Hunter based Tyrrells Winery is one of a handful of large-scale, family-owned wineries to have prospered during the intense rationalisation of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
In that period 80 per cent of Australia’s wine-production capacity coalesced into the hands of just four producers: Southcorp Wines, BRL Hardy Ltd, Orlando Wyndham Group Pty Ltd and Mildara Blass Ltd.
Of the family-owned companies large enough to be household names, McWilliams and De Bortoli appear to be the largest. But Brown Bros, Tyrrells, Rosemount and Miranda are all widely distributed and offer a broad range of products. Each company, of course, has its own personality.
Tyrrell’s identity is closely tied to the Hunter. The family’s been making wine there since 1858, and the winery has one of the most lovely sites of any – on a gentle slope set against the rugged Brokenback Range.
But Tyrrells is no longer tied only to the Hunter. The large scale Long Flat and Old Winery brands demand wider grape sourcing. The Old Winery brand, driven by strong export as well as domestic growth, demands reliable sourcing of high-quality material. Hence, Tyrrells acquisition or establishment of vineyards in other areas.
Bruce Tyrrell says the company owns 140 hectares of vineyards in the lower Hunter, 93 hectares in the upper Hunter, 25 hectares on the Liverpool Plains at Quirindi, NSW, 16 hectares at Heathcote, Victoria, 40 hectares in McLaren Vale, SA, and the 24 hectare St Marys Vineyard near Coonawarra.
These contribute to one of the most varied, interesting and best ranges of wine produced by any Australian wine maker. The Tyrrell flavour spectrum takes our palates from the reliable $6.99 Long Flat Red and Long Flat White to the profound, idiosyncratic wonders of the $35 a bottle Vat 1 Semillon, Vat 9 Shiraz, Vat 6 Pinot Noir, and Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay.
The Long Flat wines offer tasty reliable drinking. Some may find the ‘dry’ white a touch sweet. But its sheer popularity says that’s what many folk want. The red, offers rich, soft fruit flavour – not to sniff and savour – just tasty pleasant quaffing.
The Old Winery range (around $13) offers much richer flavours. As a whole, quality suggests a sophistication of wine making and fruit sourcing that is normally the domain of the larger companies.
Old Winery Semillon 1996 delivers generous pure Semillon flavour and a lively freshness; Chardonnay Semillon 1996 is fatter, with chardonnay’s buttery richness and semillon’s ‘lemon’ tang; Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 1996, a Hunter/McLaren Vale blend is a scrummy, juicy drop combining the ‘lemon’ crispness of semillon and the fleshy zip of McLaren Vale sauvignon blanc; Chardonnay 1996 (mainly Hunter with dabs from Quirindi and South Australia) is flavour packed and great value.
Old Winery Shiraz 1995 shows more complexity and character than many reds at the price. Fermentation in open vats, hand plunging of skins, maturation of various components in small oak and large vats and the inclusion of McLaren Vale and Coonawarra material, all add to the wine’s earthy richness. This is a big softy to drink now.
Old Winery Pinot Noir 1996 is one of the few mid-priced pinots worth drinking. Too often this recalcitrant grape makes insipid, raspberry-cordial wines. But Tyrrell’s decades of pioneering work with this variety (honing the top-shelf Vat 6 Pinot Noir) has had a trickle down effect on the cheaper version. A Hunter, McLaren Vale, Barossa, Coonawarra, Mudgee blend, it delivers the lovely aroma and flavour of pinot noir, while retaining real red-wine character, albeit of a lighter style.
Old Winery Cabernet Merlot 1996, a McLaren Vale, Hunter, Coonawarra blend, features intense ripe-berry flavours, still in the first flush of youth. It’s drinkable now, but another year in bottle should tame the primary fruit flavour and let a little more red-wine character develop.
Tyrrell’s greatest wines, though, continue to be the specialty whites and reds from the lower Hunter Valley. These are unique – and spectacularly good.
Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon 1996, austere and tightly structured should evolve into the marvellously ‘honeyed’ and ‘toasty’ glory of the about to be re released 1992 – a great example of the legendary but often elusive Hunter semillon style.
Vat 47 1996 is surely one of the loveliest chardonnays on the market. The story of its evolution was told in this column last year. It’s a great wine by any measure with amazingly rich-but-fine fruit and beautiful oak.
Vat 9 Shiraz 1993 captures the earthy, highly distinctive Hunter style perfectly and, as well, there is now a range of superb lower Hunter individual vineyard wines: Fordwich Verdelho 1996, Moon Mountain Chardonnay 1996, Shee-Oak Chardonnay 1996 and Lost Block Semillon 1996.