On Drink

This one’s a keeper

The long-lived stars of the Hunter Valley

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The image we have of Australian wine in Britain is of sunshine in a bottle. It’s still Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden with their increasingly outlandish descriptions on the Food and Drink programme on BBC Two. Those exuberant shirazes and fruity chardonnays brought a New World optimism to rainy old 1980s Britain and are still cheering us up today.

And yet possibly Australia’s greatest white wine, certainly its most individual, owes its character to something that feels closer to home, bad weather.

The climate is warm, yes, but it suffers from drought during the growing season and storms during harvest

The Hunter Valley in New South Wales might be one of the country’s most famous regions but it owes its success more to its proximity to Sydney than being an ideal place to grow grapes. The climate is warm, yes, but it suffers from drought during the growing season and storms during harvest where the crop might be wiped out by hail.

According to Bruce Tyrrell, whose family have been growing there since the mid-nineteenth century, to mitigate against this, traditionally growers would pick early, often before the grapes were fully ripe. The family grew trebbiano, cabernet and shiraz but most of all, they grew semillon, pronounced in the Australian manner: “‘sem ill on”. None of that poncey French here.

The resulting wine would be about 9 per cent alcohol with, as Bruce put it, “enough acid to take the enamel off your teeth”. Very much not bottled sunshine. In fact, it sounds like some English wines I’ve tried.

But Hunter semillon is the ugly duckling of wine. After a few years in bottle something remarkable happens: that acidic, grassy wine blossoms and takes on flavours of lime and buttered toast. With age, Hunter semillon can become so toasty that you’d swear it was oaked but it isn’t. It lasts and lasts too. Apparently 1972 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 is still going strong. Bruce Tyrrell said, “I have seen these wines up to 50 years old still with good fruit and freshness.”

The first hunter valley semillon I tried was from the other big name in the region, McWilliam’s with its Mount Pleasant Elizabeth. This was a creation of one of the founding fathers of the modern Australian wine industry: Maurice O’ Shea. He was inspired by the wedding of Elizabeth and Phillip in 1947 to create a white wine named after the future Queen. There’s also a Philip shiraz which has been rather overshadowed by its partner.

Initially Elizabeth was made by hand in an old wooden shack — there was no electricity in those days — but it went on to become Australia’s bestselling white wine, selling something like 100,000 cases a year by the early 1980s. By this point, modernity had come to the Hunter. Tyrrell told me, “Probably the biggest change in the making of our semillon was getting electricity in 1958 and we were able then to refrigerate and control the ferments.”

Despite the success of Mount Pleasant’s Elizabeth, Hunter Valley semillon was usually labelled riesling, as the German grape was thought more prestigious. This was at the time when Australian wine had a very loose association with the European classics so you would have “claret” made from shiraz, “port” made from grenache and “chablis” from marsanne.

Bruce Tyrrell told me that “Hunter Semillon suffered, for years, under the generic name of Hunter River riesling. In consultation with McWilliam’s, who were then the other major producer, we changed to semillon in about 1982.” But as semillon was coming out of the closet, it was overshadowed by a young upstart, chardonnay. “In the 1980s,” Tyrrell admitted, “the rise of chardonnay made it a little harder to sell”. Australia’s unique wines, not just Hunter semillon but riesling from the Clare valley and marsanne from Victoria were neglected. You could pick great wines up very cheaply.

At one point Tesco must have bought far too much of the 2005 Mount Pleasant Elizabeth and it hung around for years, often on offer for as little as £7 a bottle. I drank my last bottle in 2017 and it was intense, like Rose’s lime cordial with toasted brioche and a texture like custard. An unbelievable transformation if you’ve ever tried a young Hunter.

For the full no-holds-barred Hunter experience, you really want to try a Vat 1

Those days are over, sadly. Today, Mount Pleasant Elizabeth will cost about £20. Hunter semillon is now appreciated at home. As Tyrrell says, “Bottle age, plus the beginning of a domination in the Australian wine show system, has brought Hunter semillon from a thin acid variety, only drunk by eccentrics, to what it is today; widely known and appreciated for its inherent quality.”

You can pick up a young Tyrrell’s Hunter semillon for under £20. It’s much riper than in the past. They don’t pick so early, Bruce Tyrrell told me. You could drink it young but I’d really recommend stashing it away for five years minimum. Then there’s the single vineyard HVD semillon, weighing in at a scarcely believable 10.5 per cent. The 2015 was beginning to blossom with a smoky toasty quality.

But for the full no-holds-barred Hunter experience, you really want to try a Vat 1, which at around £40 is sadly not cheap anymore. I tried the 2016 recently; it’s so steely and intense that you can see why it used to be sold as riesling. Then after a few hours open, the rain clouds part and you get a little of that elusive Hunter valley sunshine. Though it goes without saying that it’ll be even better in ten years’ time.

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