I was recently hosted by the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourist Association for a few days of tasting in Pokolbin. My modus operandi was to taste as many wines as possible for The Wine Companion, en situ. While this seems logical, the usual approach is that wines across the jurisdictions that I cover (the Hunter, regional NSW and McLaren Vale) are sent to temperature-controlled storage space.
In years past, I would go there, pull out whatever is in front of me and taste in a communal conference room and be left with a host of bottles, closures and boxes. Disposing of these is arguably more work than the tasting itself! COVID has proven to be a spanner in the works this tasting season yet, fortuitously, tasting in the region enabled me to meet producers and to taste categories arranged according to variety, style and chronology. The team supporting this endeavour also cleared up the aftermath, and for that I am exceedingly grateful. Though it must be said that the storage space staff and neighbours who usually benefit from the remaining sample missed out!
I tasted close to 200 wines in three days. The majority, the stalwarts of the region: Semillon and Shiraz. Jancis Robinson MW once called Hunter Valley Semillon ‘Australia’s greatest gift to the wine world’ and together with Rutherglen fortified expressions, it is certainly our only truly unique style. Hunter Semillon is inimitable because of the relatively early harvest window, borne of the necessity to avoid early Summer rains. This equips the variety with high acidity, lowish alcohol (10-12.5%) and the capacity to achieve an apotheosis of balletic poise and toasty intensity that belies its light-weight, vintage and site-dependence.
The orb of Hunter Semillon is very different to that of its original home of Bordeaux and France’s southwest. There, later harvest windows impart moderate freshness and the grape, which is seldom found as a straight varietal expression, is used as a blending agent with Sauvignon Blanc and, at times, Muscadelle.
Tyrrell’s Vat 1 is the Hunter Valley Semillon
Classic Hunter Semillon is fermented cool, in tank, and bottled immediately to retain primary fruit and cut-glass precision. This approach, however, breeds steely, reticent wines with little to show but for verdant notes of lemongrass and citrus. They demand at least five years of bottle age to reach an adolescence that barely glimpses the potential of buttered toast, glazed quince and lemon drop accents that come with middle age and beyond. While producers such as Tyrrell’s and Mount Pleasant cast certain cuvées into the market with some age up their sleeves, in a time when the vast majority of wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, the perennial question is ‘who’s waiting?’
In response, certain trends have emerged. These include obvious approaches to broaden the texture of the wines to make them accessible earlier, incorporating extended time on lees following fermentation and later harvest windows, accentuated by global warming and a string of drought years, finally punctuated by the cooler 2021 vintage. Andrew Thomas’ Semillons, for example, stretch into the stone and tropical flavour spectrum with recent releases.
‘ The 2021 is stellar, receiving one of my highest scores to date.’
More radically, Briar Ridge’s reliance on ambient yeast, extended lees work and skin contact for their top Dairy Hill Semillon serve to soften the variety’s brittle acidity (with the potassium residing in the grape skins), while imparting a waft of creaminess, textural intrigue and umami breadth to the mid-palate. I’ll be surprised if large format oak is not introduced for this wine, such is its brilliance, moving forward. The 2021 is stellar, receiving one of my highest scores to date. Tyrrell’s, the undisputed regional leader, also seems to have relaxed their wines’ steely determination without forfeiting fidelity to place, style or capacity to cellar. The address’ single-vineyard iterations are second to none.
Another point of interest is the expanding number of white wines hailing from loams and red clays, rather than the traditional option of growing Semillon on meagre sandy alluvials and sedimentary grey soils. Clay’s greater water-retention facilitates more nutrient uptake by the vine, riper grapes, lower acidities and broader wines of a more immediate appeal.
Red Clay Soils at Lakes Folly in the Hunter Valley
Clay is also a greater reservoir of moisture in hotter years, auguring positively in the face of the challenges already upon us. While Chardonnay is increasingly prevalent on the richer soils, Semillon may also benefit if wines of a more imminent appeal are increasingly sought. Tyrrells’ Steven’s Semillon, one of the estate’s top single vineyards, is such an example. When compared to its steelier Belford brethren, the latticework is looser and the textural kit more sumptuous, even at a young age.
‘ ...these are wines that should be on your radar.’
While the Hunter is not known for Chardonnay necessarily, there are some good examples. Tyrrell’s again, with the lauded Vat 47, along with Lakes Folly, has long led the way. However, Keith Tulloch’s offerings are always marked by assiduous attention to detail; these are wines that should be on your radar. The address has benefited from son Alisdair Tulloch’s growing involvement and the recent appointment of Brendan Kaczorowski as winemaker. Both of these young men have a comprehension of texture’s importance (over mere acidity) to a wine’s gait: its poise, complexity and expressiveness, gleaned from extensive experience in the Rhône. This seems to reach its apogee in the Tawarri Chardonnay, a richly flavoured wine, with an interplay of gentle tension and phenolic pucker borne of red clay soils.
More exciting than Chardonnay in the Hunter is Fiano and Albarino (some written as Albarinho). The former seems to have a predilection for expressiveness and varietal fealty, even when handled innocuously as a bang-in-bang-out proposition. Conversely, this is a platform for considerable flair and optimism when the grape is handled well. Again, Briar Ridge is leading the way with a ripping expression fermented wild, embellished with plenty of lees and raised in large format wood.
‘ Fiano is a star of the future... ’
Fiano is a star of the future such is its sturdy physiognomy. It is neither thirsty nor intimidated by the humid, warm conditions of the Hunter. Not surprising, given that its spiritual home is the volcanic hillsides of Avellino, inland from Naples in Italy’s Campania region. Best, it is one of the world’s great white varieties rather than a mere arriviste shoved into the fray as a fall guy. Briar Ridge’s example bares the textural signature of winemaker Alex Beckett, a fan of contemporary German Riesling and Loire Valley Chenin Blanc. His Fiano is all glazed quince, nashi pear and peach pith, with a pungently herbal undercarriage of wild fennel and pepper.
Fiano Grapes on the vine
Even more exciting is Beckett’s deft touch with Albarino. And no, I’m not talking about the faux-Albarino that was mistakenly allowed to trickle onto these shores before being correctly identified as Savagnin! I am speaking of the real deal, a Galiçian cultivar grown on sandy soils in a humid climate not so dissimilar to the Hunter. Beckett’s expression is possibly the single most exciting white wine I have tasted for the Companion to date. At least this year!
‘...Albarino is possibly the star of the line-up...’
Fermented spontaneously in large wood with ample solids, before undergoing partial malolactic conversion, it is a cracker of a wine: apricot pith and curd unravelling across a skein of juicy freshness and pixelated phenolic detail. It is a wine that strikes a European sensibility while suggesting that the Hunter is capable of so much more. Albarino’s righteousness in these parts is compounded by Ollie Margan’s version, one of the wines across his new label, Breaking Ground. Grown on sand and minimally messed with, his Albarino is possibly the star of the line-up, strutting apricot pith and white pepper accents across a talcy beam of chew and freshness. Sub-$20, this and the rest of the range are veritable bargains: sassy, easygoing and sophisticated all at once.
Read more about Ned Goodwin's red wine insights
from his Hunter Valley tasting or shop our Hunter Valley portfolio
Hunter Valley Trends in Red Wine
Tasting Wine in the Hunter Valley
Hunter Valley Wine Tasting 2019