An impeccably kept red clay knoll, loamy and ferrous and as beautiful as any site in the Hunter. An undulation that thrums toward the Valley’s heart as one passes it on Broke Rd. A meld of Cabernet and Bordeaux compadres with a dollop of Shiraz, Lakes Folly red is a wine that beguiles, rather than bludgeons. I often compare it to a riper version of a Chinon, the Loire Valley’s great Cabernet Franc, so perfumed is the wine, lithe and pixelated the tannins. Best, it usually clocks in at a digestible alcohol level barely nudging mid-weight. Retrospectively, the 2019 was my favourite red wine of last year’s Companion tasting at a mere 12.6% and perfectly ripe. Clearly, the site is magical, so immutable is the pedigree of the wines. Far from a trend, Lakes Folly is the institution that sets a standard that others, boldly opting for varieties other than the regional stalwarts, can look up to. Lakes is a barometer of confidence and quality.
With this in mind, Angus Vinden’s suite of young reds is impressive. 2021, a cooler year of red fruit accents is in his hands, is a joy! Vinden works with open-top concrete fermenters and an arsenal of large format wood and ceramic eggs. His ferments are spontaneous and extraction periods increasingly attenuated, utilising whole berries, a dash of bunches and gentle agitation with controlled oxidative handling over a longer period, avoiding reduction. Yet aside from dangerously drinkable reds (one a blend of Shiraz and Gamay serving as a regional nod to a Passetoutgrain), Vinden’s work with Tempranillo is particularly impressive.
While his more traditional wines are labelled eponymously, experimental expressions including those of Tempranillo are labelled under the ‘Headcase’ banner. The Headcase Somerset Vineyard Tempranillo 2019 and its longer aged sibling, the Grand Reserve 2018 with 40 months in a combination of French and American wood, are both worthy of attention. Tempranillo’s track record in Australia is somewhat forlorn, yet here its rumble of blue fruits, lilac perfume and a dusty swathe of tannins is a joy to behold. It drinks like Cabernet without the stiff upper lip of tannins!
As a side note, Vinden’s Chenin Blanc, too, is worth checking out. While it seems incongruous that a cool climate cultivar is planted here, Angus tells me that it was already planted when he began taking the fruit. Raised in eggs with ample lees work and the perfect amount of oak, the wine is all ginger spice, tarte tatin and slinky phenolics driving long.
‘...very impressive Barbera. ’
Otherwise, the Margan Family’s efforts with Barbera are reaping rewards. I often found earlier incarnations a bit oaky, even though Andrew assures me that the dabble with new oak was for a very short window. This said, what Australians call ‘used’ or ‘neutral’ oak is still often detectable. A barrel takes a long time to wear in to the point that it no longer imparts tannins or flavour compounds. Today, Margan produces very impressive Barbera. Tank fermented, with a portion raised in used barriques before the components are blended, the wine is fresher than ever before. The alcohol, more digestible. The weight, medium. The dark cherry, blackberry, tar and anise amaro accents, singing. The acidity, thirst-slaking. These are wines to reach for after a day of drinking Shiraz.
Equally as impressive, albeit, in a lighter frame, is his son Ollie Margan’s Breaking Ground Barbera. Fermented wild, this moreish expression sees an intuitive addition of whole bunches to tone Barbera’s high acidity while imparting a weave of spicy tannin. A waft, rather than a rasp. This is intelligent craftsmanship given the variety’s natural predilection for plenty of acidity and scant tannins. No additions are made. Like his dad, Ollie opts for a combination of tank and older oak-raised cuves.
‘ the style that made the Hunter famous…’
Then, of course, there is the style that made the Hunter famous after a slew of Hunter River ‘Burgundy’, masterfully crafted by Maurice O’Shea at McWilliams Mount Pleasant and Karl Stockhausen at Lindemans, whose 1965 Bin 3100 and Bin 3110 are considered among the finest wines ever to be made on these shores. The 3100 was tacitly injected with around 10 per cent Pinot Noir to achieve the savoury, mid-weighted and earthy style that has since come to define the region. Had Len Evans not queried the blend, however, Pinot Noir’s presence would never have been brought to public attention. The point is, before I waffle on any further, that the Hunter was never about big, glossy red wines. This period of craftsmanship established what the region does best. And so it remains today to the point where the revival of a lighter, more digestible idiom represents a renaissance. An epiphany. A fulcrum point. And ironically, a trend.
Mount Pleasant’s Old Paddock was planted in 1921 by Maurice O’Shea
After all, for years Australian producers chased points from influential American commentators. When Australia’s fine wine reputation was diminished by wines of greater bombast, higher prices and poor cellarability, at least among the then ‘new wave’, some producers persisted with extract and oak even if the wines were sold only domestically. 2014, a brilliant vintage, saw the amount of oak thrown at Hunter wines reach a giddy climax, a moment of hubris that many producers now regret. The potential of the year was too often scuttled by overly ambitious winemaking.
‘ a paradigm shift back toward the Hunter River ‘Burgundy’ style…’
Seldom these days does one see the sort of wines that ape Barossa coming from the Hunter. That said, the region is stylistically bifurcated. While my recent tasting for The Companion strongly indicated a paradigm shift back toward the Hunter River ‘Burgundy’ style (not necessarily, mind you, with Pinot Noir as part of the blend), some producers still lean heavily on a reductive approach to make their wines glossy: vivid purple hues, floral aromas and taut mid-palates defined by iodine and purple fruits. These wines are showy, delicious at times and tend to do well in wine shows. De Iuliis, Leogate and Thomas lead the idiom, although Thomas’ wines have been stepped back, positioning themselves as modern, albeit, with a glimpse of Hunter classicism.
‘ Tyrrell’s is leading the return to a welcome classicism. ’
Tyrrell’s is leading the return to a welcome classicism. The top reds are articulated with concrete, large format wood and longer, more gentle agitations, increasingly with whole berries in the mix. The family’s vaunted dry-grown sites give us the respective cuvées of 4 Acres, Johnno’s, Old Patch and 8 Acres. These are spellbinding wines that epitomise the transparent, savoury and medium-bodied digestibility that the Hunter-and only the Hunter-does so well. Each, too, fidelitous to varying geologies, expressed as textural nuances blaring real points of difference across cuvées, rather than plots of a vineyard expanse that are carved out and called ‘Single Vineyard’ for the sake of PR purposes.
Tyrrell’s renowned 4 Acres vineyard
Others making outstanding Shiraz include Briar Ridge, Brokenwood, Audrey Wilkinson, Keith Tulloch, Vinden, Glenguin Estate and Glandore. Mount Pleasant, too, after years of very reductive winemaking seem to have swung the pendulum back toward the classic mould. Their Mountain series of ‘Dry Red’ wines, the 1921 Vines Old Paddock and Rosehill Shiraz among others, are beautiful wines. The tannic latticework is firm, fibrous and beautifully detailed. While some of these makers are young, they are well travelled and well versed in the great wines of Europe and acknowledge what their forebears in the Hunter did so well. They are forging their own paths while respecting the Hunter patrimony and the style that it bore.
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Hunter Valley Wine Tasting 2019