Hunter Valley: one big, happy family

In the mid-2000s the Hunter Valley was home to some of Australia’s most successful volume brands, from Tyrrell’s Long Flat to Mount Pleasant’s Elizabeth. The region’s winemakers were raking in orders from around the world and enjoying huge growth as a result, but they were not particularly happy. 

“We were turning a lot of fruit over and not doing what we wanted to do,” says fourth-generation winemaker Bruce Tyrrell, who took the bold decision to sell Long Flat to Cheviot Bridge in 2003 and focus on quality instead of quantity. He believes that now, after 14 long years spent trying to improve its standing among the trade and consumers, Tyrrell’s has finally earned a reputation as a producer of high-quality wines. “Now we are focusing on the things we want to do and not chasing volume,” he says. “We do 2,000 tonnes now. In the days of the Long Flat brand we did 7,000 tonnes. We were so successful that we weren’t taken seriously for our other wines. 

“It was a bold decision to change our strategy. We had a difficult 10-12 years and we are just coming out of it. You can’t change the world’s perception overnight.”

He gleefully notes that Tyrrell’s 2005 Chardonnay has “more gold than Paris Hilton”, and it certainly looks as though it will soon need to be released only in magnums if it is to fit all its accolades on to the bottle. Tyrrell adds: “Since we have gone to 100% basket press on Chardonnay we have won 50 golds and trophies and been named best Chardonnay producers in the country over the past five years.”

While Tyrrell was mulling over the decision to sell Long Flat, Mount Pleasant was churning out 100,000 cases of $10 Elizabeth Semillon. But the advent of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc hit the Australian industry and it too decided to focus instead on quality. After an embarrassment of fantastic points scores, it was named Australian wine expert James Halliday’s Winery of the Year 2017 – the first win for a Hunter Valley winery in many a year. 

“We made styles of the time,” says winemaker Adrian Sparks. “Robert Parker was giving 100 points to 15% alcohol, massive oak, and everyone chased it. Then we started to change in 2008. We have really pulled back the use of oak in the past few years. We are picking earlier and doing a lot of individual block pickings over all the old vines and really highlighting them. We only had four wines in the mid-2000s and now we have 14. We are getting more respectful of the vineyards as a whole. In the early 2000s we were using 50-60% new oak, small format, and now we are down to 20%, large format, respecting the fruit and showing the characteristics of the vineyard. Now we can see the differences between the vineyards and that’s far more interesting than oak-flogged wine where all you can taste is the tree.”

The story is similar across the board. In 2001 Andrew Margan, owner of Margan Family Wines, was up to 60,000 cases and he too was unhappy. “In 2001 I was at 60,000 cases and I lost my job. I had to employ a lot of people and I became a general manager and I didn’t enjoy that,” he says. “I cut it in half and instead of growing in quantity we are growing in quality. I am the only one of my size that’s single vineyard. All the other ones that are my size have multiple vineyards and buy in.”

Age-worthy wines

Margan has lived in Hunter his whole life, working his first vintage at the age of 16 for Tyrrell’s, and says quality in the Valley has improved “enormously”. Nowadays, it is a region for family producers focusing on producing elegant, age-worthy wines that can stand up to any in Australia in terms of quality. “All the big Australian companies that came in have left the valley and it’s now all family-owned companies,” says Peter Hall, the award-winning winemaker at McGuigan, which still has its base in the region. “Everyone round here will do anything for everyone else. There’s a real camaraderie. Most of the guys now making wine in the valley are as good as you get. I look around the whole of Australia and the local industry has a disproportionately high talent pool. We have the vagaries of season, but we all like to think we get better and better.”

His views are echoed by Jeff Byrne, who was mentored by the legendary Len Evans in the Hunter before progressing to chief winemaker at Agnew Wines, which produces Audrey Wilkinson, Cockfighter’s Ghost and Pooles Rock. “As a community we have worked very collegiately together to improve the wines,” he says. “Historically, when people from overseas think of Australian wines they know the Barossa and Hunter. It’s important that once you get people here, you have the wines to back it up. We have worked very hard on Semillon, on our unique wine style, which you don’t get anywhere else. We have worked hard to get the standard of Shiraz up to its best quality, and Chardonnay has absolutely taken off for the whole region. This is the home of Australian Chardonnay.

“Each property has its own unique characteristics, its house style. For me, Brokenwood is probably the most similar to our own style – green apple, fresh and crisp. Tyrrell’s has this power, there’s not a hair out of place. Mount Pleasant has more phenolics, a little more texture. Margan is more opulent and consumer friendly. And McGuigan is somewhere in between.”

At the end of every vintage, Brokenwood hosts an event and invites every winemaker in the region to bring along their latest wines. “We have a big tasting and we get an idea of what everyone has done that vintage,” says winemaker Kate Sturgess. “It’s about improving the quality of the whole Hunter Valley. If there are just two or three doing excellent wines and the rest are just trudging along, it doesn’t help anyone. We want the whole region to be known for exceptional quality.”

The region is famed for its unique style of Semillon, which has the potential to develop remarkably complex notes as it ages in bottle. When asked what new and trendy developments are occurring in the Hunter, Sturgess says: “There’s a couple of producers playing around. Shiraz/Pinot – a historic blend that got lost – is being brought back. It’s a plush, juicy, easy-drinking style. People are certainly heading towards Beaujolais-esque reds rather than big, structural Cabernets. Matt [Burton] at Gundog is playing around with bottle ferment. We have a 400-litre egg-type thing, with wine that’s still on skins. It went 100% through malo, no sulphur except for when it first went into the oak. It’s our attempt at doing the whole natural wine thing and seeing what it’s about. It’s turned out better than we expected.”

But she adds: “We have worked out that Semillon and Shiraz are the varieties that work here. People are experimenting, but it is mainly coming within those varieties and what we can do to make them more appealing or more interesting or more refined and better. The quality is consistently improving.”

One key change is dialling back of the use of oak – something apparent across Australia – but winemakers have to be careful not to go too far. “We are backing off new oak,” says Tyrrell. “It used to be two-thirds. Now it’s 15-20% to let the fruit shine through and produce more modern Chardonnay. The world’s view of Chardonnay has changed and the big, oaky ones have gone. We still want texture and structure. We don’t want to go too far. We don’t have too much time on the lees. 

“What makes the difference is the gear: the filters, the presses, the pumps. The biggest single quality impact was refrigeration. The science around us has also helped.

Beating brett

“We [the Hunter Valley] like everybody else had our share of brett problems and we attacked it with a sledgehammer, started buying new barrels, using sterile filtering, making sure all the wines are absolutely clean and you can taste what you did in the vineyard.”

Many aficionados would consider it madness to open a Hunter Semillon young, but Sturgess says Brokenwood is trying to make sure it can be enjoyed in this way. “We have been working on trying to have fruit sitting around the acid core, to have ageability without just being a time capsule, to make it more appealing to drink younger,” she says.

Tyrrell adds that it is a perfect accompaniment to delicate seafood as it will not overwhelm the dish as a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc would. Byrne says: “People seem to embrace spending a little more money on a Chardonnay or a Shiraz, perhaps because they go into oak, but Semillon and Riesling are cheaper and seriously good value for the money.” 

Hall at McGuigan adds: “The Semillon is as good as you will get. Shiraz is in that same category. It doesn’t produce the huge wines you get in the Barossa. We have lighter styles but the fruit is ripe. Hunter wines are not overly tannic. The wine in 2017 in the Hunter Valley has more intensity than anywhere else in Australia. It’s a really good year.”

Tyrrell is also raving about the Shiraz produced in 2014. “The two great red vintages in my lifetime are 2014 and 1965,” he says, a ringing endorsement if ever there were one. 

Sparks at Mount Pleasant adds: “The 2014 vintage was a freak vintage and that got everyone talking about us and we have held that position through a tough 2015. 

“For the reds in 2017 we pulled more oak back in. There’s the separation of vineyard blocks, showcasing of aged vines. We have Shiraz vines planted in 1880. We need to make sure the story is not lost. If there are two blocks next to each other you can taste the vine age and they are completely different wines. 

“Hunter Valley is such a small part of the Australian production. It’s 1%. But one thing the Hunter Valley has that the Yarra and all those other places don’t is the history. The prices here aren’t cheap but everybody is fully engaged in the story. We have gone back to telling the story and the history.”

When asked what his message would be to UK buyers that have not considered the region for a while, he says: “Buyers would be surprised. It’s poles apart from the Barossa and that’s the beauty of Australia. We have such diversity in the regions and there are no rules with what we can and can’t do.”

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