A yummy Hunter shiraz tasting

Ask any retailer and they’ll tell you Hunter shiraz is a hard sell. In the past it’s been described as tasting of sweaty saddles, old boots and even a gypsy’s nether regions. Like its white cellar mate, semillon, Hunter shiraz remains an intensely loved, niche wine style with tremendous ageing ability. The best are profound and – surprisingly when you look at the northerly latitude and hot climate of the Hunter – medium bodied and refined.

For a period in the eighties and nineties some Hunter shirazes caught the oak craze. But rather than push the region’s shiraz into the full-bodied mainstream, strong oak flavour and tannin simply swamped the delicate fruit – prompting one veteran Hunter maker, Phil Laffer, to say he’d shoot any winemaker using new oak.

But for every action there’s a reaction, and from the nineties we’ve seen a resurgence of Hunter shiraz making. Vignerons with a great respect for the old, long-lived styles and the patches of old vines in the Valley now produce a great diversity of top shiraz within the distinctive, medium-bodied, earthy mould.

Probably all of the best makers hold in awe the extraordinary Maurice O’Shea reds of the forties and early fifties – sourced largely from vines that still exist on McWilliams Mount Pleasant property, in the lee of the Brokenback Range.

And thanks to the Lindemans maturation cellar, established by Ray Kidd in the sixties, the same makers, and many wine drinkers of my generation, will have tasted classics from Lindemans Ben Ean vineyard, Pokolbin. Rare bottles of the 1965 Hunter River Burgundy Bin 3110 and Bin 3100 (one with a dash of pinot with the shiraz) still drink well. And has there ever been a better Hunter red (or, indeed, Australian red) than the beautiful 1959 Hunter River Burgundy Bin 1590?

Lindemans rationed small quantities of it into the market during the seventies and eighties from its air-conditioned, humidified cellars. I remember the final release (not sure if it was late eighties or early nineties). I worked for Farmer Bros at the time and we placed a dozen bottles in the cellar under the Manuka store (now Vintage Cellars) – kept at a constant 12 degrees.

We aimed to share the occasional bottle, hopefully over the next several decades as treasures like this should never be rushed. But, alas, Farmers went belly up in the last recession and Liquorland (owned at the time by Coles Myer) ended up with the stores and the stock.

Several months later, in mid 1995 and now working for Liquorland, I was there when the precious case appeared at a suppliers’ dinner in the Hunter. What an impressive stunt – every last trophy bottle slipped down the hatch in one evening. But I had the good fortune to sit with Len Evans, and shared the bottle he’d so carefully slipped under the table. There it was, 36 years old, gloriously, ethereally delicious and good for many more years.

While the precious old O’Shea and Lindemans wines inspired winemakers, Tyrrell’s and McWilliams, thanks to winemaker Phil Ryan, had kept working on the regional style without a break. And from the eighties, Brokenwood’s ‘Graveyard Vineyard’ shiraz took on a legendary status. This, perhaps more than any other single wine, restored respect to Hunter shiraz.

It’s at the full-bodied end of the Hunter spectrum – but far lighter, say, than Barossa or McLaren Vale shirazes. The just-released 2007 fetches $140 a bottle and back vintages are always in strong demand at auction.

Its release, alongside several other wonderful top-end Hunter shirazes, prompted this column. These are wonderful wines with proven cellaring ability and all from great old vineyards.  Anyone who’s kept a cellar knows that it’s not always rewarding. From my experience well-chose Hunter shiraz usually comes up trumps. Recent examples include maturing but youthful Tyrrell’s Vat 9 Shiraz 1994, McWilliams Maurice O’Shea Shiraz 2000, McWilliams Rosehill Vineyard Shiraz 1998, Vintage Cellars Somerset Vineyard Shiraz 1997.

Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Hunter Valley Shiraz 2007 $140
The deepest coloured of the five wines in the tasting, Graveyard is still limpid and crimson rimmed. It’s ripe and earthy with noticeable, sympathetic oak. The fruit’s deep, concentrated and layered and the oak gives a spicy bite – but the tannins are soft. This one will age for decades. Vine age 39 years’; Graveyard vineyard. Screw cap.

Tulloch Private Bin Pokolbin Dry Red Shiraz 2007 $35
This is the third vintage of the reborn Tulloch Private Bin Red, a once legendary, long-cellaring wine that was as much an icon to the red drinkers of the fifties as Grange is today. This is pure, beautifully made Hunter shiraz – intensely flavoured, finely structured, silk smooth and elegant. There’s not a rough edge to it – tribute to superb fruit and sympathetic wine making. It should drink beautifully for decades if well cellared. The Tulloch label returned to the Tulloch family in 2001 after 32 years under corporate ownership. Vine age 100 years plus; Tallawanta Vineyard. Screw cap.

Mount Pleasant Maurice O’Shea Hunter Valley Shiraz 2005 $65
This is another comparatively big Hunter wine at 15 per cent alcohol. It’s ripe and earthy with just the first notes of maturity showing. There’s quite a bite to this one, both from tannin and oak, but the flavour depth and firm structure suggest long-term cellaring. Vine age over 125 years; Old Hill Vineyard. Screw cap.

Mount Pleasant OP&OH Hunter Valley Shiraz 2004 $39.99
While this is still big in alcohol at 14.5 per cent, it’s notably lighter bodied than the Maurice O’Shea wine. There’s spiciness to the aroma, nicely seasoning the warm, earthy Hunter aroma. The spiciness comes through, too, on the warm, supple, earthy palate giving a pleasing twist in the otherwise, soft, gentle finish. Another classy wine needing time, if only the cork survives – wine had already penetrated two-thirds of the one in the sample bottle. Vine age: from 1921 on the Old Paddock (OP) vineyard and from 1880 on the adjacent Old Hill vineyard (OH). Cork.

Mount Pleasant Rosehill Vineyard Hunter Valley Shiraz 2004 $33.99
Maurice O’Shea planted the Rosehill vineyard in 1946 near what is now Lake’s Folly vineyard, several kilometres from the Mount Pleasant property. This is the lightest bodied of the three Mount Pleasant reds and probably the least adorned with winemaker artefacts. It’s warm, mellow and earthy on the nose with a delicious, medium-bodied, earthy palate, finishing soft, with a little spicy twist. Long cellaring if the cork holds (had already travelled one centimetre in the sample bottle. Vine age: 58 years; Rosehill Vineyard.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009