Friday, May 18, 2007

The Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley lies about 160km north of Sydney.
It is the oldest wine growing area of Australia with the first vines being planted there by James Busby in 1826.
Today there are over 140 wineries and cellar doors in the area.
The climate is designated as warm maritime which means the growing season is warm to very hot, moderately sunny and moderately to extremely humid. The fruit produced is usually of high natural sugar levels which translates into full flavored wines. The area is most famous for Semillon and Shiraz but grows most other varietals except some that specifically need a cool climate eg. Riesling.
My wine drinking experience started with Hunter wines back in the 1960's so it's always a pleasure to go back and visit some of the old haunts as well as explore new establishments.

We left our overnight accommodation in Umina early so we would have plenty of time to go via the Old Northern Road route rather than the freeway. This scenic trip follows parts of the old 240km long convict road built originally between 1826 and 1836 to link Sydney and the expanding colonial outposts in the Hunter Valley. Unfortunatedly the whole of the Sydney basin was covered in thick fog which slowed us down considerably and shut out the view completely. But we still managed to see some evidence of the hand hewn cuttings and sandstone block retaining walls that the convict labour had built.
After a late breakfast in Wollombi we headed for Draytons. The Drayton family have been growing wine in the Hunter since the 1850's and produce traditional Semillon and Shiraz. It is still family owned and it's always a pleasure to stop here, sample the latest vintage, have a chat and maybe get to taste a few wines not generally made available for public tasting. The 10 year old Shiraz that fell into the latter category was too good to pass up.
Next it was onto Margan Vineyard. They have about 120ha of vines in both the upper and lower Hunter. Most of their vineyards have been purchased from well known valley entities eg. Elliots and Lindemans, so they have access to old well established vines producing high quality fruit. I have been a fan of their Semillon and Verdelho for many years and the new vintages did not disappoint. Being a cellar door member I also had access to their new range of white lable wines. The 2005 Semillon was outstanding and hard to resist taking a dozen out to the car.
Our Umina host works in the liquor industry and had arranged through contacts for the three of us to visit the Wyndham Estate for lunch and a private tasting of their wines.
Wyndham is part of the Orlando Wyndham Group, makers of the famous Jacobs Creek wine range and owned by a French company Pernod Ricard. They also have substantial interest in major New Zealand vineyards eg. Montana.

The Dalwood Estate was established in 1828 on the banks of the Hunter River by George Wyndham. It was here that the first commercial planting of Shiraz in Australia took place in 1830.
From a handful of these original cuttings, the Estate now boasts total annual international sales of over 12 million bottles with its wine available in 40 countries.
On the 100th anniversary of George’s death in 1970 the Estate was renamed in his honour.
The current cellar door/winery is a grand old building built in 1904 in a lovely setting.
We were met by Scott, the PR man, and went for a walk through the vine blocks to the banks of the river which, sadly with the current drought, was just a series of waterholes. He was a wealth of knowledge, a great talker and a graduate of Australia’s number one wine school, Roseworthy. But I think the graduate from the number two wine school, Charles Sturt University, managed to hold his own. Not that is was a competition of course.

We were soon in the tasting room and settled down to enjoy some of the wines available not only for the general public but also for export. We were interested to concentrate on Semillon and Shiraz but we were persuaded to try their top Chardonnay, a Rose’ and some Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends.
Outstanding were the Show Reserve Semillons of 1997 and 2000, the Show Reserve Hunter Valley Shiraz 1999 and the 2003 Black Cluster Shiraz.
HV Semillon is usually picked early with lower than normal sugar which produces a wine with an alcohol content of around 10-11% and a higher than normal content of malic acid. They are generally not allowed to go through malolactic fermentation and are not subjected to oak barrel storage. This gives the young wine a herbaceous flavour with just a hint of apples and good acid balance. But as the wine ages (up to 20 years plus), it develops a toasty/honey character that is still offset by good acidity. This is unique for Semillon in the world and is what is known as "the Hunter style".
HV Shiraz is usually medium bodied with a spicy berry and plum flavour. With age the wines develop a rustic, earthy, even leathery character with a soft mouth feel. YUMMO!
So armed with some of these great wines we headed into lunch for a wonderful meal of prawn wontons, salmon, venison and fillet steak followed by a great baked lemon tart.
It was after 4pm when we finished lunch so any thought of visiting more wineries was out of the question.
K was our DD (breathalyser tests proved this to be a sensible plan) and we headed off down the freeway with an additional few bottles of the good stuff presented to us by Scott on departure.
What a great day!!!!!!!

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