Ramblings: Hunter Valley

A few nights ago, I attended the Brisbane leg of the New Generation Hunter Valley’s Caravan of Courage “On the Road Again” roadshow. Lots of excellent wines and approachable winemakers, if a slightly cumbersome event name. I have a lot of affection for this region and wanted to note a few thoughts prompted by this tasting.

I think it’s from my father that I’ve inherited an interest in Hunter Valley wines, which is perhaps telling. As a region, I sense it is regarded as property of an older generation of wine drinkers; the types of men with deep memories of Hunter Burgundy and a penchant for using the region’s own anachronistic pronunciations for its key varieties (“Semilllon,” “Shirah”). To be honest, I find a view of the Hunter as a musty, old-fashioned wine region completely charming. I like that Hunter wines have lineage, that they draw on a stylistic history that few other regions in our country can provide, and that many producers continue to make wines in the well-established regional idiom. Plus, it takes my focus away from the sad fact that wine has perhaps become secondary in terms of the region’s charms over time.

In this way, the Hunter interests me in same manner that Great Western, the McLaren Vale and the Coonawarra do. Texts from the 1960s and 70s regularly call out these regions as our very finest. Yet, in each case, one could argue their glamour has faded, superceded by younger, more exiting regional starlets with less baggage and a greater willingness to experiment with style.

One might argue it’s a factor of finding better places, over time, to grow grapes. We’ve had less time than the Old World to find those special regions and sites, and perhaps the renown our younger regions enjoy is a reflection of what some believe is an inherently greater potential for fine wine in those areas. There’s no doubt that much beautiful wine is made in Canberra and Margaret River, to name two much younger regions at random. My own experience, though, and what I know of the critical consensus, suggests there are dedicated producers in our older regions making wines of the highest quality. And, although I’ve never tasted and perhaps never will taste the wines of our most exalted early to mid century winemakers, critics I respect hail the old O’Sheas and Preeces as astounding wines by any measure. Clearly, regions like the Hunter and the Grampians remain capable of spawning wines of the highest quality.

If the wines remain good, the question becomes how to get people excited, and initiatives like New Generation Hunter Valley are an attempt to provide an answer. The tasting I attended was absolutely packed, which isn’t something I expected to see (a mid-week Hunter tasting in Brisbane?!). Even more interestingly, the crowd was young, quite tilted towards women, and decidedly cool. Full credit to the event’s organisers for pulling in a good, demographically desirable crowd. If I saw more than one request by punters for the sweet Semillon, or that fun Moscato, well, it goes with the territory.

It’s not just about marketing, though. Producers like Andrew Thomas are pushing new regional styles, breaking away from traditional Hunter Shiraz styles by ramping up the fruit density, oak input and general scale of the wines. This certainly answers commercial challenges associated with old-fashioned, acid-driven, medium bodied red wines that are perhaps out of step with a lot of today’s styles. I love those traditional wines, but the revisionist view of regional style has inherent merit too; these are beautifully crafted wines in their own right. They provide substance to an argument that the region is in the process of reinventing itself in a way that supports renewed commercial interest but also invigorated aesthetic engagement. These most certainly are not your father’s Hunter wines, and they force a re-evaluation of the region’s identity.

The Hunter has arguably been left behind in the recent race by Australian producers to identify and elevate through separate bottlings every vineyard or little patch of dirt with ostensible merit. Slowly, though, producers in the region are calling out sites of particular interest, and for me these bottlings are tremendously exciting in a way that stylistic experimentation isn’t. Tyrrell’s have led the way amongst larger producers, with boutique vignerons like Andrew Thomas exploring this territory more fully, putting it at the centre of his range of wines. A delicious irony, really, that Australia’s traditional stylistic answer to Burgundy is now chasing Burgundian notions of site.

In a way, it’s more interesting to watch our established regions go about the task of refreshing and renewing than to see young regions appear, seemingly out of nowhere, unencumbered by a sense of tradition, of “how things have always been done.” I wonder if, when regions like the Hunter and Great Western, which have flown under the radar for a while now, reach the next stage of their evolving identity, they won’t just blow us all out of the water.

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