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 Yet, in each case, one could argue their glamour has faded, superceded by younger, more exiting regional starlets with less baggage and a greater willingness to experiment with style.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.

Dowie Doole Garnacha & Tempranillo 2011

This has become one of my favourite smart quaffers over the past little while. As with all Dowie Doole wines, it’s made with an emphasis on drinkability, though this more than most. It has taken an increasingly savoury path since its initial release in 2009, and I’m happy to see this vintage continue the trend.

The nose is rich and dark, almost liqueurous in character, with dried dark berries oozing past spice and some woody, pleasantly vegetal notes. Without being especially serious or forbidding, the aroma profile seems deep to me, with a sense of plushness without simplicity that is very attractive. The palate is supple and just structured enough. The fruit is quite intense in an easygoing way, perhaps because its character is full and generous. Although there’s a decent amount of savouriness to the flavour profile, this wine has an almost total lack of angles, and that makes it outrageously easy to drink. Yes, drink. Tasting this wine as I am doing now entirely misses its point, as it practically begs a generous pour in a large glass with a hearty lamb pie.

Which is exactly what I’m about to do with it.

Dowie Doole
Price: $A25
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Ross Hill Pinnacle Series Pinot Gris 2011

For a region to do Pinot Gris especially well may seem like a dubious claim to fame (sort of like the Hunter doing great Verdelho). I think Orange does a great line in this difficult varietal, though. The examples I’ve tasted have, for the most part, avoided the many traps this style can fall into: too neutral, too hot, too fat, and so on. This one is no exception – I like it a lot.

A full nose showing nashi pear, spice and a range of interesting, more herbal notes. It’s certainly not the last word in complexity (nor would I expect it to be) but it’s generous and poised, never tipping over into the kind of coarseness that I find especially destructive with this style. The aroma seems to have texture, which sounds odd but I think results from the way spice is woven through the fruit, creating spikes and valleys of aroma. It’s a very happy smell.

The palate shows controlled body and fullness of fruit flavour, along with sufficient acid to give the wine shape and flow. Entry is cool and subtle, building to a middle palate full of yellow fruits, spice and flowers. The fruit is somewhat one-dimensional in flavour, but it’s correct and well proportioned. I like the way a range of higher toned aromas seem to hit the top of my mouth with each sip. Flavour persists through the after palate, where it remains mercifully unmolested by alcohol (this is only 12.5% ABV).

Good Gris.

Ross Hill Wines
Price: $A30
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Ross Hill Pinnacle Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Quite an intense, attention grabbing nose full of fruit, leaf and spice. It’s recognisably Cabernet in terms of fruit but also in its angular muscularity; this is not a cuddly aroma profile. Its relative fullness and power reminds me of another recently tasted Orange Cabernet, the Swinging Bridge. If this is where the region’s Cabernets are heading then I am all in flavour. What this doesn’t have, though, is an especially elegant demeanor, nor does it possess that last ounce of definition. Still, I like the way it smells.

The palate is clean and lean, not in terms of lacking flavour (quite the opposite) but in its tight run down the tongue. This is not an expansive wine, at least not yet, and its expression remains focused and brisk. The fruit is dark and varietal, if lacking some detail. The one moment it allows itself to relax a little is towards the back of the mouth, where flavour fans out through the finish. There is a substantial oak influence, and its sappy character comes across as slightly raw. That, combined with a firm acid structure, make this a more challenging drink now than I suspect it will be in five or so years’ time. Some heat mars the finish by stripping the fruit flavours somewhat.

Very young, this needs to loosen up a bit before it will be truly enjoyable. I hope the oak steps back in time and allows the impressively intense, quite delicious fruit to shine.

Ross Hill Wines
Price: $A40
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Jacob’s Creek St Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

A blast from the relatively recent past, this 2008 Coonawarra Cabernet comes later than most of its brethren, even those at the premium end.

I’m struggling with this wine a bit, because it seems to have set off a sulfur reaction in my respiratory tract that has me coughing between sniffs. Through all the sputtering, a well defined aroma profile emerges, which includes mint, spice, dark fruit, leaf and other goodies. It’s a correct, ripe aroma profile, showing the hot 2008 vintage quite clearly, as do most of the other 2008 Coonawarra Cabernets I have tasted. If I’ve a criticism, it’s that this is a little bland and tilted towards fruit sweetness, lacking the element of angularity that I feel a good Cabernet from this region ought to have.

The palate is again well built but certainly a product of its vintage, with very ripe, sweet fruit and the sort of tannin structure best described as blobby (though very fine too). Immediate flavour on entry, becoming more expansive through the middle palate. The fruit is sweet and so is the oak,  the overall impression being one of generosity but not finesse and certainly not savouriness. Having said that, this will be very appealing to lots of people for its fleshiness and relative ease. The after palate and finish are of a decent length, and there’s a welcome hit of Cabernet leaf on the finish.

Quite a long way from what I like to drink, but a well judged wine for mass appeal.

Jacob’s Creek
Price: $49.95
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Tulloch Private Bin Pokolbin Dry Red Shiraz 2010

This wine and the Thomas Kiss from 2010 are, taken together, a case study in Hunter Shiraz’s current stylistic dilemma. A region with such history must surely think twice before shedding its legacy but, at the same time, even the best wines aren’t static, nor does the context in which they exist stop evolving.

The one thing that emerges most clearly from the glass is Hunter fruit in its turned earth, red berried glory. There’s a rustic suppleness to the character of this region’s reds that consistently engages me and which I find delicious. Good detail and even a hint of savouriness fill out the aroma profile, as does some subtle, seemingly old, vanilla and spice oak.

The palate is defined by its textural acid and medium body. Entry is sprightly and flavoursome, leading to a middle palate that is bright with red fruit and crunchy berry skins. There’s a slight simplicity to the fruit that may be a function of youth – certainly, this has the structure to build for some time in bottle and I suspect the best is yet to come. In terms of flavour profile, this is significantly more savoury than the Kiss, a fact that is quite evident in side-by-side tasting. There’s good flow of flavour through the after palate, although the finish pulls up a little quickly for my liking.

Whether it’s a better wine than the Thomas is perhaps the most interesting question to ask, and on that matter I’m not sure. On the one hand, its style is more to my taste. But we shouldn’t be so unsophisticated as to regard our personal preferences as the sole factor in deciding an object’s worth, and in many respects I believe the Kiss wine is better: better fruit, more complexity, more innovative treatment in the winery, greater daring. It’s the difference between attraction and admiration, I suppose, and it would be a sad world in which we were forced to choose just one or the other. For what it’s worth, and as an advocate of tradition in these matters, I find myself gravitating towards the Kiss after an hour or so of tasting. Go figure.

Tulloch Wines
Price: $A50
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Thomas Kiss Shiraz 2010

A showdown of sorts this evening between two range-topping Hunter Shirazes from 2010. First up is Andrew Thomas’s Kiss Shiraz.

I recently tasted the Motel Block from this vintage and there’s a definite family resemblance here. The same fullness of flavour, slightly buried regionality of fruit character, slickness of presentation. But everything here is dialled up to 11. This is, make no mistake, the flagship of the range, and there are lashings of oak and ramped up fruit density to remind one of the fact.

The nose is purple-fruited and basically a wall of aroma with, despite its dimensions, plenty of detail and nuance. Oak is certainly a feature, and comes across as a mélange of coffee, vanilla and bubblegum notes. The palate is verging on full bodied and, as with the nose, piles on intense flavour. Flow through the mouth is well-controlled and has a slickness to it that, while impressive, seems a bit polished, as if some of the more interesting rough edges may have been sanded off at some point. I especially admire how the flavour profile is so integrated even at this wine’s very young age. It makes the wine approachable now, even though I’d be setting aside a stash to come together more and build some complexity, as well as shed some of the boisterous intensity of its youth. A thread of slightly raw tannins through the finish isn’t especially distracting and, for me, adds some welcome savouriness to the flavour profile.

This is a beautifully made wine with a very clear stylistic statement to make. Perhaps because it comes so close to reaching its big goals, this raises more questions for me than did the Motel Block around what Hunter Shiraz ought to taste like. To be sure, this is leagues away from the sort of rustic, acid-driven wines that are still cherished by some producers and punters and which, one might argue, are somewhat of a ball and chain on the region’s profile. For drinkers, like me, who love the older style, this certainly throws down the gauntlet. Would I prefer to drink it over less well made wines that take a more traditional approach? Perhaps not. At the same time, I want smart winemakers to keep challenging our ideas around regional style. These things need to evolve, and wines like this are capable of keeping the Hunter alive.

Thomas Wines
Price: $A60
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Offcuts: Brisbane Single Bottle Dinner

All quiet on the blog front of late, mostly due to some travels that have left little time to write. They have, however, provided ample opportunity to drink exceptionally well, and I’ve been enjoying many excellent wines. I will write some up as time allows.

Before I left Brisbane, however, I did attend the first of what I hope will be a regular series of dinners with seven other local wine enthusiasts. We were each asked to bring a bottle to share and our host arranged for the restaurant Two Small Rooms to build a matching menu. So far, so good.

I won’t go through every wine, although each no doubt deserves to be written up in some detail. Suffice to say the group were extraordinarily generous with their chosen bottles, and the food matches were carefully considered.

Although I’m realising that Cabernet-based wines are often a second choice for me, two Bordeaux provided the most intellectual stimulation of the evening. A 1970 Rausan-Ségla was still in fine shape, though not in the least bit fleshy. Instead, a beautiful old red wine, leaking mushrooms, old leather, cedar and tobacco from every pore. The palate showed firm acid and surprising fruit sweetness too. A lovely thing.

By contrast, a 1985 Léoville Barton remained a real brute of a wine, full of oak and dense, spectacularly complex fruit. I especially liked the aroma, which seemed endlessly deep and dark, and I was happy to lose myself in it for quite a while.

A tranche of sweet wines that accompanied our excellent dessert deserve special mention. We pitted a 1970 Château Suduiraut against a 1999 Ballandean Estate Sylvaner, the only Queensland wine of the night. Although I feel the Suduiraut was in all respects the better wine, and I enjoyed it a great deal, I kept coming back to the Sylvaner for its fresh, boisterous liveliness, which felt great with food and was a lot of fun.

To finish off the evening, and I suspect quite a few of us too, we indulged in a Chambers Special Tokay, which I’m positive I could still taste at the conclusion of my taxi ride home.