Hunter paradox

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

The first grapes were probably planted there in the late 1820’s and vines were certainly part of the agricultural mix by the early 1830s, with six growers listed in a report of 1832, according to James Halliday in The Wines and History of the Hunter (McGraw-Hill, 1979).

The name of one of those growers, George Wyndham, lives on today in the Wyndham Estate brand, owned by the French controlled Pernod Ricard Pacific.

And readers of my vintage might recall ‘Dalwood, a now defunct Penfolds Hunter Valley wine brand (named for George Wyndham’s property) and ‘Kirkton’ as a once popular Lindemans label named for a Hunter property acquired in 1825 by vine pioneer James Busby.

But that’s the old days, before the Hunter boasted even one resort or golf club. Despite many setbacks, its winemaking survived and grew through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and prospered into the twenty-first.

Today, according to one wine industry database, the Hunter has about 160 winemakers with the greatest concentration in the lower Hunter near Cessnock rather than in the upper Hunter in the vicinity of Denman.

Despite the significant quantity of grapes grown in the upper Hunter, it’s the lower Hunter that produces the region’s two great and idiosyncratic specialties: semillon and shiraz – styles revered by Australian and foreign connoisseurs but with little popular currency beyond the Sydney market.

but the lower Hunter’s proximity to Sydney and Newcastle provides a big flow of tourists happy to explore a range of wine offerings that goes well beyond the two traditional specialities.

It’s a mix of big, small, old and new from the large McWilliams Mount Pleasant to tiny Chateau Pato to glamorous Tempus Two to seventies’ boom star Brokenwood to family oldies like Drayton’s and Tyrrell’s.

In this varied landscape, semillon, shiraz, chardonnay and verdelho lead the charge. But if you seek Little’s Winery at Broke you’ll find former Canberran, Suzanne Little, and husband Ian, making delicious, aromatic Gewurztraminer.

Just down the road, Robin Tedder’s Glenguin blends the exotic tannat with shiraz while Andrew Margan puts a friendly drink-now face on the traditional shiraz and semillon but also makes a delightful red from the Italian variety, barbera.

Quite a few wineries, including Reece and Garth Eather’s Meerea Park now produce that wonderful white, viognier and pinot gris is on the radar.

The latter generally fares better in cooler climates, so it’s not surprising that Tempus Two looks to Victoria’s King Valley for this variety. And makes a very good wine from it.

Nearby, in the Lusby family’s tiny Tintilla vineyard, the Italian variety sangiovese grows beside the time-proven specialties. It’s promising. But will it still be there in 100 years? Could be!

And innovation need not be limited to introducing new varieties. The greatest wines emerging from the Hunter, in my opinion, remain the traditional regional specialties, semillon and shiraz. And these are being polished to a new gloss by both new and old makers, notably McWilliams and, perhaps a nose in front, Tyrrell’s.

Like most complex wine areas, the best way to understand the Hunter is through its wines. And there’s no better way than to hop in the car, go there and wander amongst the vines for a few day.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007