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If you look west while driving down the A-15 in Australia's Hunter Valley from Tamworth towards the turnoff for Broke Road, you might think for a moment that you're in the Napa Valley. In the other direction, the landscape is more like Sonoma, flatter, with meadows and furrowed farmland interrupting the vines here and there. Then, in the late afternoon light, off the road in the woods, you see the kangaroos.
Click here to see the The Hunter Valley: Stunning Semillon, Generous Shiraz, Delicious Food (Slideshow)
Though not as well-known internationally as South Australia's Barossa Valley and perhaps not as trendy among connoisseurs as Margaret River in Western Australia, the Hunter Valley is not only one of the country's major wine regions, but also the very birthplace of Australian wine. It is also the home of what is quite possibly the country's most significant and original contribution to the vinicological world: long-lived wines of great character and complexity made from France's sémillon grape, which in its native country is mostly blended with sauvignon blanc and sometimes muscadelle, and which rarely makes exceptional wine by itself anywhere but here.
With my old friend Jonathan Waxman — the wine-loving chef–restaurateur whose establishments include Barbuto in New York City, Adele's in Nashville, and Montecito in Toronto — I toured Hunter Valley late last year. We found a vibrant wine scene, plenty of good food, comfortable and sometimes luxurious accommodations (we loved Spicers Vineyards Estate, a sprawling five-star "guesthouse" outside the town of Pokolbin, surrounded by vineyards and native bushland), a first-rate producer of smoked meats and seafood (Lovedale Smokehouse), and, at the Hope Estate winery, an outdoor concert venue (the largest in Australia for the over-40 audience, we were told) at which, to our dismay, we had missed the Rolling Stones by one night — all less than a two-hour drive from Sydney.
The valley was a natural to become Australia's first wine country. Its proximity to Sydney (and thus to a ready clientele for its wares and a major port for export), its climate (humid, but less so than nearby coastal regions, and warmer than the higher elevations to the west), and its soils (including large tracts of sandy alluvial earth and crumbly loam) made it attractive to investors, who saw wine as a potential cash crop. The Australian government was all for the idea, too.
"Remember," Gus Maher, general manager of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourish Association, told us when we sat down with him on our first morning in the region in the parlor at the Mercure Resort Hunter Valley Gardens hotel, "that Australia was a penal colony, and people came here drinking rum. The government wanted to get people off rum, and wine seemed like a good way to do it." The pioneer in this regard, he told us, was a Scotsman named James Busby, who traveled through the winelands of Europe and South Africa gathering cuttings (including syrah vines from Hermitage in France's northern Rhône, which was to be renamed shiraz here) and began planting them in 1825 on acreage he'd bought between the towns of Singleton and Branxton.
Others followed Busby's lead, and a selection of Hunter Valley wines sent to the Paris Exhibition of 1855 impressed judges so much that they chose a locally made sparkling wine to serve, instead of Champagne, to Emperor Napoléon III at the Exhibition's closing banquet. Despite this early acclaim, according to Maher, "Quality wines didn't really start appearing here until the 1950s or early '60s." Len Evans, whom Maher describes as "the first modern-day entrepreneur of the Australian wine industry" — he was the country's first regular wine columnist and founding director of the Australian Wine Bureau — was a great supporter of the region. One major local producer, Tyrrell's Wines, founded here in 1858, released the first commercial chardonnay made in Australia, called Vat 47, in 1971, thereby kick-starting an entire huge segment of the country's wine industry. Today, there are more than 120 wineries in the Hunter Valley.
Chardonnay is the most widely planted white wine variety planted in the area today, with sémillon coming second, but we're here mostly for the sémillon — and for the region's unusually elegant shiraz. We pretty much start at the top, visiting a winery called Brokenwood, founded in the 1970s by a group of hobby winemakers and now producing sémillon and shiraz of extraordinary quality (among other wines). The winery's top-of-the-line sémillon is the ILR Reserve (the initials are those of Brokenwood's managing director, chief winemaker, and co-owner, Iain Leslie Riggs), a wine released only after five years of bottle age.
The winery's wine education manager, Damien Harrison, met us in the Brokenwood tasting room and poured us two vintages of the ILR, the 2007, citrusy and spicy in aroma, with a nose of honey and beeswax, then rich, lemony, and almost oaky (though the wine sees no oak) on the palate. Waxman and I looked at each other in amazement; it was easily one of the best white wines we'd had all year. Both these wines are long sold out, but 2014 was a landmark vintage in the region, so make a note to watch for that one in 2019.
We got a preview of the vintage when Harrison took us into the barrel room, where we sampled the 2014 Graveyard Shiraz, beautifully rounded and full of intense cherry fruit, and much more Rhône-like than Australian in finesse and structure. "Twenty years ago, we were a little embarrassed by our shiraz in the Hunter," Harrison said, "because it wasn't a big 16-percent wine like they make in Barossa, but now we're very happy with what we can do."
The Hunter Valley: Stunning Semillon, Generous Shiraz, Delicious Food - Recipes
Looking for your next grape escape?
Now’s the time to start dreaming of a great escape to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley wine country.
A place that brings together world-famous wineries, acclaimed restaurants, delicious local produce and luxurious hideaways, the Hunter is surrounded by magnificent natural beauty, and only two hours from Sydney.
This unrivalled destination has delighted wine lovers since vines first thrived there in the 1820s.
With more cellar doors than any other wine region in Australia, one of the great pleasures of wine tasting here is the incredible breadth of flavour and character.
While Hunter Valley Semillon and Shiraz been world-famous for decades, you’ll also have an opportunity to sip distinctive and innovative wines, from classic Chardonnay to newer varietals including Sangiovese and Tempranillo.
Here’s where to drink, eat, play and stay in the New South Wales Hunter Valley.
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Oz Odyssey - The Trip of a Lifetime
Anyone can get on a jet and visit Australia but we take it to a whole new level!
Join a small group of our wine club members to visit our home country of Australia with us.
Fabulous resorts, talented chefs, great wines at totally unique places you might never find on your own.
We take care of the itinerary, the hotels, the meals, tips and tax. Just lay back and enjoy our Oz Odyssey experience.
Click here if you want to join us on an Oz Odyssey . . .
Day 1 - Welcome to Sydney
Wednesday March 16 - 11:00 am
We meet at the iconic Park Hyatt Hotel in the historic Rocks area of Sydney overlooking the Opera House and suspended above the waters of Sydney Harbor where our king suites all have breathtaking views.
Limo across the Harbor Bridge traveling through Sydney’s Northern Beaches for a long, luxurious lunch with stunning foods overlooking a fabulous beach with a panoramic view of the South Pacific Ocean.
After a leisurely we lunch return to Park Hyatt for a free evening to relax or explore the Rocks area pubs and shops. Bill always likes to have a beer in the rooftop pool area and watch Sydney's giant fruit bats fly over so you may want to join him for this urban bush experience.
Day 2 - Sydney Harbor
Thursday March 17 - 9:30 am
It's a short walk to the wharf where we board our 65 foot cruiser on the stunning waters of Sydney Harbor. Please remember to wear soft, removable shoes as our time on the Enterprise is barefoot.
We disembark for lunch at Balmoral, a masterpiece in elegant beachfront dining.
We are joined at lunch by Ian "Herbie" Hemphill one of Australia's foremost culinary herb and spice experts who will give us an interesting and informative discussion on just how easy it is to use great spices in our everyday cooking.
Following a relaxing Sydney afternoon we stroll to one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants for the dining experience of a lifetime.
Day 3 - Hunter Valley
Heading north to the Hunter Valley and its exceptional Semillon and Shiraz wines we stop to enjoy a light luncheon with our old mates Chef Robert Molines and wife Sally.
Next we check in at a truly unique small five-star luxury hotel in the Hunter Valley, where we occupy virtually the entire hotel under the watchful eyes of local kangaroos. The hotel estate offers spacious suites with indulgent amenities set among vineyards and natural bush land while the Estate’s own restaurant is a Hunter Valley gourmet icon.
We are joined at dinner by fifth-generation Hunter winemaker Keith Tulloch together with wife Amanda and members of their wine club to enjoy a local, farm-to-table produce & wine dinner. Keith and Amanda will then host us all at their winery the next day.
Day 4 - Hunter Valley
Saturday March 19 - 9:30 am
Next it's on to tour and taste a great set of wines with a private tasting at a five-star winery where we get to enjoy the company of the winemaker as we lunch with delicious dishes and meet some real Aussie animals.
After lunch we are off to The Little Wine Company, a boutique winery comprised of husband-and-wife team Ian and Suzanne Little. The pair is united by their passion for producing superb wine, including classic red wines, nuanced whites, flavorful pink wines, and many more. After tasting too many wines we return to our estate hotel where the Botanica chefs have created a genuine Aussie barbecue.
Day 5 - Hunter to Adelaide
After breakfast we return to Sydney Airport and fly to Adelaide. We have a group booking on the 12:20 pm QANTAS Airlines flight to Adelaide. We already have tickets purchased for each of our Oz Odyssey travelers from Sydney to Adelaide but please note for airport security reasons you need to manage your own bags and any excess luggage fees. . . . more important luggage information →
Adelaide Hills & Barossa Valley
Noted for its many music festivals and sporting events, Adelaide is Australia's fifth-largest city , ranks in the Top 10 of World's Most Livable Cities. and with its food, wine and culture is gateway to famous Australian wine regions .
At Adelaide Airport we are greeted by our favorite wine country host Joe Ahern who shows us his Adelaide and then it's on to the Adelaide Hills to enjoy a leisurely lunch paired with fine wines of The Lane Winery.
Arriving at The Louise in the heart of the legendary Barossa wine country we have a free night in which you can relax at the Appellation Bar at The Louise, where Executive Chef Daniel Murphy and his team will produce some delightful nibbles.
Day 6 - Clare Valley
After breakfast in your private courtyard we take a country drive to McLaren Vale to visit the eclectic d'Arenberg Winery where you will become a blending winemaker for the moning followed by an Aussie long lunch on d'Arry's Veranda.
That evening Yalumba, Australia's oldest family owned winery, invites our family to visit, taste their wines, visit the working cooperage, and wander through the wine cellar accumulated by the family over 150 years of collecting, ending up in the tank room where local celebrity chef Peter Clark, another old mate of Dawn and Bill, will present us with an incredible dinner.
Day 7 - Barossa Valley
Meet Dan Standish, one of the powerful winemakers of the Barossa Valley and owner of one of our "Sister Wineries". Dan's exceptional wines sell out every year but a few find their way into "Bills Cellar Club". In this rare opportunity Dan, often accompanied by his wife Nicole, shares his vineyard and wine making philosophy and even more importantly, his breathtaking wines.
After tasting the fabulous Standish Wines we meet Keith Hentschke to taste his award-winning wines then head chef Lachlan Colwill will produce a fabulous lunch in the stables at Hentley Farm, originally built in the 1880s on the banks of Greenock Creek, which have been meticulously restored and converted into a contemporary dining room.
Back to The Louise for some much needed free time, then off to the Vintners Inn for more spectacular Barossa hospitality and cuisine.
Day 8 - Barossa Valley
Wednesday March 23 - 9:30 am
In 1851 Joseph Seppelt established Seppeltsfield where our mate Nigel gives us a behind-the-scenes look through the estate's treasure of historical buildings and spectacular surroundings, tells us about the Seppelt family's profound influence on the Australian wine industry and gives us the rare opportunity to taste our own birth year vintage tawny, directly from the barrel.
We saved a rare experience for our final dinner together. The newly built St Hugo is located within the 150 years old William Jacob’s winery, the new designed to tie in with the old, including the driveway, surrounded by ancient cork trees.
The best of St Hugo waits inside. Longtime friend of Dawn and Bill, Executive Chef, Mark McNamara designs each dish to complement the power and elegance of the wines.
Each menu item starts by placing the wine first, overlaying flavorings and seasonal regional produce to create the truly memorable and delicious flight of dishes. What could be a more fitting venue to savor a degustation dinner while celebrating our last Oz Odyssey night together?
BEACHES AND VINES IN THE HUNTER VALLEY
T he Hunter Valley is one of Australia’s major wine regions and boasts not only some of Australia’s finest Semillon (a white varietal of grape known for being full bodied and not too dissimilar from a Chardonnay – tip, it pairs really well with seafood, pork, chicken and of course as with most wine, cheese). But as a whole the region has a lot to offer and while the main reason you’ll want to go is for the wine, the glorious wine, the beaches along the central coast, up from Sydney are some of the best our beautiful country has to offer and well worth taking the scenic route to stop and enjoy before making your way to the Hunter Valley.
Having recently just spent some time in Newcastle – about an hours drive from The Hunter (as the locals would call it), I fell completely in love with the coastal towns and beaches north of the big bright lights of Sydney. Spending the days sunning myself by the saltwater and indulging in plenty of great food and wine along the way.
No matter whether you’re taking a weekend break, or a longer vacation, getting up to the area should be on your list of must dos.
Best travelled by car if you’re coming from Sydney, head up the M1 along the coast towards Norah Head, where you can stop here grab a coffee or brunch if you’ve got some time up your sleeve at The Ark Cafe – they do a delicious smashed avo. Getting back on the road a few key places you might want to take a sand and saltwater break are, Catherine Hill Bay, Caves Beach, and Merewether. The Merewether Surfhouse has a beautiful cliffside view of the beach and a fantastic restaurant, specialising in local and seasonal produce, the perfect seaside spot to breathe in the view.
Image Credit – Merewether Surfhouse
WHERE TO STAY
If you’re looking for a little luxe in country Australia then you need to stay at Corunna Station and more specifically in the Cooks House at Corunna station a beautiful two-bedroom cottage set on a private rural property with a gorgeous outback landscape. Another option for accommodation while you’re in The Hunter is the luxurious Spicers Vineyards Estate check into one of their luxury spa suites and be prepared to relax.
They have an onsite spa to rejuvenate and unwind in the heart of this incredible wine region, and a beautiful outdoor pool with a spa and sunbeds if you’re looking to soak in some sunshine.
WHERE TO EAT
If you’re looking for a coffee to get you going first thing in the morning then make sure you duck into Alley Cat Espresso, it’s a quirky hole in the wall cafe with a lot of charm and focus on community and sustainability and, of course, really great coffee. Another good spot for your almond milk cappuccino fix is Enzo Cafe, beautifully designed interiors with not only great coffee but a great place to stay for breakfast, brunch or lunch – oh and it’s set in a winery, so a quick tasting is always on the cards.
Lunch and dinner will creep up on you after a few glasses of vino and the Hunter Valley offers up some exceptional culinary food choices. Margan were the pioneers of agri-dining in the Hunter region, everything on your plate in this restaurant is local – if it isn’t from their onsite veggie garden it is sourced locally, expect fresh high quality dishes here. Another spot to check out is Circa1876, as it states in the name the cottage that this beautiful restaurant lives within dates back to 1876, it’s set within the grounds of The Convent (which is also worth a visit even if you aren’t staying for lunch) they serve anything from a 3-course to a 7-course set menu with wine pairings and an entirely vegetarian degustation on offer too. For something special, book a spot at the Chef’s Table at Emersons Restaurant to experience their 8-course degustation menu immerse yourself in the action of the kitchen and take a look behind the scenes of this award winning restaurant. It really is a dining experience you won’t find anywhere else.
Image Credit – Audrey Wilkinson Wines
THE IMPORTANT STUFF
Okay, you’re in the hunter, you’re in need of some wine… where to even begin? With so much choice and so many great vineyards and cellar doors it can be a bit of a mindmelt trying map out a day of wine tastings. Make it easy for yourself and book a tour, the best in the business in the area is Two Fat Blokes – they offer group and private tours. Or if you’re keen to head into the vines on your own a couple of standout places are Audrey Wilkinson for over 150 years of winemaking experience and the prettiest and most picturesque views. Usher Tinkler Wines are creating wines that open up discussion, blurring the lines between the traditional and contemporary winemaking and is a must visit for anyone who likes their wines paired with fine cheese and salumi. And finally, Krinklewood, a biodynamic winery where all wines are certified organic.
They offer a unique experience in the Hunter and the perfect place to grab a bottle, sit and enjoy the surrounds of their provencal gardens.
If you were looking for a romantic getaway, a girls’ weekend or simply a city break The Hunter Valley has more than enough going for it to give you that feeling that you’ve escaped, you’ve found something special and it’s yours – even if it is just for the weekend. The beaches on the drive up from the big city will give you that fresh salt air you crave and the Hunter will give you the wine… the good wine. What more could you ask for?
Image Credit – Krinklewood Vineyard
Muse Restaurant, Hunter Valley
I first had the privilege of dining at Muse not long after it opened in 2009 and recognized then that it was the start of something good. I was right.
Muse is now one of the most esteemed restaurants in the Hunter Valley. Its young owners, Troy and Megan Rhoades-Brown, won their first chef’s hat in The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 18 months after opening. They have since gone on to open a second, more casual, venue, Muse Kitchen, in Keith Tulloch Winery.
The original Muse is a fine-dining restaurant in the Hungerford Hill Winery, a striking space with soaring ceilings, massive stone fireplace and lots of timber, stone and glass.
Troy was just 24 when he took the reins. The couple had few savings, no financial backer and limited knowledge of business. On the flip side, Troy had worked for acclaimed Hunter chef, Robert Molines, and in 2005 won the prestigious Brett Graham Award, which gave him invaluable experience in Europe.
The couple opened Muse in the midst of the global financial crisis but perseverance, passion and talent paid off. The thing that struck me about Troy’s cooking was not only its finesse but also how innovative it was – not in a ‘throw everything together and hope it works’ kind of way but in a clever, sometimes playful, manner where each of the elements is raised to new heights.
Recently I had the privilege of dining at Muse again, and it was terrific to see how far this restaurant has come. There are not enough superlatives to describe the dishes we had in a media preview of a lunch being held at the restaurant on Sunday, June 14 as part of Hunter Valley Wine & Food Month.
The Dine with the Dynamic Duo lunch sees Troy’s masterful cooking paired with Briar Ridge wines, made by another bright young Hunter talent, Gwyn Olsen. Troy was the recipient of the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Young Restaurateur of the Year award in 2014. In the same year, Gwyn took out the prestigious Gourmet Traveller Wine Young Winemaker of the Year award.
These two are definitely a force to be reckoned with and, having tasted what they have in store for the June 14 lunch, I can assure you it’s an event not to be missed.
We started our tasting with canapés on the terrace and a knockout bubbly, 2012 Briar Ridge Sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay, made from Hunter and Orange fruit. One taste of the canapés and we knew we were in for a treat: Crisp trout skins with rillettes and preserved lemon aioli, Macarons spiced with ras el hanout and filled with Udderfarm yoghurt, and Pork crackle with pickled watermelon rind.
Once seated inside, the bread came out – a choice of sourdough bread, sesame bread or caramelized onion brioche. It came with little pots of black garlic and olive oil butter, whipped till it was very light and creamy, and so utterly delicious it would be enough to make anyone a glutton.
The photo of the first course, Sashimi of Hiramasa kingfish, doesn’t do it justice. The kingfish is complemented by slices of fennel and apple compressed in Muse’s own verjuice, an oyster and tarragon emulsion, Udder Farm yoghurt and organic wasabi from New Zealand, Lovedale fingerlime, and a liquid nitrogen verjuice “snow” spooned on at the table for maximum impact.
The 2014 Briar Ridge Dairy Hill Semillon is precise and elegant with notes of lemongrass and kaffir lime that complement but don’t overwhelm the delicate kingfish. Semillon is often a great match with apple, and it is certainly so here.
Before the next course came, Gwyn served The Briar 2014 Vineyard Blend, a savoury, textural wine with a hint of oak. She describes it as coming from a “dyslexic” block in which Semillon, Verdelho, Chardonnay, Vermentino and Sauvignon Blanc were all planted together.
“When I came on board, the owners said we need a point of difference, and I said I’d really like to make a field blend out of that block,” Gwyn said. “It’s one of those wines that showcases the vineyard.”
The second course was the most colourful of all, the perfectly seared scallops topped with a “fishbone crumb” made from salted bonito smoked in hay and dried for a week. The crumb added crunch and texture and there was a scattering of melon and nasturtiums.
The scallops were served with Briar Ridge’s 2014 Single Vineyard Chardonnay, which hadn’t been released at the time and was on its first outing. What a treat! Gwyn is a great fan of Chardonnay and says it is her “go to wine when I need to have a drink”.
“I love Chardonnay. For me, Chardonnay should be about expression of fruit but it should also have balance and complexity,” she said. “It should be able to speak of place as well.” Briar Ridge’s Mt View Vineyard is defined by acid and there are lovely stonefruit characters that sit nicely with the scallops.
Don’t be deceived by the earthy, neutral-looking Jerusalem artichoke dish. It was nothing short of sensational. The artichokes were peeled and confited in brown butter and hazelnut oil, roasted and turned into a caramelized puree, and the skins lightly fried and served as chips. Served with hazelnuts and creamy Brie, who would have thought a humble tuber could taste this good?
Partridge, beetroot and fig – now that could be my new favourite combo. Partridge mousse, made from the thigh of the bird, was stuffed into breast meat, wrapped in Berkshire pork belly and salt-baked, the crisp, salty pork complemented by the earthy beetroot and creamy Binnorie goats cheese.
Two contrasting Shiraz wines were served with the partridge. The 2013 H.R.B. Shiraz Pinot might sound like an unusual blend but in the 1950s a similar blend was produced under the Hunter Valley Burgundy moniker and Gwyn believes people are interested in revitalizing their heritage. She made a Shiraz Pinot while working at McWilliam’s in 2011 and says a few others are doing it now too.
This one is 52% Shiraz, quite light with floral and berry notes, in contrast with the fuller, more savoury 2013 Dairy Hill Shiraz.
The Briar Ridge 2014 Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, sweet but not overly so, comes to the table along with a hush followed by gasps. Troy’s coconut dessert is like being knocked over with a feather. Not only is it stunning to look at, it tastes amazing too. The coconut is actually roasted coconut chocolate husk filled with coconut mousse and vanilla scented coconut water, sitting on a base of coconut sugar, crystalized flowers and other bits and bobs.
Instead of petit fours with our coffee, Troy plays a little joke on us, with a smear of raw cookie dough, “one of my most favourite things to eat when I was a kid”.
Just as I was putting this post together, it was announced that Troy Rhoades-Brown and Gwyn Olsen had been jointly named 2015 Rising Star of the Year in the Hunter Valley Legends Awards. Announced by the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association last weekend, it continues a dream run for this dynamic duo. One can only wonder at where the adventure will take them next.
NSW TrainLink and Destination NSW are offering “Food & Wine Escape” packages throughout June. Phone 13 72 45 for details.
We loved this Semillon, our full tasting note coming soon.
Winemaker "Sourced from the Howard family Somerset Vineyard where I once worked I know this vineyard almost as well as my own. Planted in 1969 over fine sandy loam soils, the fruit was hand picked in early February. The juice was fermented on solids in tank/ neutral oak and given extended lees contact to building complexity and texture. The wine shows the character of the old gnarled vines, balancing fruit with minerality."
Hooked on Hunter Valley
In my books, Hunter Valley Semillon from New South Wales Australia is liquid gold. It’s one of those quiet, under-stated whites that’s a poster child for cellaring. I tasted a 2007 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon in wine class last year and it made quite an impression. We were studying “crisp racy whites” except the Semillon I was drinking didn’t fit the category. “Textbook” crisp racy whites are dry to extra dry, medium + to high acid, medium alcohol & light to medium-bodied with a mineral finish. The 2007 Tyrrell’s Semillon I was drinking didn’t fit that profile. It was med + acid, but the similarities ended there. This wine was all texture and mouth-feel. It was rich, weighty and lanolin-like. It oozed generous citrus fruit characteristics and what we call secondary notes….intense flavours and aromas that emerge with time and years of cellaring patience.
So imagine my excitement when I was able to schedule a 72-hour stop-over in Sydney after my 2016 Vintage tour of New Zealand.
I landed and quickly booked a wine tour to the Hunter Valley, home of Tyrrell’s Wines and this unique style of Semillon. My host would be Richard Everett, owner of Wine Country Tours and an oenologist / winemaker with 40 years of experience in the wine biz. Richard graduated from the famed oenology and viticulture program at The University of Adelaide, Roseworthy campus and spent many years with Penfolds as a winemaker before moving to the business side of the wine industry. Working in international marketing, he helped build major Aussie brands like Lindemans, Penfolds and Wolf Blass, before the Foster’s Brewing Group in Australia started gobbling up wineries.
On the road again
It’s a gorgeous day in early May and we’re making our way out of Sydney en route Hunter Valley Wine Country through the beautiful Ku-Ring Gai Chase National Park.
It’s been an unusually warm few months in eastern Australia and the Hunter Valley and cooler fall weather hasn’t materialized. Today’s balmy 24-degree temperatures are seriously messing with the grapevine’s internal clock. The vines are meant to be asleep this time of the year but they’re wide-awake and a little confused. What’s worse, they’ve started a second seasonal growth, which is clearly concerning. “We need a cold blast up from Tasmania to shock the physiology of the vines and force them into dormancy” says Richard. “The vines need to be pruned but you can’t prune until the sap flow ceases. If you do,” he cautions, “you expose the vines to greater risk of virus disease.” The warming of the Hunter Valley region and indeed much of vine-growing Australia needs to come to terms with these rising temperatures, he warns.
We’ve arrived at Tyrrell’s and I’m secretly cheering in the front seat. Tyrrell’s is a fifth generation, family owned and run winery. It was established in 1858 and is home to the amazing Vat 1 Semillon so clearly etched on my palate. Tyrrell’s has received more than 5,650 medals, awards and trophies and are rated the very top five red stars in James Halliday’s 2016 Australian Wine Companion. The Tyrrell family grows a broad and diversified selection of varietals, spread out over sites they own or lease in the Hunter Valley, but also in other regions including Heathcote in Victoria andMcLaren Vale and Coonawarra in South Australia. These folks clearly have their finger in multiple pies and their eyes on the future.
130 year old gnarly Shiraz!
Richard introduces us to some gnarly old vine Shiraz in a vineyard directly in front of the winery. These grapes were grown to make port wine back in the day when all wine was fortified for longer aging and stability. The vines date back to 1879 and are grown on their own rootstock (google: Phylloxera for a lesson on rootstock and grafting), which right out of the gates adds two VERY interesting characteristics to the wine’s flavour profile. Tyrrell’s wanted to know what 137 years looks like in terms of root depth so they brought in a backhoe to help with that analysis. They discovered root systems that run about 7 meters deep, which translates into about 6 tons of red, crumbly clay soil feeding each vine. These vines have spent generations, scavenging and digging through subsoil in search of nutrients and water. That struggle yields fewer but better quality grapes. At that depth, Richard adds, these vines have tapped their own water supply so supplemental watering isn’t necessary.
Also of interest is the relationship between the vine age and grape production. While younger vines produce more grapes – 3 bottles vs 1 bottle per vine on the 130+ year-old vines – the flavour potential and winemaking quality of these old blocks is significantly better. If one of the key performance indicators in wine is vine age, these vines scream yum!
Another interesting bit of vineyard trivia we learn, is the distance between the rows of vines. The rows of the 1879 vines are widely spaced. Back in the day, a team of 2 draft horses in harness was used to do the plowing. Today’s vineyards use tractors to support hand picking or machine harvesters for larger vineyard blocks. The net result is closer rows and increased yields.
Tyrell’s tasting room
Richard takes us to a private tasting room, in the 1880 family home. Under the stern gaze of Tyrrell’s founder, Edward Tyrrell, we sit down to a bevy of bottles and a tasting sheet showing a range of varietals and vineyard sites. Richard asks the group to consider wine age and vine age as we taste our way through 13 wines!!
A dream tasting!
Richard also provides a lesson on:
- Glass taint: wash glasses with hot water and strong detergent, then “purge” with very hot water hang upside down on a drying rack and let “thermal inertia” – aka: air – do the drying work. Too many drying towels harbour smells and introduce an aroma bias
- Wine serving temperatures: a favourite bugaboo of mine: 15 – 18 degrees for white and 18 – 20 degrees for red. Your fridge serves up 3-degree whites, which essentially kills or at least suppresses the wine flavour and aroma
- Wine tasting “data compression”: This is a technique we use in marketing to cement a brand story in a consumer’s minds. Essentially, it involves distilling a complex brand proposition down to a single, memorable idea. So…..Volvo = safe, Nike = celebrates your inner athlete, Jeep = rugged machismo/ma….you get the picture. In the wine world, it’s hard to mentally track the flavour profile of a wine if you’re swilling 10+ glasses. Richard suggests the group try to come up with two or three summary words…so a fresh, newly minted Pinot Gris might be described as a light, frivolous, quencher … and Bordeaux blend a big, round, indulgence.
- Bottle closures: Cork is ok for cheap & cheerful drink-now wines, says Richard. However, for quality wines that may be cellared, a mechanical closure that precludes oxidation and cork taint is required. In NZ & Australia the French Stelvin screw cap system now accounts for 90+% of all good wines. The German Vin-Lok glass stopper system is finding favour with high- end makers such as Henschke, for their $10,000 / case Hill of Grace red wine.
We start with my regional favourite, tasting a fresh, just-off-the-vine, 2016 Hunter Valley Semillon. This is the crisp, racy white we studied back in Somm class. The 15 y/o vines have created a lean, citrus-rich, food-friendly, palate cleansing wine. These are higher yielding young vines with short-term (up to 5 years) cellaring prospects – so drink-now! According to Richard, these grapes were harvested end of January. The heat in this part of Australia ensures phenolic ripeness early in the growing season and winemakers producing this style of Semillon, generally pick early to ensure lower sugar levels / lower alcohol and lower pH / higher acid.
The tasting continues with a 2010 Stevens Semillon from the low yielding 60 y/o vines on loamy sand soils. This wine is rich, honeyed, toasty and truly delicious. It has a cellaring potential of up to 15 years.
Vat 1 Hunter Semillon
Our third and final wine is the 2011 Vat 1 Semillon from – wait for it – 100+ y/o vines from mostly white beach sand soils. This wine is as I remembered – layers of rich, complex flavours that offer stunning length and weight. I taste caramelized honey and gentle citrus. Clearly, vine age counts. The three descriptors: purity, clarity, and singularity. Vintages of Tyrrell’s Vat 1 have picked up 14 trophies including 18 gold medals in the last 12 months and it’s easy to understand why. This Semillon is pure pedigree with 25+ years cellaring potential, the global benchmark for long-cellaring dry Semillon.
Our tasting continues and over the morning we enjoy a range of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Shiraz from a variety of sites, vineyards and regions. Highlights include:
- 2011 Vat 47 Chardonnay with 75+ y/o low-yielding vines planted on sandy, low nutrient and free draining soils. This is classic French White Burgundy style. More pedigree! According to Richard, chief Winemaker for the last 37 years Andrew Spinaze employs hand harvesting, whole bunch basket pressing, no malolactic fermentation, low-toast, tight-grained French oak barriques, with a mix of new and used barriques, battonage / stirring of the lees for 6 months in a cold room at 15 degrees and then one racking or filtering to reduce in-cellar handling. (Got that?) Delicious. Vat 47 was the first Chardonnay on the market in Australia in 1971 and is still one of the benchmarks for the varietal in the New World. Unlike some other New World Chardonnays, Vat 47 has a cellaring horizon of 15+ years.
- 2011 Vat 8 Shiraz / Cabernet with 130+ y/o The 1879 old Shiraz vines on the red clay soil at the front of the winery are the source of this wine, with the 5% Cabernet Sauvignon coming from their 70 y/o grapes in the nearby Kellermeister vineyard. This wine is full of concentrated, dark berry fruit with a great spicy backbone. It’s less about power and more about elegance and finesse. Everyone agrees this wine can be summarized in three words: sophisticated, balanced, grace. The palate delivers on the promise of those old gnarly vines. I’m told Tyrrell’s Vat 9 Shiraz & Vat 8 Shiraz / Cabernet reward cellaring for 40+ years.
There is so much that this winery does well: the winemaking, the marketing, the relationship building, the superb quality, the extraordinary value, the contribution to the community, the legacy. Thank you Tyrrell’s Wines. Such a pleasure.
Hunter Valley Wineries: Cellar Etiquette, Top Drops and How To Taste Them
I’m lucky enough to spend a bit of time in the Hunter and it’s a fave spot of mine. The Hunter Valley is one of Australia’s most famous but also one of its most important wine producing regions, its home to some of our most famous producers (think Tyrrells where Australia’s first commercial release chardonnay was produced, Brokenwood and Lakes Folly which produces one of the finest examples of Cabernet) .
Historically it played a pivotal role in the shaping and success of the entire Australian wine industry and most importantly now days is a wonderful place to spend the weekend and enjoy some of this countries top drops and famous Hunter hospitality. Why not even make a romantic trip of it this Easter long weekend, or a fun getaway with the girls!
Wines of note:
World class Semillon: Fresh, crunchy and lively in its youth and complex, layered and stunningly textural as it ages.
Sexy Shiraz: Elegance is what I look for in Hunter Shiraz, the best examples steer away from high alcohols and oak influence, they are medium bodied, pretty and savoury wines.
Chardonnay: Always a favourite, classic and delicious
There are a number of wine makers moving away from the traditional hunter varietals so keep and eye out for these, Mike De Iuliis from De Iuliis wines is having some great success using Touriga as a blending component in his Shiraz, Gwyn Olsen from Briar ridge is experimenting with Vermentino in some of her blends and a number of producers are paying respect to the old Hunter Valley ‘Burgundies’ and using Pinot Noir with exciting results, Mount Pleasants Mothervine is a great example and Ballabourneen are producing a fun and juicy Gamay Noir which is fantastic served slightly chilled after a long day wine tasting.
Cellar Door Etiquette
There are so many fantastic cellar doors in the hunter valley, I feel it’s great to plan ahead and organise your day for maximum enjoyment. I normally recommend no more than three or four cellar door visits and its always great to throw in a spot of lunch somewhere, Muse kitchen is one of my favourites.
Unfortunately I see too many poorly behaved women in cellar doors after a few too many wines, especially on hens trips. If you are a large group of say 10 or more make sure you call ahead so the cellar door can provide your group with the best service possible especially on busy periods like weekends or public holidays and leave any ahem penis paraphanalia in the car before you head in and keep shrieking to a minimum. PACE YOURSELF, be respectful of the cellar door teams and you will have a great time, its not a free for all even though most wineries will let you taste for free and some ask for a small and very agreeable pre payment to taste
Ask questions and advice from the cellar door teams, they are there to help and best showcase their wines to you. It’s always polite to buy a bottle of something at each cellar door and if you really like something maybe a case or two! Ask if they can provide delivery to your home or office to save you lugging it around and the wines getting hot in the boot of your car.
A few other things:
– Don’t pour your own wines to taste – be patient and let the cellar door teams do what they do best and that is provide you with a great experience which is often organised in a specific order to give you the best possible tasting experience.
– Drink plenty of water and eat throughout the day. Organise and delegate a sober or professional driver to drive you around.
– Be open to trying new things, its all about experiencing new things, who knows you might find something new you love!
– Say thank you and be appreciative even if you didn’t particularly enjoy the wines.
My favourite wineries and cellar doors to visit and must try wines:
Tyrrells: The iconic Vat 1 Semillon is a must and Stevens Single Vineyard Shiraz
Briar Ridge: Single vineyard Dairy Hill Semillon and The ‘HRB’ Single vineyard Shiraz Pinot Noir
Small Winemakers Centre: Taste through a host of great wines under the one roof, in particular Andrew Thomas’ Braemore Semillon and Kiss Shiraz, Andrew Margans delicious Barbera and Keith Tullochs Chardonnays
Krinklewood: Francesca Biodynamic Rose and Basket Press Shiraz, also the Lucia Dessert Wine for the sticky lovers
Piggs Peake: Let Steve take you through one of the most entertaining cellar doors in the Hunter! Check out the Wolfie Zinfandel and the lush suckling pig dessert shiraz.
De Iuliis: Without a doubt Mike produces some exceptional wines but I adore the LDR Vineyard Shiraz Touriga Blend and the Steven Vineyard Shiraz
Audrey Wilkinson: One of the most beautiful cellar doors in the Hunter, the Semillon is top notch
Harkham Winery: Richie Harkham makes handpicked and natural wines with so much love and care, The Azizas Chardonnay and Azizas Rose are my picks along with the old vine Shiraz
Brokenwood: Famous for the ILR Semillon,the stunning and highly awarded Graveyard Shiraz and the lesser known but equallyas impressive Mistress Shiraz
Lakes Folly: The Chardonnay and Cabernet are among the most collected wines in Australia so call ahead to see if they have any available – you gotta be quick!
Scarborough: The Scarboroughs have 2 great cellar doors and put on a wonderful tasting experience, my go to wines are the White Label Semillon and for a great value for money Chardonnay you cant go past the Blue Label Chardonnay
Mount Pleasant: With Jim Chatto at the helm this iconic winery is well worth visiting . Lovedale Semillon, Mount Henry Shiraz / Pinot Noir and Leontine Chardonnay, plus don’t forget the Maurice O’Shea Shiraz
Must Visit Wineries in The Hunter Valley
If tonight’s forecast is a 99% chance of wine, there’s a high chance you’d savour some quality time at Reflections Holiday Parks Lake Glenbawn.
Why? Because amongst its many fine features, this park just happens to be close to some of the best wineries in the Hunter Valley.
If you love a drop and the Hunter Valley has always been on your to-do list, these wineries within an easy drive of Lake Glenbawn Holiday Park may see you rush to pack your bags (and make room in the cellar!).
James Estate Wines
An easy drive from Lake Glenbawn, this prominent Hunter Valley vineyard is well worth a visit. Surrounded by the Wollemi National Park, James Estate enjoys sweeping views of the Goulburn River from their spacious cellar door sales and tasting area.
Drop in for a taste from their very drinkable range, and don’t be afraid if you’ve got some friends in tow … group tastings are their specialty.
Savour the creations from Japan’s first female winemaker (and sake connoisseur) Atsuko Radcliffe at this exciting boutique winery less than one hour from Lake Glenbawn. Atsuko makes just four wines — Verdelho, Chardonnay, Rose and Shiraz — and boy does she do it well.
Visit the Small Forest cellar door on weekends between 10am and 4pm for tastings and to drink in their magnificent views. There’s even a gallery with an ever-changing calendar of quality exhibitions.
Two Rivers Wines
For 30 years this premier Hunter Valley vineyard has focused on what they do best: creating quality wines — fresh, flavoursome and fragrant — from premium grape varieties.
Visit their cellar door (open daily from 11am to 4pm) for tastings of their award-winning Semillon and Chardonnay. And when you’re done, relax in their courtyard with a glass of your favourite drop. The views are sublime (as are the cheese platters!).
Hollydene Estate Wines
This pretty-as-a-picture Hunter Valley winery is what oenophile dreams are made of. Beautiful surrounds. Delicious food. And of course, a large variety of wines made with the very best ingredients. From Cab Sav and Chardonnay to Tempranillo and Verdelho, you’re sure to find something that’ll inspire a take-home bottle or two.
The cellar door is open daily from 10am to 4pm, with the renowned Vines Restaurant open daily for lunch, Friday and Saturday for dinner, and Saturday and Sunday for breakfast.
OK so it’s technically not a winery. But we think this place needs to be on your ‘must-do’ list, especially if you don’t mind a drop of vodka, schnapps, liqueur or gin.
Hunter Distillery — just 30 minutes from Lake Glenbawn Holiday Park — is the region’s only certified organic distillery. The cellar door is open daily from 10pm to 5pm, and tastings are available. Just make sure to try their award-winning copperwave distilled gin perfect for G&Ts.
A stay at Reflections Holiday Park Lake Glenbawn is perfect for those who just want to get away from it all … with its green rolling hills, loads of wildlife and the mighty Lake Glenbawn lapping gently at its doorstep, you’ll relish the peace, serenity and the natural beauty on offer
But if you don’t visit a winery or two while you’re in the Hunter Valley, did you even GO?
Stay at Lake Glenbawn Holiday Park and relish the quaffable delights of this lovely part of the world. Cheers!