1. It’s the oldest wine region in Australia
Australian wine has a lot to owe the Hunter Valley. James Busby, widely considered to be the 'father of Australian wine', planted the first vines in Australia here in 1825. He brought over various cuttings from the Old World, including 6 cuttings of Syrah from its spiritual home, the hill of Hermitage in the Northern Rhone. Which leads me to my next point…
2. Hunter Valley 'Shiraz' is actually more like 'Syrah'
You say Shiraz, I say Syrah.....Shiraz is the new world interpretation of Syrah. They are the same grape but at some point the name evolved. Stylistically, Australian Shiraz is often assumed to be bigger, bolder, riper and perhaps less ‘elegant’ than old world Syrah, a reputation it’s gained through punchy full-bodied examples from, most famously, the hot Barossa Valley. The classic ‘Syrah’ is from the cooler Northern Rhone where it manifests in a savoury, peppery, gravelly expression. But….. Of course it’s never so black and white. Hunter Valley Shiraz is not like it’s Barossa Valley cousin. The classic Hunter Shiraz is more medium bodied, peppery and savoury, much more like it’s French cousin.
3. "Semillon is Australia’s gift to the world”...
...Once said Jancis Robinson. And when Jancis speaks, you listen. Semillon, pronounced ‘sem-ee-yon’ reaches one of its most distinctive expressions in the Hunter Valley. Early picking retains acidity in a naturally low-acid varietal, creating a light, elegant and zesty white wine with characteristic green accents that glint from the glass. In the best young examples, you find mouthwatering passionfruit, lime and grassy notes, and, as someone once pointed out to me, a really distinctive tingle on the nose when you stick your hooter in the glass.
4. ...Which means aged Semillon must be God’s gift to the world.
A good acidity level is a key factor in ageing potential for wine, so that early picking also fosters age-worthiness in a varietal that has so much to give beyond its youth. The best examples evolve the most incredible buttery, toasty notes, even though it generally only touches stainless steel, not the oak that you might usually associate with those flavours. It’s a miraculous transformation that seems almost impossible based on the young wine itself. Delicious as it is when young, you’d hardly think it could evolve into something with such pronounced tertiary characteristics. Tertiary character is wine-speak for things that come from bottle age, as opposed to primary (from the grape itself, usually fruity or floral aromas) or secondary (from any winemaking processes, such as oaking or ageing on the lees, sur lie). If you ever see a bottle aged Semillon from the Hunter Valley (give it 10 years or more) do yourself a favour, and get stuck in!
5. A ‘Boutique' winery is not just marketing speak
If you’ve read any of my previous blogs you’ll know that coming from a branding/advertising background I like to get under the skin of some of these wine terms that get bandied about.
I was interested to learn that to classify yourself as ‘boutique’ in Australia and New Zealand you must produce under 350 tonnes of fruit, or less than 10,000 cases as we were told by one cellar door hand, and supposedly you can only use 10% of fruit that’s not your own. Australia has many big brands, many of which are reputable, but many of which are simply chemically-enhanced juice factories which do more of a disservice than a service to the Australian wine industry. So, it’s always good to seek out these little guys and show them some love!
6. Foxy Chambourcin
This is a variant I have only ever encountered in the Hunter, though it does crop up here and there in other new world wine regions. It’s a really unusual grape - a hybrid French and American variety, with seemingly no tannin, despite producing an intensely crimson coloured, gamey flavoured wine. It’s classified as a ‘teinturier’ grape (from the French Tiendre meaning To dye), meaning that the flesh itself is vibrantly coloured, not just the skin, unlike most red grapes. I was really surprised to find some pronounced animally character in a young wine that was 'advertised' as being soft and fruity - I wondered if they might be suffering from a bit of brett* in the ol’ barrels, until I looked it up to discover that ‘foxy’ is actually one of the trademark aromas of this unusual grape.
7. Verdelho Revival
The other classic varietal to look out for in the Hunter is Verdelho. Originally from Portugal, it made its way across the seas to Australia via the seaman’s outpost island of Madeira; it’s one of the grapes behind the famous sweet wine that bears the island’s name. British ships making their way across the Atlantic would stock up on provisions before the long passage, including barrels of wine, storing them deep in the ship’s humid hold as ballast. By the time the ships arrived at their destination the wine would have completely oxidised, hence the distinctive nutty style of Madeira wine and giving rise to the term ‘maderised’.
Verdelho vine cuttings from the island of Maderia made their way to Australia, where it’s found a new spiritual home in the Hunter Valley, producing a beautifully fruity wine that, as one cellar hand noted, smells like a bowl of tropical fruit salad. He was not wrong. Perfect summery drinking. Some people think of Verdelho as a flabby, unsophisticated wine. I'd encourage you to sample some of the Hunter's finest examples and make up your own mind!
The Hunter Valley is only a few hours outside of Sydney so it’s a super easy wine region to visit. Wine tourism is well developed so there are endless foodie discoveries, welcoming cellar doors and beautiful little places to stay.
Here are some of my tried and tested top producers to put on your list, but there are so many more to discover!:
*Brettanomyces is a yeast that sometimes lurks in old oak casks (or other winery equipment) that can, at its best, (very small quantities) add character to a wine, but in too greater quantity can give a certain overpowering barnyard, sweaty saddle character to wines.