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.

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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.

Richard Everett Wine Country Tours
Richard Everett

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.

Tyrrell’s Wines

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.

gnarly shirz vine.jpg
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 tasting room
Tyrell’s tasting room


Let’s drink!!

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.

Age Matters!

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
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.

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