Hunting the Hunter wine region innovations

As far north and as coastal as it is, the lower Hunter Valley of NSW ought to be too warm, too wet, too humid and, with Sydney so close, too expensive to make wine. But it has successfully done so for 170 years and today it is more varied and innovative than at any other time in its long history.

By my estimate, the Hunter now has 159 winemakers with the greatest concentration – and therefore the richest pickings for visitors – in the lower Hunter, quite close to Cessnock.

Clearly, that’s more wineries than any visitor can cover in a fortnight, let alone a weekend. But that’s part of the Hunter’s interest: scale and diversity mean you can go back time and again and still find something new.

For a writer reporting on the Hunter, it’s also a frustration. How can a three-day tour, visiting a handful of wineries, do the region justice? Hence, the sins of omission are many and the gaps can be covered only by you, dear reader. Visit the Hunter, explore and enjoy for there’s much more there than you’ll find in this brief report.

The purely regional experience begins (and, for some, ends) with Semillon and Shiraz, the area’s time-proven, long-lived and idiosyncratic specialties. These find dozens of subtly different expressions amongst makers large and small and could easily be the focus of a weekend’s tour. However, there is much, much more to discover, and it goes beyond the old familiars of chardonnay, verdelho, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

Today’s diversity in the Hunter reflects the explosion of grape growing in Australia and the good old Aussie traditions of cross-regional fruit sourcing, blending and a restless quest to make new and different styles.

Hunter contacts now stretch throughout NSW from the cool regions of Orange and Tumbarumba to warm areas like Mudgee and Cowra. Hunter makers also source fruit from Victoria’s King Valley, Heathcote and Beechworth regions and even from Tasmania and South Australia.

So don’t be surprised when you visit the Hunter to find familiar regional favourites from around Australia as well as emerging varieties like Sangiovese, Barbera, Tempranillo, Pinot Gris and Viognier from the Hunter and beyond.

Invariably, the innovators with these new varieties are also the guardians of the traditional Hunter styles.
Andrew Margan, for example, planted the Italian red variety Barbera at Ceres Hill, Broke, in 1998. He’d seen the increasing popularity of Merlot and believed an Italian variety, either Sangiovese or Barbera, might provide yet another flavour experience for visitors.

Andrew opted for the thick-skinned, high-acid Barbera, reckoning it to be better suited to the Hunter’s warm, humid climate than thin-skinned, big-cropping sangiovese. Cuttings from a Mudgee vineyard (planted by Italian winemaker Carlo Corino in the 1970s) took to the new site and yielded the first Margan Barbera in 2001.

Cellar door customers loved the 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages. And the current release 2004 — and even better, yet-to-be-released 2005 — show the variety’s brilliant purple colour, exotic summer-berry perfume and flavour and savoury, tangy, food-friendly grip.

No matter how tasty though, five Barbera vintages do not a Hunter specialty make. For Andrew Margan the main game remains Semillon, Chardonnay, Verdelho, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon from a former Lindemans vineyard, planted at Broke in 1970 and Merlot from a newer planting next to the Barbera vines.

Margan says that working with Tyrrell’s from 1989 to 1994 taught him “that the basis of wine quality was great viticulture”. Hence, the TLC given to the 78-hectare former Lindeman vineyard at Broke and the 70-year-old former Elliott family ‘Beltree’ Semillon vineyard at Belford, Pokolbin, twenty minutes drive from Broke.

Andrew acquired the Beltree Vineyard in 1999, “returned it to a good state”, and from it produces an absolutely stunning classic Hunter Semillon: delicate, pale, austere and hard for the uninitiated to understand when young but of a style to develop an extraordinary toasty richness with extended ageing.

When you visit Margan’s cellar door — cohabiting with Restaurant Beltree on Hermitage Road, Pokolbin — you can taste Beltree Semillon and other traditional styles like Shiraz alongside the newcomers: Barbera, an excellent Shiraz-based rosé called Shiraz Saignee, and a highly-original, low-alcohol, no-oak, light-and-sticky Botrytis Semillon, sourced from the old Lindemans vineyards at Broke.

Andrew offers, as well, an innovative variation on traditional Hunter Shiraz, born of the current rosé boom. His rosé is made by the ‘Saignee’ or bleeding method – draining lovely pink juice from the Shiraz before it extracts too much colour from contact with the skins.

This has a significant impact on the red wine, too, as it means less juice remaining with those colour-and-tannin-packed grape skins. Margan Timber Vines Shiraz emerges from the fermenting vats as a deeper and richer wine than it would otherwise have been. And to be sure that it doesn’t carry too much mouth-puckering tannin, Andrew doesn’t blend in the pressings – the usual practice with red wines.

Timber Vines, then, has the usual Hunter fruit flavour, but it’s a little darker in colour, a bit fuller on the palate with lots of velvety, soft tannins – cleverly retaining Hunter character while sending a seductive siren song to those who love the bigger wines of, say, the Barossa or Clare.

This respect for tradition spiced with ingenuity shows all through the valley from makers of all sizes.
For example, in 1993 when the Lusby family carved Tintilla Estate out of the bush on Hermitage Road, they included in the seven-hectare vineyard the Italian red variety, Sangiovese – the thin-skinned variety rejected by Margan in favour of Barbera.

In Australia, our most likely exposure to Italian Sangiovese comes via the tight, savoury reds of Chianti – the huge wine zone bulging between Florence and Siena in Tuscany. The quality ranges from glad-when-you’ve-had-enough to jaw dropping, good – especially when you include the related Tuscan heavyweights, Brunello di Montelcino and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, also made from Sangiovese.

The better wines share a savoury intensity and a ripple of tannin that sweeps across the palate, cleaning up before the next sip. We generally don’t see this in fruit-focused Aussie wines. But it’s what Tintilla and a number of other Hunter makers now seek, as an addition to the traditional styles.

Thus, young James Lusby makes convincing examples of the Hunter staples — a traditional, low-alcohol, delicate Semillon and an earthy, soft Shiraz — plus an attractive Merlot, while really bowling over cellar door visitors with three versions of Sangiovese.

Its thin skin and lighter colour make Sangiovese an ideal source for Tintilla’s rosé, Rosato di Jupiter Sangiovese – a pale pink, zesty, savoury luncheon drop – made, like Margan’s Shiraz Rosé, by the Saignee method.

And the ‘bleeding’ process boosts the colour and body of Tintilla Sangiovese, which remains pale in comparison to traditional Aussie reds. However, it has the variety’s cherry-like fruit character and fine, grippy, savoury tannins.

And inspired by modern Tuscan practice, James makes a Sangiovese Merlot blend, a delicious red that retains Sangiovese’s flavour and structure while benefiting from a little more colour, flesh and silkiness contributed by the Merlot component.

Over in Broke at Olivevine, Ian and Suzanne Little specialise in alternative varieties, including locally grown Sangiovese. Like James Lusby, they find the variety struggles for colour, so use the Saignee method to produce a rosé and bolster the red version — with striking success in the excellent 2005 vintage. These are delicious wines.

Olivevine’s a must visit, too, for its racy, limey Gewurztraminer sourced from the former Penfolds Wybong vineyard in the Upper Hunter and a plush, silky, ‘pear drop and apricot’ laden dry white made from Broke-grown Viognier.

And you’ll find Sangiovese and Viognier at Brokenwood that great maker of traditional Hunter Semillon and Shiraz. The homely cellar door looks much as it has for decades. But out back in the winery Peter-James Charteris makes barrels of fun.

P-J’s currently working with different clones of Sangiovese from McLaren Vale, South Australia, and Beechworth, Victoria as well as Nebbiolo (the noble red variety of Piedmont), Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from Beechworth and Chardonnay from Mount Panorama and Orange.

Sure, these are not Hunter wines. But they are truly exciting. And as they move from development to bottling, you can taste and buy them from the Hunter cellar door. I’d drive there again just to re-taste P-J’s creations.

All of this, of course, is a mere swatch of the colourful Hunter fabric. I’ve not even mentioned the time-proven, glorious Semillons and Shirazes from Tyrrell’s and McWilliams Mount Pleasant.
These are surely the region’s greatest beacons. Be attracted to them. But allow time to fan out and see the impressive diversity offered by the other 157 makers.

HUNTER — HOW TO GET THERE, SLEEPS AND EATS

How to get there

Drive north on the Newcastle freeway from Sydney, take the Cessnock turnoff ramp to the left, then follow the signs to Cessnock, then follow the ‘Wine Country’ signs. Take a map, be adventurous and have fun. The greatest concentration of wineries is around Pokolbin, but Lovedale and Broke are must-visits, too.

Sleeps

Tonic Hotel
251 Talga Road, Lovedale
Phone 02 4930 9999 or tonichotel.com.au
Your hosts: Nici and Tom Stanford
Luxurious king-bed suites in clusters of three. Luxury ensuite, TV, oodles of space, balcony, bush views and very peaceful and quiet. Tasty, healthy breakfast in room

Wilderness Grove
77 Wilderness Road, Lovedale
Phone 02 4930 9078
Your host: David Wilson
Luxurious ensuite rooms in purpose-built modern mansion, next to the olive grove in peaceful and quiet location. Share pre-dinner drinks in the lounge or deck and enjoy David’s hearty cooked breakfast.

Eats

Margan Restaurant Beltree
266 Hermitage Road, Pokolbin
Phone 02 6574 7216 or margan.com.au
Offers breakfast, fresh and imaginative Mediterranean-inspired lunches as well as fresh cakes, desserts and coffee all day. Doubles as Margan’s cellar door,

Hungerford Hill Terroir
1 Broke Road, Pokolbin
Phone 02 4990 0711 or hungerfordhill.com.au/terroir
In this magnificent setting chef Darren Ho produces food of the highest calibre. A degustation menu, each dish matched with a Hungerford Hill wine, reveals the depth and brilliance of Darren’s art. His signature ‘Dixon Street bbq duck with sweet pickled lemons on basmati rice and choy sum’ and ‘Caramelised lemon tart with coconut sorbet’ are two highlights.

Mojo’s on Wilderness
Lot 82 Wilderness Road, Rothbury
Phone 02 4930 7244 or mojos.com.au
The ambience is suburban living room. But the do-it-all yourself approach of proprietors Adam and Ros Baldwin delivers homely, relaxing service and strikingly good food. And that’s not surprising given Adam’s twelve-years as a chef in London’s West End and another eight at the Kurrajong, Cessnock.

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