In 1833 James Busby published his “Journal of a tour through some of the vineyards of Spain and France”. He hoped that his collection of thoughts and opinions would convince “the Colonists of New South Wales, that when once that have obtained grapes suitable to their climate, and have fixed upon a proper soil, it will require neither great study nor toil, nor expense, to enable them to make a good wine”.
The Lower Hunter Valley then known as the Hunter River was one of the early wine regions of New South Wales. In fact James Busby’s brother in-law William Kelman planted Kirkton with Busby’s collection of vine cuttings accumulated during his travels in Spain and France. Over the ensuing years the Hunter Valley - has through trial and error developed a reputation for its age worthy and extraordinary Semillons and Shirazes. We have now largely forgotten many of the old vineyard names, the early pioneers and the advances made during the 19th Century. At the Bordeaux wine exhibition of 1882 – for instance - several Hunter River wines won medals against established Bordelais properties piquing considerable European interest.
An 1880 Hermitage from Carl Brecht at Rosemount, an 1880 Hermitage from Alexander Munroe at Bebeah and a 1876 Hermitage from James Kelman’s 43 year old vines all won gold medals. John Wyndham and Dr Henry Lindeman also won medals. By the end of the 19th Century there were high hopes that some Hunter Valley reds – in particular – would be seen as holding a “mercantile position by the side of second and third classes of European growths”.
During the first half of the 20th century the Hunter Valley saw further progress although the fledgling Australian nation was still a net consumer of fortified wines and spirits. Dan Tyrrell – who started winemaking at the age of 14 in 1883, Hector Tulloch and Maurice O’Shea were early pioneers of the modern Australian wine industry. It was largely their innovations and successes that made Hunter Valley Shiraz the pride of New South Wales and the envy of the entire Australian wine industry. Collectors still bid furiously for old bottles of Maurice O’Shea’s Mount Pleasant wines vintaged during the 1940s and early 1950s.
A bottle of 1950 Mount Pleasant King’s Paddock Light Dry Red sold for $610 (incl Buyers Premium) in 2002. More recently I tasted the 1944 Mount Pleasant Henry Claret Light Dry Red at a Yalumba museum tasting. While past its prime, this was a lovely old wine with walnutty characters, some fruit sweetness and chalky tannins. These wines are so desperately rare these days but any one who has tasted these relics will know that truly remarkable Hunter Valley shirazes were made during these times.
The legendary 1954 Tulloch Pokolbin Private Bin Dry Red won first prize in both Claret and Burgundy classes of the Royal Sydney Wine Show – and when it actually meant something. The 1959 Lindemans Bin 1590 is regarded by many the greatest Australian wine ever although the last , quite ullaged bottle, I tasted was well and truly past. The absolute classic drought vintage 1965 Lindemans Bin 3100 Burgundy and Bin 3110 (essentially the same wine) probably marks the zenith of Hunter Valley Shiraz. Medium crimson in colour, the 3110 is the most beautifully balanced and evolved wine with extraordinary complexity and life. The aromas are extraordinary with intense mocha/meaty/dark chocolate/ red cherry/ liquorice bouquet and touches of violet/ apricots/ menthol and bayleaf. The palate is concentrated but refined and minerally with meaty/ mocha/ cherry/ polished leather flavours, looseknit chocolaty/slinky tannins and cedar/ walnutty nuances. It finishes long, sweet and savoury. The wine came from the “Ben Ean” vineyard which was purchased by Lindemans in 1912 but established around 1870.
I often wonder why there are so few recognised ultra-fine Hunter Valley Shirazes these days? What are the legendary or great shirazes of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s? I can only think of a few. The 1986 Brokenwood Graveyard is a remarkable wine and as great as any top vintage of Grange (Get the irony? If history had been kinder shouldn’t Grange be measured by the great Hunter shirazes?). At a dinner some years ago it simply blew away all before it. The beautiful 2000 McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Maurice O’Shea Shiraz is also a very great vintage. It regularly and deservedly achieves over $80 a bottle at auction; a reflection of its fame among the congnescenti.
The 1983 Lindemans Bin 6600 Shiraz perhaps comes close to a great vintage. And there are other one-offs which are locally regarded but not universally known. However it is only Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz that seriously reflects and delivers the idea of terroir in a meaningful and consistent way. This vineyard planted in 1968 is only 38 years old. There are much older and venerable blocks some well over a century old. Voices of the past and present say that there are great shiraz vineyards in the Hunter Valley.
However the lack of significant milestones over the last forty years suggests that winemaking has become more process than philosophy. The great English painter Stanley Spencer once said that “a person is a place’s fulfillment as a place is person’s.” The idea of inter-animation of landscape, vineyard and winemaker is profoundly important when it comes to individuality and character. It seems a great pity that there are so few talked about Hunter shirazes. Is every one out playing golf?
Andrew Caillard MW