Day III was the big day, with visits at three of the Hunter Valley’s most storied and celebrated producers: Tyrrell’s, Mount Pleasant and Brokenwood. We were quite sure we’d scavenge at least a wine or two this day.
9:00 – 10:30 Tyrrell’s for tasting
A traffic jam at Pokolbin’s only roundabout, under construction for some months and source of frustration for locals, set us back a few minutes. I drove the right way around the ‘bout, which is of course the wrong way, but it gets us through, with a bemused look from the local officer directing traffic.
Chris Tyrrell is chilling in the morning sun as we arrive outside the historic winery, established in 1858 by English gent Edward Tyrrell (the fellow in the portrait behind Chris, seen in the photo taken in the original humble shed erected on the property). Chris has two bottles in his hands, which he passes off immediately to Brad: a 2015 Vat 1 and a 2015 Johnno’s Semillon, which we’ll taste in vineyards where these wines originate.
First stop is the core and, increasingly, the sole source for Vat 1, the Short Flat Vineyard. The name does not lie. Like most of the great semillon vineyards in the Hunter, it’s flat and sandy, wholly unremarkable, which makes it all the more remarkable. The vines, however, have some age, planted in 1924 and 1964; 1963 was the first bottling.
The philosophy behind Vat 1 has shifted over the years. “Vat 1 used to be our top wine in the Bordeaux sense,” Chris tells us. “It was a blend of all of our top old vineyards. Now it comes mainly from the Short Flat Vineyard, more of a single cru,” he explains. At this embryonic stage the ’15 is quiet, introspective, uneager to emerge from the glass in the springtime morning sun. That, of course, will change, but it’ll take at least half a dozen years.
We ride over to the other side of the winery, passing by mounds of red-colored soils. “Shiraz sites,” says Tyrrell as we drive by, contrasting with the whitish sandy soils where semillon thrives. The Johnno’s Vineyard is such a site, planted in 1908. Johnno’s sem is a nod to the past in many ways, not just the old vines. It’s made like “the semillons of yesteryear:” basket pressed, fermented “dirty” (unclarified juice) with wild yeasts, the way Edward would have done it. The result is a very textural wine, palpably tacky and chalky on the tongue, with almost chewy extract. Delicious.
We finish up in the winery with a mini vertical of Vat 1 from ’15 to 1998, hitting ’13, ’10, and ’05. What a great range.
10:45 – 12:30 McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant for tasting
Our GPS mistakes a wooded thicket off of a dirt road behind a hill for the famous Mount Pleasant Winery. “No we haven’t,” Brad screams at the silky female voice of our virtual navigatrix when she tells us we have arrived. Sykora is winging in the back seat, scribbling into a notebook and mumbling something about “good stuff for an article.” We decide to do it old school and shut down the autopilot, shifting into manual. When we reach the paved road again, we follow the large, clearly marked signs to Mount Pleasant and arrive minutes later.
The legendary Maurice O’Shea, one of Australia’s most revered winemakers, founded the winery in 1921. O’Shea was the type of guy that Max Schubert, creator of Penfolds’ Grange, liked to taste with. He later fell on some hard economic times, and the McWilliam family stepped in to partner with O’Shea. They still own the winery today, with Scott McWilliam set to take the company reins shortly. Although O’Shea moved on to the great winery in the sky in 1955, his presence still looms large at Mount Pleasant.
There’s a temptingly large line up of wines waiting for us in the boardroom, including a deep vertical of the Lovedale, a wine that needs no introduction for fans of semillon. Unless, of course you live in the US, in which case you do need an introduction. Mount Pleasant is not currently imported into the US thanks to the altogether inconvenient existence of that other Mount Pleasant winery, the one in Branson, Missouri. Mind you, they’ve been around since 1859, longer than O’Shea’s Mount Pleasant, so I suppose they have a right to the name. You’ll be happy to know that negotiations to find a solution are, however, underway.
Jim Chatto is the chief winemaker for McWilliam’s and ultimately responsible for Mount Pleasant—only the fourth mortal to hold the position since 1921, though Adrian Sparks is the man on the ground, the senior winemaker at Mount Pleasant. Sparks suggests we take a quick ride to the vineyards for a look before tasting. It’s too quick for the officer pointing the radar gun on the sleepy Pokolbin road, though hardly exaggerated, barely more than 15 clicks over in an 80 zone, (10 miles per hour over the limit). But in Australia, nicknamed the Nanny State (by Australians), that’ll run you $260 AUS ($185 US), or about four bottles of the Lovedale semillon. Ouch. Brad makes a note to remind me to stay left and drive slowly.
We eventually arrive in the Lovedale parish at the east end of the Hunter Valley, and then leave it, to get to the Lovedale vineyard, which is apparently named after the parish it’s not in (there’s talk of re-drawing the borders). Now, I’ve mentioned the flatness of great Hunter semillon vineyards. But the Lovedale is really and truly flat. So flat, in fact, that this land, purchased by O’Shea in 1921, was commissioned by the Aussie government during WWII to use as an airport runway. O’Shea replanted it immediately after the war in 1946, but there’s still a small, functioning airport next door.
Flatness notwithstanding, the site is clearly magical. “Lovedale old vines have this naturally low pH when picked compared to younger vines, often 0.15 to 0.2 lower, and also retain more natural acidity. This lends itself to being more stable, and combined with lower alcohol (10.0 – 10.5 percent), provides a beautiful, fine, elegant wine, which, over time, grows and builds in the bottle,” Spark explains. There’s also a secret to Lovedale’s aromatics, which Sparks reveals in this video clip.
We make a quick trip (not too quick) to kick the red dirt at Mount Pleasant’s Rosehill vineyard, a shiraz site par excellence, before returning to the winery for the great tasting of 10 vintages of Lovedale from 2014 back to the staggeringly good 1996. The latter scores an immediate two stars from Brad (his highest rating, in Canadian fashion) after barely more than a sniff. Long live the Lovedale.
13:30 – 15:00 Brokenwood for tasting
Misleading autopilots, police officers and an embarrassment of Lovedale have set us back close to an hour, but the folks at Brokenwood have been forewarned, and are laid back cool cats in any case. Brad and Luke even have time to pause for a photo op in front of the cellar door entrance. Senior winemaker Stuart Hordern is all smiles when we finally arrive, ready to show us Brokenwood’s own little pieces of Hunter paradise. The winery, you may know, was established in 1970 by a trio of Sydney-based solicitors, Tony Albert, John Beeston and James Halliday. It has since grown beyond a weekend hobby into, well, quite a respectable brand.
Brokenwood makes fine semillon both from blends and single-vineyard bottlings, around four or five depending on the vintage. The flagship bears the initials of chief winemaker Iain Leslie Riggs—the ILR Reserve Semillon is consistently one of the Hunter’s best. Unlike the Lovedale, the ILR is a selection of the best lots in the cellar each year, not necessarily from one vineyard. It’s designed for the long term; early experiments with skin contact and barrel ageing proved less successful, and now all lots are whole-bunch pressed and stainless-steel aged; the move to screwcap in 2003 has also been credited with extending their longevity.
In the yearly tastings to find the best of the vintage, as Stuart reveals, it’s the Oakey Creek Vineyard, which belongs to the Drayton family (who also make tidy semillon), that has risen to the top about 15 of the last 20 years, making it the backbone of ILR. It’s easy to see why Oakey Creek is great. It’s flat and sandy, obviously. As we’re standing in it, Stuart tells us a little more about what makes the Hunter Valley so well suited for ageworthy semillon in this short video clip.
We take a short detour to the newly acquired shiraz vineyard that Stuart believes is one of the Hunter’s best: Tallawonta, which means “meeting place” in the aboriginal language, is one of the first sites we see in the Hunter that is genuinely stony, and the wine from there, tasted out of large oak cask back at the winery, is refined and perfumed, an archetype of what Hunter shiraz should be. A stroll through the Graveyard Vineyard, planted in 1968, is an essential activity during any visit to Brokenwood, the source of one of Australia’s most sought after shirazes. Right on cue, a kangaroo springs through the vineyard to complete my photo op. Back in the cellar we taste some Graveyard; it has more depth and drive than the Tallawonta shiraz, a marvel of both power and finesse. But, of course, the main mission is semillon, which we taste several examples of in search of our scavenger hunt prize.
The great man himself, Iain Riggs, appears with characteristic perfect timing as we’re wrapping up the tasting, carrying a six-pack of the essential Aussie post-wine-tasting beverage, Cooper’s Ale. The sun is setting as we relax on the balcony-terrace, having completed our Hunter Valley mission.
Now, all that’s left to do is select our six representative Hunter semillons. Hmm, not so easy. So many options. Brad is distraught—looks like he’s at Wit’s End. —John Szabo, MS
This story appears in the print issue of jan 2019.
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