Bob’s Blog: The Hunter is the oldest Fine wine region in Australia
While this is stating the obvious it is becoming more important than ever to define our region as a fine wine producer in order to distinguish us from the flat land large acre industrial vineyards that produce so much of the “brand Australia” every day drinking wines.
Following on from my last blog where I discussed the unique attributes of geology, climate and soils of the Hunter it seems only logical to make the case for the Fine Wines produced here and the important stories behind our region. Of course there are special patches of exceptional grape growing often alongside more moderate blocks. But it is often the case that the final blend is a combination of the two. Local knowledge has helped winemakers select the best grapes from these well-known patches but with the renewed plantings in the last 25 years newer blocks of well suited vineyard and grape variety have emerged.
The Hunter as a region has clearly developed a reputation for its Semillon and Shiraz but within the region we recognize special areas where the grapes excel— Semillon for example in vineyards along the Rothbury Creek near Hermitage Road has developed its most valued and awarded qualities.
Hunter Shiraz has a unique” taste of place” being softer and more subtle than some of the other regional block buster versions. Some years ago I visited my surgical colleague Jim Watts who developed Fox Creek Vineyard in Maclaren Vale. Walking through the vineyard I noted the shiraz grapes were all shriveled and asked him why they hadn’t picked the grapes. He said they weren’t ready yet!
The Shiraz shrivel has emerged in part response to Robert Parker and the search for ultra ripe shiraz (Maclaren Vale Jam). Not everyone has access to low yielding old vines so newer vineyards chasing the ultra ripe product use longer hang times as a substitute. Of course these extreme hang times create wines with high alcohol and need the rich fruit to help disguise the alcohol.
The practice of prolonged ripening is only possible in places such as South Australia and California where summer rains do not threaten the grapes. Bordeaux, Tuscany and the Hunter have no way of doing this and indeed achieve good ripening which enables their winemakers to produce fine wines that more naturally reflect the terroir. There is active research into the physiological effects of high sugar fruit at harvest, so called “dead or alive” harvest on the vines, their longevity and productivity. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.
In recent years there has been a small move away from this style of wine but in wine shows they attract attention due to their powerful concentration and standout appearance. Being able to finish a bottle over dinner on the other hand may be a problem.
The Hunter was developed in the European tradition of small producers striving to produce wines that matched the terroir. It has always been a table wine area even when the rest of Australia’s wine regions were mainly concentrating on fortified wines. Maurice O’Shea was among the champions of table wines maintaining the French tradition in which he was trained. Fine wines have been our thing!
As wine export from Australia has become a major industry we have been successful in delivering even quality wines mainly from irrigation dependent, low cost mechanized, flatland vineyards, the so called industrial wines. As Robert Parker commented “no other country appears capable of producing an $8 wine as well as it does”. We have become that low cost, lower priced producer of wines.
Lost in the plethora of everyday drinking wines are the many fine wines from the hills and valleys of regional Australia, along with an understanding of their history. Interestingly our first export from Tintilla Estate to China was a quaffing wine made to order for the buyers but the next year they came back wanting a quality fine wine as they realized there was greater profit in small parcels of fine wine.
In the Hunter we need to produce high quality fine wines as the geography and history really precludes our trying to compete on volume and low cost!
So how do we build the image and story of our fine wines? We need to promote our best wines not only by describing their physical tasting characteristics but also in terms of the unique terroir and the people behind them. In the Hunter we need to face the difficulties of promoting our region with the interests of our customers to the forefront. Our Wine legends promotion has always concerned me as being inward looking and while important for the local industry it does not reach out to our customers and is not really promoting the valley.
The Hunter Valley wine show is another important opportunity to not only showcase our wines but is a vehicle for improving the overall quality of our wines. It certainly brings together for one day many of the key players and always has an eye for promotion of the highly awarded wines. The Wine and Food festival aims at attracting visitors to the Valley as do the many other events that occur – Lovedale Long Lunch, Hermitage Film Festival and many other events. These however do not lift us beyond the average, and do not promote the fine wine nature of our region.
It is not enough in my mind to get the fine wine message out or to tell the story of the Hunter. Its certainly not enough to get our wines on the wine lists of most Sydney restaurants! Our story should sell our wines, make people want them, and ask for them when they go out. What we are currently doing is clearly not enough although there are pockets of success but we need to bring everyone along to the table.
Visiting our vineyard and winery has always been an important part of our promotion; it can create an appreciation not only for the wines but the surroundings and our staff can inform our guests about not only Tintilla but importantly our neighbors and the Hunter in general.
The Around Hermitage “Famil” initiative led by Victoria Tait has been an important way for us to get to know the other cellar doors and accommodation and leads to a much more interesting story. We tend to act in isolation across the valley and time restraints and lack of motivation leaves us with little appreciation of what the various vineyards have to offer. We have only vague ideas about what is on offer at the various cellar doors, and only the results from the Hunter Wine Show or the Boutique Wine Show give us a guide. The famil approach helps build our knowledge and could be employed more
widely. What is important however and is obvious on these visits is the fact that most vineyards in the Hunter are aiming at producing quality fine wines and this fact needs propagating.
Telling a good story improves our customer appreciation of the wine, creating a feeling for the Valley and its uniqueness. We all have a direct interest in each other’s success and in building the mystique that ultimately defines the Hunter.
Building on the 175 years or so that has seen many great characters –Busby, Wyndham, King, Kelman, Lindeman, O’Shea The Draytons and Tyrrells, Audry Wilkinson, Max Lake and Len Evans to name just a few who brought their efforts to bear on developing this great region. We need to convert what is folk- law and local knowledge into a bigger story both in print and word of mouth. Importantly it is not enough to tell the story only once, it needs to repeated often and to the next generations.
I always like to see what the Californians are doing as we seem to follow although often much later. They have started to document the variety of micro terroirs that make up their wine growing areas in much the same way they have done in France, in an effort to convince fine wine consumers that the best of California is equivalent to the best of France. I would argue we now have Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz equal to anything from France or California, and unique terroirs to match. We should be shouting from the roof tops about our fine wines.
Making sense of the Hunter is not just noting how many trophies from wine shows or points a wine may get from various wine writers but it also needs the story of the wine. Appreciating the observed and often unexplainable differences in wine, and trying to understand the aspect or soil or drainage or rainfall that may make wines from one side of the road different to the other can add interest to a wine. Looking at aspects of the wine making, the selection of yeasts or barrels and many other variables can add to the story. Constantly building the story of what makes a fine wine and what to look for beyond the numerical assessment is important.
In trying to put an objective number on a wine-96 points for example, a final common pathway as it were, it is difficult to separate out the physiology and psychology of human perception. Some people such as Maurice O’Shea and Jancis Robinson have supersensitive noses able to pick minor differences others would never perceive. Human perception can be influenced also by the environment, by others around you, by background- large winery winemaker verses small producer, even the weight of numbers when judgers are asked to taste 20 or a 100 wines. So while the assessment by a wine judge or writer is a good pointer its not in the realms of an exact science. The full story of a wine is not really quantifiable.
It would be nice to see an attempt to link the biology of a grape variety, its suitability to the terroir, the geography and climate and the history of human input in assessing the full story of the wine. Of course the “objective” approach to wine appreciation cannot predict or explain the changes that come with ageing of wine, although some grape varieties do tend to behave in certain patterns on an individual basis its hard to know. We have a great story to tell with Hunter Valley Semillon and the greater the interest the more the wine is appreciated.
In a world where wine can be purchased for $6 or $60 or $600, it is the story of the wine, the mystique, the perception and the quality that are all important. The Hunter cannot and should not compete with the low cost flat land vineyards. Our long term survival depends on producing quality fine wines and on telling the story that creates interest beyond just the taste of the wine.