most iconic vineyards for a label which is arguably the most important to my business’.
Selling the Hunter Valley
Despite the strength of these famous Hunter producers with equally famous vineyards, there is a challenge that can’t be ignored – that of a lack of respect outside of NSW, and particularly within the industry.
As Will Figueira, Senior Wine Buyer at Wine Selectors explains, it’s almost a different world.
‘It’s very difficult selling Hunter wines outside NSW; Why? I am not completely sure’
‘I think that a wine like Hunter Shiraz can be tough as people perceive the spiritual home of Shiraz to be South Australia, such as McLaren Vale or the Barossa’ he said.
‘So a lot of people are happy to stick with what they know (ie South Australian Shiraz) but Hunter, seems to be down on that list’.
‘That’s a bit unfortunate really, because people are missing out on amazing wine, at equally amazing prices. Silkman, Thomas, Tyrrells, Usher Tinkler – all of these Shiraz compete with any Shiraz in the country, hands down’.
One theory is that the stigma of the old Hunter Valley style continues to follow it around now, stopping ‘rusted on’ Shiraz drinkers seeing the dynamic new Hunter.
Suzanne Little has experienced this phenomenon first hand:
‘If I’m out in the trade my biggest frustration is people talking about old Hunter sweaty saddle reds – I mean seriously?? Move on people that is so 10 years ago’ she said.
‘But honestly, I can sell the Hunter, its wines, its winemakers, its community til the cows come home. It’s easy because I believe in it wholeheartedly so I don’t find it difficult to sell Hunter wine. Unless I’m in Perth or Adelaide – I only made that mistake once’.
That lack of support from the trade is echoed by Olsen:
‘We enjoy engaging our customers through our cellar door and wine club with some very positive results. (But) I think the biggest challenge is getting Hunter wines onto wine lists in restaurants – there needs to be more focus around regional expression and interest within the restaurant scene’ she said.
At the Small Winemakers Centre they’re showing just well the local wines stack up against the best in Australia too, as Little (who also owns the Centre) explains:
‘Every day in June we have Grange on tasting at Small Winemakers – we pitch Grange against 3 of our Hunter icons in a blind tasting’ she said.
‘This year it is 2011 Grange against 2011 Thomas Kiss, 2011 Brokenwood Graveyard and 2011 Pepper Tree Limited Release (winner of the James Busby and Elliot Family trophies at the 2013 Hunter Wine Show)’.
While comparison tastings like this can help change perceptions, one hurdle that remains is the Hunter Valley wine styles themselves.
Garth Eather of Meerea Park explains more:
‘I think it needs to be said that most Hunter Valley Semillon and Shiraz needs a little extra time to show its absolute best’ he said.
‘There is definitely a lot of impatience with wine consumers that want to buy a bottle in the afternoon on the way home and drink it that night’.
Adrian Sparks of Mount Pleasant, however, thinks that it’s just a matter of time:
‘Traditionally, Australian Semillon has been sold and marketed as an aged wine’ he said.
‘The market however is currently being dominated by bright, crisp and fruit driven styles and varieties and this is where I feel our young Semillons can play a key role in winning over consumers’.
‘The release of Semillon as a young wine will challenge consumers (and the industry’s) perception of the variety in a very positive way.’
While there is clearly still a way to go, perceptions are changing.
Wholesaler Andrew Jamieson of Andrew Jamieson Wine Merchants has a customer list that leans heavily towards on-premise and independent retailers, and believes that the mood is already changing:
‘The emergence of a few new producers in recent years, and a bit of shift back to more classic ‘Hunter styles’ (gross generalisation here) I think has people excited, and a few good vintages has enabled people to make these and shout about them’ he said.
Perceptions or not, the final (upbeat) words come from Angus Vinden:
‘The future looks bright here’.