There is always something going on in the Hunter Valley, with a fine array of events spread throughout the year. The Lovedale Long Lunch is in May when the wineries along the Lovedale Road showcase their wines and local produce in a series of lunches. June is the Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month culminating with the Winemakers’ Table Series, where top chefs and vignerons team up to put on some extraordinary dinners matching local food and wine. There is also the Hunter Semillon and Seafood luncheon in October, with seafood cooking classes, oyster tastings and more than 150 local semillons to try. On October 23, Opera in the Vineyards returns at Wyndham Estate, while October 30 sees Jazz in the Vines at Tyrrell’s Wines. And spring signals the return of concerts at Bimbadgen Estate, Hope Estate and Tempus Two. For more information on upcoming events as well as more details about cellar door visits and restaurants, visit www.winecountry.com.au.
2005 An excellent vintage punctuated by adequate spring rains and relatively mild weather has created many fine wines characterised by intense, powerful fruit.
2006 This was one of the hottest summers on record in the Hunter Valley with little rain to speak of. The conditions brought the harvest forward by an average of about two weeks, creating many softer, plump wines that are approachable from a young age.
2007 The drought from 2006 continued with very little rain and a hot summer dramatically lowering yields and serving to create many deeply flavoured and generous red wines plus some fine semillons.
2008 The most difficult year in the Hunter Valley in recent memory, with a cool summer and regular rainfall but there is the odd surprise.
2009 Good winter rains followed by a warm, dry spring had winemakers hoping for the best. A very hot summer and significant rain before most of the red wines were picked has made for a good vintage with a handful of outstanding red wines.
WINES FOR THE BOOT
2009 Ballabourneen Gamay Noir, A$25
Len Evans swore that the Hunter Valley could create fine gamay and Dan Binet at Ballabourneen is having a crack with this juicy, vibrant red fruit style with layers of herb, earth and spice.
2007 Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz, A$140
Originally planted in 1970, the Graveyard block consistently rolls out tremendous wines, with 2007 being quite spectacular full of regional leathery notes with layers of dark fruit, earth and spice rounded off with savoury, drying tannins and beautiful length.
2006 De Iuliis Limited Release Shiraz, A$50
Typical of the De Iuliis wines, this is a ripe and densely textured Hunter style with layers of sweet dark fruits balanced by some quite chewy tannins on a generous and gently warming palate.
2009 Krinklewood Verdehlo, A$22
Rod Windrim’s biodynamically grown vineyards near Broke regularly turn out quite a handy verdelho. The 2009 vintage is a restrained style with mid-weight floral, peach-skin fruit finishing crisp and fine with juicy acidity and attractive length.
2009 Lake’s Folly Chardonnay, A$60
The iconic chardonnay from the Hunter is still on great form with the 2009 showing typical restrained tropical and citrus flavours underlined by creamy oak. Still unevolved and youthful, it will age beautifully under screwcap for a decade or more.
2004 Meerea Park Alexander Munro Semillon, A$35
This classic Hunter Valley semillon is a stunning example. At six years of age it is starting to build some freshly buttered toast notes over fine lemon fruit flavours. It will be lovely past 2025.
2007 Meerea Park Hell Hole Shiraz, A$55
A balanced and understated shiraz with reserved earth, spice and mulberry fruit. In the mouth it is medium-bodied yet muscular with intense fruit rounded off with dry, silky tannins.
2005 Mount Pleasant Rosehill Shiraz, A$34
Planted by the legendary Maurice O’Shea in 1946, Rosehill is one of the great Hunter vineyards situated on the opposite side of Broke Road from Lake’s Folly. Only medium-weight but with velvety dark cherry, earth and spice fruit rounded off with some toasty oak, it is a superb food wine and will age gracefully till 2020.
2007 Thomas Kiss Shiraz, A$55
Kiss Shiraz is already among the top half-dozen Hunter reds and this will do the reputation no harm. In a powerful, almost dense style yet still true to the Hunter with earthy nuances, the 2007 Kiss finishes long and strong – a cellaring special.
2009 Thomas Six Degrees Semillon, A$25
It has been a long time since a ‘new’ wine style emerged from the Hunter Valley but that is exactly what we have here with Andrew Thomas’ off-dry semillon. This is a beautifully balanced wine modelled on the great German spatlese rieslings of the Mosel with 40 grams per litre of sugar perfectly aligned with this wine’s bracingly high acidity.
2007 Tinklers U & I Shiraz, A$32
The Tinklers are mainly concerned with growing grapes for companies such as McWilliams, but manage to keep some of their best fruit for themselves. From the excellent 2007 vintage comes this full-bodied and vibrant wine showing dark cherry and blackberry fruit that is exceptionally well balanced with layers of fine grainy tannins and finishing with plenty of character and length.
2004 Tyrrell’s Wines Belford Semillon, A$34
The masters of semillon strike again with this youthful and bright, classically styled wine. Fresh and fine lemon butter and straw notes are just starting to build some toasty, lanolin complexity and finishing with attractive length.
Great wine drives: Hunter Valley
Home to some of the oldest vines and biggest names in Australian wine, the Hunter Valley is a mecca for lovers of quality drops. This three-day itinerary hits all the top spots as well as provides a sneaky insight into the talented young winemakers who are keen to take the region to new heights.
For decades the Hunter Valley has been Sydney’s playground, a place to enjoy a weekend away in the country with family and friends all washed down with a healthy dose of local shiraz, semillon and chardonnay. Just close enough to make the couple-of-hours drive north of Sydney an easy run, the magical mix of vineyards, some outstanding wines and the imposing Brokenback Range continues to draw visitors, both local and international, to the region in ever-increasing numbers. So much so that outside of Sydney city, the Hunter Valley receives more visitors than any other place in Australia.
Still probably the finest wine region in New South Wales, although there is plenty more healthy competition of late, the Hunter Valley has built an enviable reputation for its long-lived semillons and shiraz. Since the work of Maurice O’Shea in the 1940s and ’50s, the area has blossomed with legendary names such as Lake’s Folly, Tyrrell’s Wines, Mount Pleasant and Brokenwood, all contributing to an incredibly strong regional reputation. The Hunter is also a repository for some remarkably old vines that help to create outstanding wines, including plantings of shiraz in 1867, semillon in 1899, chardonnay in 1908 and pinot noir in 1921.
Many a thirst for wine has been ignited at cellar doors along the Broke and McDonalds roads, thanks to the constant praise bestowed on the wineries by the likes of Len Evans. He did much to bring visitors to the Hunter Valley and it would surely be a very different place had he not settled here.
Today, there is so much more than just wine attracting visitors to the Hunter. Partners not interested in a vinous pilgrimage can be entertained while the rest of us get onto the much more serious task of tasting great drops. Skydiving, jet fighter flights, open-air rock concerts, cheese shops, chocolate factories and plenty of finely manicured championship golf courses all help to make a trip to the Hunter Valley a fascinating journey for everyone.
The most exciting recent additions to the local scene have been in the food department. While the Hunter Valley Cheese Company has been a pivotal place to enjoy a mid-tasting lunch for some time, the past decade in particular has seen the quality and style of the local offerings come ahead in leaps and bounds with two stunning restaurants now serving gastronomic delights of the highest quality. Andrew Clarke of Rock Restaurant regularly tantalises the tastebuds with French-inspired gems all beautifully presented in a fine dining setting. Quite different, although equally superb, is Bistro Molines, an exciting new venture in the Hunter from local icons, Robert and Sally Molines. This serene venue is nestled in a pretty setting on Mount View Road with sweeping views across the valley, where you will be served elegant and refined fare from the best of local ingredients. Other restaurants worth checking out include Esca Bimbadgen, Margan, Roberts and Il Cacciatore at Hermitage Lodge. Coffee is a must for any serious wine traveller and there are numerous outlets where you can find a decent cup, such as The Winehouse and Kitchen on Broke Road, The Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop Hall of Food at Tempus Two and Ballabourneen.
At the core, though, of every visit to the Hunter Valley are vineyards and quality wine. Since the 1820s, wine has been crafted in the Hunter Valley, with the semillons and shiraz particularly known for their thoroughly unique style. There is no other wine globally that matches the low alcohol (normally about 11 per cent), fresh, zesty style of semillon that can age remarkably well due largely to its balance of flavour and high acidity. So much so that there are many wines from the 1970s and ’80s still drinking well. If only they had been bottled in screwcap, then some would almost be immortal. In a market that is in some places moving towards lower alcohol levels, Hunter Valley semillon is a very neat fit for ageing as well as drinking relatively young.
The local shiraz is a wine that divides with its more moderate body and alcohol combined with earthy, gamey notes. For many years known as Hunter River Burgundy for their relatively silky texture and earthy complexity, these are wines that can age exceptionally well as illustrated by some of the Lindemans releases from the ’60s, plus those from Maurice O’Shea during the ’40s and ’50s, making these bottles some of the longest-lived dry reds to be crafted in Australia. Even more remarkable is that the wines from Maurice O’Shea were made under harsh conditions, sometimes without electricity, as well as during the last years of World War II.
Chardonnay is also a local strength, driven largely by the wines of Max Lake and Murray Tyrrell plus some of Australia’s oldest plantings. Despite the warm Hunter climate, their wines can age magnificently well with the modern style much leaner and fresher than some of the heavily oaked and worked examples of the past. And then there is cabernet sauvignon – a wine produced from grapes grown on a south-east-facing red volcanic hill that many locals believe is the area’s best piece of dirt. I am, of course, talking about Lake’s Folly. Max Lake was always bucking trends and thumbing his nose at the establishment. No wine illustrates this better than the 1985 Lake’s Folly Cabernet which, at 12 per cent alcohol from a good but not great vintage, is still singing its varietal and regional origins.
While there is significant history to the Hunter, perhaps its strongest suit, for the moment, is a new generation of winemakers exerting greater influence over the local styles, which will continue for some time. While not the youngest of winemakers, Andrew Thomas has made a significant mark with his classic semillons from the Braemore vineyard and, more recently, with an off-dry and very non-traditional semillon that, stylistically, is closer to riesling from the Mosel valley in Germany than the usual Hunter offering. This could very well become a popular and age-worthy Hunter staple. But Thommo is far from alone, with the likes of Chris Tyrrell, Scott McWilliam, PJ Charteris, Michael De Iuliis, Dan Binet, Sarah Crowe, Liz Jackson and Andrew Leembruggen also doing much to reinvigorate the Hunter scene.
A very pleasant drive two hours’ north from Sydney, off the F3 freeway, winding up past Freeman’s Waterhole, through Cessnock and north along Wine Country Drive takes us to the heart of the Hunter Valley. Off to the right is Lovedale Road, at the base of which, on the left-hand side, is the famed Mount Pleasant Lovedale Vineyard sitting in silty, clay soils. Driving past and then turning left onto Broke Road gets us on track for a visit to what is reportedly the first boutique vineyard in Australia, Lake’s Folly (02 4998 7507). The gate is closed, as it is most of the year round as total production usually sells out in a couple of months, but no tour of the Hunter is complete without checking out these remarkable wines. At the winery, winemaker Rod Kempe is racking the 2009 Lake’s Folly Red, which is looking like quite the classic release, showing a little bit more savoury shiraz character from some newly acquired vines. This year’s vintage release, due this month, is the credible 2008 Lake’s Folly Red from a difficult vintage, plus the outstanding 2009 Lake’s Folly Chardonnay which, while very young now and under screwcap, will improve over 10 years without a problem. Fans of the style should buy up quickly as the wine will not last long at all.
Next stop is just up Broke Road at Ballabourneen (02 4998 6505) on the old site of the Evans Wine Company. Here, Dan Binet, formerly of Capercaillie, and Alex Stuart have recently opened a welcoming cellar door with significant charm through which some very interesting parcels are sold. One of these is gamay, a grape that Len Evans always thought might work in the tricky Hunter climate. Binet has made a very handy example from the 2009 vintage, as well as a dry spicy verdelho, also from 2009, lifted by just a little sweetness that is sure to please. After a tasting of the cellar-door range, there are a couple of tables where you can sit back with a plate of cheese and a reviving coffee to watch the sun set over the Brokenback Range, which is not a bad way to end a day tripping through the vineyards.
The last and welcome stop is Hermitage Lodge (02 4998 7639). Situated close to the intersection of Broke and McDonalds roads, these bungalows are ideally located within walking distance for concerts at Hope Estate or Tempus Two, as well as a variety of cellar doors. The rooms are modern and spacious, overlooking the vineyards, and the Premier Suite has an outdoor spa for those looking for a little bit of luxury. Dinner is at the associated Il Cacciatore Restaurant with its generous servings of hearty northern Italian food – for example, aged Hunter beef fillet served on parmesan mash – welcome sustenance for the long days ahead.
The day begins with breakfast at Hermitage Lodge, consisting of gently toasted muffins and, best of all, a bowl of cracking local toasted muesli. Then it is off to see Rhys Eather to check out Meerea Park wines at The Boutique Wine Centre (02 4998 7474) on Broke Road. Rhys and his brother Garth’s venture has quickly earned a reputation for some classically styled, age-worthy semillons, as well as richly textured and deeply flavoured reds winning them many fans. In particular, the Alexander Munro wines, named after their great-great-grandfather, a much-admired Hunter Valley winemaker in the 1850s, are superb. Of these, the 2004 Meerea Park Alexander Munro Semillon is looking like it could go another 20 years, and it’s a bargain for this level of quality.
Next stop is Tyrrell’s Wines (02 4993 7000) for a catch-up with Bruce Tyrrell at his hilltop cellar door on the road towards Broke. Tyrrell and his family have probably done more than anyone else in bringing quality Hunter wines to the world, with the Vat 1 Semillon, Vat 47 Chardonnay, Vat 9 Shiraz, as well as Four Acres Shiraz from fruit planted in 1879, all among the very top Hunter wines. Other standouts in the range have always been the Stevens Semillon and Shiraz. The current 2005 Tyrrell’s Wines Stevens Semillon is just beginning to flesh out and displays a little toasty complexity, although still with a long life ahead. The 2007 Tyrrell’s Wines Stevens Shiraz is a shade better, showing all the quality of the vineyard with some almost tarry/spicy aromas, although finishing with more traditional mid-weight and mouth-coating tannins. A tip here is to get on the mailing list so you can pick up Vat 1 Semillon on release at a bargain-basement price.
Before lunch, I take a scenic helicopter ride over the Lower Hunter Valley provided by Slattery Helicopter Charter (02 4028 0000), including a climb up and over the Brokenback Range. For a relaxed yet elegant meal in the Hunter, you can’t go past Bistro Molines (02 4990 9553), with the freshest of ingredients and an exquisite touch visible in every dish. An absolute winner is the sweet green asparagus topped with parmesan, quail egg and truffle with a cold tomato soup with tomato jelly, chopped onion, carrot and a little fried pancetta not far behind.
After this exceptional meal I head to the Pokolbin foothills to check out the two vastly different cellar doors of Mount Pleasant and Tinklers. At the impressive Mount Pleasant (02 4998 7505) on Marrowbone Road there is plenty to taste, including the iconic wines Rosehill Shiraz and Old Paddock & Old Hill Shiraz, as well as numerous vintages of Lovedale Semillon. The ever-dependable 2004 Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon and 2007 Mount Pleasant Philip Shiraz are well-priced introductions to the local styles, the latter coming up trumps on this occasion with ripe tarry fruit and attractive length. But stepping up to the single-vineyard range provides a significant leap in quality. The pick of the Lovedales is from 2003; young, bright, lanolin-scented fruit – not a classic year but pretty damn good nonetheless. Of the reds, both the perennially underpriced Rosehill and Old Paddock and Old Hill Shiraz from 2005 stand out – chocolatey, blackberry, earthy flavours backed by toasty oak and all in a powerful and mouth-filling package.
From one of the biggest names in the valley to one of the smallest, my next stop is at Tinklers (02 4998 7435) on Pokolbin Mountains Road. The first Tinkler arrived in the Hunter Valley in 1844, and today the family has expanded to be one of the region’s largest growers. Each year a little fruit is retained and crafted into some quite distinctive wines by Usher Tinkler, winemaker at nearby Poole’s Rock. The wines are all marked by their varietal character and value. The 2009 Tinklers Viognier has peach blossom and apricot aromas followed by a richly textured, creamy palate. The 2007 Tinklers U & I Shiraz is a little more serious with sustained, powerful dark fruit flavours and is great value. The Tinklers also have a side business selling mouthwateringly fresh seasonal stone and citrus fruit, table grapes, avocados and figs that the family grows in the hills behind the cellar door, as well as jams, marmalades, pickles and relishes. These tasty morsels alone make a stop at Tinklers well worthwhile.
After a long day of talking and tasting, Rock Restaurant (02 4998 6968) presents the perfect opportunity to unwind, especially on a Saturday night when the eight-course degustation menu is on offer, with each course matched to a glass of wine. Overlooking the 90-year-old vineyard and lagoon, the setting is distinctly upmarket as is the service with detailed, multi-layered dishes that marry complex flavours with more-ish texture. A smoked Petuna trout with pickled artichoke, cucumber noodles, anchovy mousse and mushroom broth almost evaporated off the plate as did the soft venison with quinoa, golden beetroot, pear jelly, parsley oil and Madeira sauce. Overall a very fine dining experience and one that would effortlessly fit into any capital city.
An early start today for the long drive out to Broke to see Rod Windrim at Krinklewood (02 6579 1322) and taste his wines made from biodynamically grown fruit. Despite the problems you’d expect in a region as wet as the Hunter Valley, Windrim has managed to stick to his biodynamic guns, even in the wash-out 2008 vintage, to make some excellent wines. Broke is significantly cooler than the Lower Hunter Valley, which gives the wines from Krinklewood a little more freshness as displayed in the 2009 Krinklewood Verdelho. However, the current winner is the 2005 Krinklewood Tempranillo with quite authentic cherry fruit flavours supported by characteristic rustic tannins, suggesting the Hunter may have some potential with this Spanish varietal.
Back to the Lower Hunter to meet with Michael De Iuliis at the impressive De Iuliis cellar door (02 4993 8000) on Broke Road. In a short seven years since opening, he has bagged a handful of trophies at the Hunter Valley and Small Winemakers shows for his exceptional shiraz, wines that have dense fruit concentration backed by sweet powdery tannins. The style is muscular and powerful with full-bodied wines showing intense dark fruit flavours enhanced by toasty oak, sweet tannins and genuine fruit length. He is also handy with chardonnay, with the 2009 vintage showing balance between fresh, zesty fruit flavours combined with wild yeast characters and well-handled oak.
On the home stretch now and heading towards a modern Hunter legend, Brokenwood (02 4998 7559). Although it brings in fruit from many regions around the country, its home is still the Hunter Valley, which is the source for two of its finest wines. Semillon, unsurprisingly, has always been a stalwart, with the vintage releases well worth a look. While the 2004 Brokenwood ILR Semillon is a fine wine, I reckon the 2004 Brokenwood Oakey Creek Vineyard Semillon pips it with some lovely fresh acid lines and a touch of lanolin complexity. Then there is the 2007 Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz, which has already gained legendary status. A Hunter classic in the making with the unique local fingerprint of power combined with a seductive texture and silky tannins that will see it drink beautifully for at least a decade if not two. It’s definitely one for the cellar.
The weekend could not have been finished any better than with a stroll through the Braemore vineyard on Hermitage Road with Andrew Thomas of Thomas wines (02 6574 7371) and an ice-cold beer. Here, an ancient riverbed snakes through the vineyard, providing the much-desired sandy soils and, more importantly, a perfect home for some of the region’s most distinctive semillon. The 2009 Thomas Braemore Semillon is a baby, all tightly focused lemon juice aromas with great minerality and tension on the palate. The Thomas Kiss is a more modern style of Hunter shiraz with greater fruit sweetness than the norm yet still retains a degree of softness and earthy, leathery complexity. The 2007 is probably the best vintage yet, with beautifully defined dark fruit flavours encased in fine yet muscular tannins with a tremendous finish. I was fortunate enough to taste a barrel sample of a new, yet to be named, red wine from the 2009 vintage sourced from a gnarled old shiraz vineyard that Thommo calls the Motel block, to which he has added eight per cent of old-vine trebbiano. It will be fascinating to see how this novel blend matures, although there is no reason why it cannot join the other Thomas wines as modern regional benchmarks. Great long-lived semillon and characterful, individual shiraz – what else would you expect from the Hunter Valley?
This article is from the April/May 2010 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.