A world-famous name and two seminal wine styles made for a stimulating immersion in the mysteries of the Hunter Valley
The Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, is the oldest continuously-planted vineyard in Australia, with the first vines going in the ground almost 200 years ago, in 1828. But the big change happened a few years later, when the Australian government sent Scottish botanist James Busby back to Europe to collect vine cuttings.
He trailed through Portugal, France and Italy and came back with over 600 vine cuttings for the government. Of these, 450 went into a propagation nursery in the Hunter Valley, and many went on to form the basis of the oldest vineyards in the region today.
‘We have a Shiraz vineyard from 1867, and 13 blocks on their own roots that are over 100 years old,’ says Bruce Tyrrell. ‘When the rest of the world was smitten with phlloxera, we didn’t get it. So that original vine material is still here on its own roots. I’m 99% sure that we own the oldest Chardonnay vineyard on the planet.’
Bruce describes the old vineyards as ‘priceless assets’ – and ones that have been handed down through his family through five generations, since the 1860s.
The best vineyards are generally in the west, close to the Brokenback Mountains. In fact, Bruce admits that if his great grandfather had arrived in the region 20 years later, he’d probably have gone bust, because he’d have ended up further east, in inferior land. But coming when he did, he got lucky.
‘There’s a saying that the land here is so poor that the rabbits take a packed lunch with them,’ says Bruce. ‘There are beautiful patches of land, and there’s a lot of rubbish. If there’s one job that I’ve done, it’s finding those great spots and taking control of them by buying or leasing them.’
On Australia’s east coast, the Hunter is a harder place to make wine than South East Australia, with thunder and tropical rainstorms a very real possibility during vintage. And there’s no question that having 160+ years of experience definitely helps.
‘I’m forever thinking of what my grandfather told me,’ muses Bruce. ‘He treated every vine as an individual.’
Vat 1 Semillon 2021, 2015, 2009
If the Hunter Valley is globally famous for one thing, it’s Semillon, and here our tasters got to try wines from three different decades: 2009, 2015 (the current release) and 2021 – a sneak preview of a wine that won’t hit the market for several years.
Semillons generally perform best on the lighter, sandier soils of the Hunter, planted around the various creeks that run down out of the mountains. They’re famous for their high acidity, due to early picking.
Fifty years ago, these would be wines with gum-stripping acidity and just 9% alcohol; nowadays they’re typically between 11-11.5% abv, with a pH of 3-3.1. They’re high in tartaric acid, but low in malic.
Wines that see no oak and no malolactic fermentation, they’re fine, pure… and merciless. As Bruce explains, ‘What comes in is what you’ve got. There’s nowhere to hide.
He suggests storing them around 9-11 degrees and letting them warm up a little before serving – particularly the older versions.
‘These are not big wines with lots of flavour,’ says Bruce. ‘There’s fineness and delicacy, with plenty of acidity. They leave your palate fresh and ready for the next mouthful.’
Food matching, he says, is ‘all about seafood’, and Collective members’ suggestions were firmly in this area, going from scallop and pea risotto to pan-seared turbot with white asparagus.
Interestingly, these are wines that gain in strength and complexity with age, getting broader and toastier despite tha lack of oak. In fact, Augusto Gherardi of the Bloomsbury Street Kitchen said the 2009 reminded him of ‘the best Burgundian Chardonnay’.
And that combination of breadth and structure – but without too much weight – makes older Hunter Semillons viable for more left-field pairings.
Emanuel Pesqueira from 67 Pall Mall recalled successfully matching an older version of Vat 1 with curried beef tartare, and Bruce admits that its unique profile means that it’s a wine style that sommeliers all around the world love to get creative with.
The benefits of time in bottle were clearly seen when our members came to vote for their favourite wine.
The 2009 was the runaway winner, attracting admiring descriptions from a number of our tasters, with the 2015 also doing well. The 2021 – still exceptionally young – acquired no votes at all. But Bruce says all three wines tasted very similar at that age, suggesting that this is a reflection of youth rather than vintage. It, too, will start to show beautifully by the time it’s on sale over here.
It’s proof of just how fantastic these wines can be with age but also a justification of the Tyrrells’ philosophy of holding onto the bottles for five years before release. Current vintage is the 2015.
Johnno’s Shiraz 2018, Vat 9 2018, Vat 8 2018
If the Semillons were a vertical tasting – same wine, three different vintages – the Shiraz was the opposite. One vintage – the stellar 2018 – with three different expressions of the region’s signature red.
‘2018 is one of the great vintages,’ said Bruce. ‘It stayed dry and we had a decent crop without it being large. The fruit was all clean and it ripened evenly.’
The Johnno’s Shiraz is from one of Tyrrell’s ‘Sacred Sites’ – their oldest vineyards. As Bruce puts it, ‘These are all vineyards that are grown on their own roots and over 100 years old – amongst the rarest vineyards on the planet.’
The Johnno’s Shiraz vineyard was planted in 1908 on the kind of sandy soils more usually reserved for Semillon. It makes for a typically lighter-bodied red, a finer, more elegant style. It’s open-fermented, and the skins are turned over by bubbling air into the bottom of the vat – a technique Tyrrells picked up from a Burgundian winemaker.
The wine is matured in one to four-year old oak, but in large 2,700-litre foudres, so there is minimal flavour influence.
The Vat 9 comes from totally different soils, from the heavier orange/red clay ridge that runs through the heart of the property. It’s richer than the Johnno’s, but still not a powerhouse, with fine-boned tannin and the sweet fruit completed by an elegant acid structure.
‘This is what I tend to drink the most of at home,’ says Bruce. ‘It’s been the core of our red making all my life, so I’m used to it.’
Our members concurred – it was the most popular red wine in our poll, though only just.
‘What a fantastic contrast!’ said Klearhos Kannellakis from Eksted at The Yard. ‘The Johnno’s is elegant, floral and soft, the Vat 9 is powerful, smoky and peppery.’
The Vat 8 is unusual in that it has 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the Shiraz. In the old days, this fruit used to come from Coonawarra, but recently it too has been grown in the Hunter, on rich, chocolate-brown soil. ‘It came in and it was sensational,’ says Bruce.
The wine is aged in French oak barriques, one-third of which are new.
‘With these three reds you sort of go Burgundy, Rhone, Bordeaux,’ says Bruce. ‘Johnno’s is fine and light- to medium-bodied; Vat 9 is medium to bigger, a bit more tannin and astringency, but good volumes of fruit; Vat 8 is a big wine to start with then the Cabernet goes in to give it more complexity and character.’
Although we didn’t get to taste any of them, it’s worth mentioning some of the Tyrrells’ single vineyard wines. For the Semillons, Bruce recommends the HVD ‘a wonderful depth and softness about it’ and the Stevens Vineyard – ‘really great perfume with a fine elegance’.
For reds, he’s a fan of the 4 Acres Shiraz. Amounts are obviously small, but it’s from their oldest vineyard – planted in 1879. Rumour has it that the vines came from La Chapelle on the hill of Hermitage in the northern Rhone.
‘I don’t know if it’s true,’ grins Bruce. ‘But it’s a good story so I’m inclined to stick to it.’