Old boots, sweaty saddles and Hunter Shiraz

There’s something about Hunter shiraz that reminds me of Chianti – the sangiovese based wines of Tuscany. No, it’s not the firm, drying, tart tannins of sangiovese – that’s a pure contrast to the soft, almost tender character of Hunter shiraz. It’s more the medium body and earthy, savoury flavour that both share in contrast to the generally more primary grapiness of Aussie reds.

The comparison can’t be taken too far because Hunter shiraz is, finally, a peculiar beast often pilloried and dismissed out of hand. Past descriptors such as ‘old boots’, ‘sweaty saddle’ and ‘Hunter pong’ accommodate the pleasant earthiness of the wine as well as totally undesirable faults like hydrogen sulphide and brettanomyces.

Strip out the faults – which the majority of Hunter winemakers do these days – and you have a terrifically appealing, distinctive wine with many of the attributes being sought by critics and winemakers: savouriness, vinosity (as opposed to grapiness), medium body, moderate alcohol content, a lack of overt oak flavours and compatibility with food.

But in seeking these characteristics in shiraz, critics and winemakers tend to lead consumers to cool-grown, aromatic styles from France’s Rhone Valley, cooler parts of California, Hawke’s Bay New Zealand and southern Australia, including Canberra, central Victoria and the Yarra Valley.

While these beautifully aromatic, silky shirazes receive the lion’s share of publicity today, in Australia at least, they remain a side play to the still dominant robust-to-burly styles from traditional warmer areas, notably the Barossa.

In part this says that wine drinkers love full throttle shiraz despite the development of many exciting new, more refined styles. And it suggests that both styles are destined to co exist.

So where does this leave the Hunter? It’s neither robust Barossa nor fragrant cool climate. The answer is that it’s off the radar for most drinkers, despite having a hard core of followers.

And if we take just the Lower Hunter Valley (itself an amazingly varied sub-region of the Hunter) there’s a diversity of approaches to shiraz and a wealth of high-quality fruit from old vines.

Visit Draytons, for example, and you can buy modern, clean decade-and-a-half old shiraz made in the traditional low-oak, medium bodied, soft, earthy style.

Up the road at Tyrrell’s the team continues to fine tune a style established by the late Murray Tyrrell in the 1960s. The Chateau Shanahan favourite is Vat 9 Shiraz (current vintage 2004) made from two very old plots of vines.

The use of open fermenters and maturation in predominantly large oak vats produces a tremendously appealing, soft, medium bodied shiraz of great complexity, with underlying savouriness and earthiness.

Its cellar mate, Stevens Reserve Shiraz 2003, from vines dating to 1865, bears the same Hunter stamp but is a little brighter and tighter with a noticeable but still modest oak influence.

And the Hunter shiraz that we’re most likely to see is McWilliams Philip. The current 2003 is the strongest for years – quite concentrated and intense, yet medium bodied, savoury and earthy, rather than in-your-face fruity. It’s a terrific regional specialty at $13 to $17 a bottle.

Or for another very different expression, Thomas Kiss Shiraz 2005, made by former Tyrrell’s winemaker Andrew Thomas, weighs in at 14.5 per cent alcohol – a vintage characteristic, he says.

For my money, though, it’s the gentler style, personified by Tyrrell’s Vat 9, that make the strongest Hunter statement and provide real drinking satisfaction.


Yalumba FDR1A Eden Valley Cabernet Shiraz 2000 $33.95
Just as it lost the red-wine-making plot in the late seventies Yalumba released an extraordinary red from the reviled 1974 vintage. FDR 1A Claret 1974 – a Barossa Valley blend of sixty per cent cabernet sauvignon and forty per cent shiraz – had won two trophies and 11 gold medals by the time it came to market. In the late eighties, winemaker Brian Walsh steered Yalumba’s reds back to form. But it wasn’t until another lousy vintage came along in 2000 that Yalumba made its second (just released) FDR 1A, a powerful, graceful Eden Valley cabernet and shiraz blend that’s worth its price tag.

Tim Gramp Clare Valley Watervale Riesling 2006 $18
Watervale, towards the southern end of South Australia’s Clare Valley, makes delicate, potentially long-lived rieslings with a distinctive lime-like varietal flavour. Over time, the best of these acquire a honeyed, toasty overlay without losing varietal character. Tim Gramp 2006 is a particularly fine and delicate example of the style still in its first bloom of limey freshness. It comes from low-yielding vines (five tonnes to the hectare) on the Castile family’s Golf House vineyard and Tim uses only the free run juice from these intensely flavoured grapes in making the wine — hence the intense flavour and fine texture. It’s available at www.timgrampwines.com.au

Various budget Aussie chardonnays $8 to $10
Chardonnay remains Australia’s top selling white wine style by a country mile. And it’s still possible to buy tasty, everyday quaffers with real varietal flavour for less than $10 a bottle. A random check of the tasting bench this week found three good examples with recommended retail prices of $10 but on-special tags of $8 or $9: Lindemans Bin 65 2006 is on the lighter, fresher side with clear-cut melon/peach varietal flavour; Deen Vat 7 Chardonnay 2005 offers more weight (but why the cork?); and McWilliams Hanwood 2005 leads the pack with complexity and structure as well as varietal character.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007