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Hunting Down Hunter

By Debra Meiburg MW

Plunk a grape vine into soil near a fun-loving metropolis and your vineyard is sure to prosper. It worked for Napa (San Francisco), Stellenbosch (Cape Town), Champagne (Paris), Cava (Barcelona), Chianti (Florence) and the Hunter Valley (Sydney).

A swift seventy-five miles north of Sydney, the Hunter Valley is home to Australia’s earliest vineyard sites, with plantings by European settlers as early as 1828. That the Hunter Valley can produce wine – let alone world-class wine – is a remarkable feat. As one of Australia’s most northerly wine districts, the region is suffocatingly hot and humid for grapes. Its soil isn’t much suited for grape growing either. The ‘Hunter’ (as Sydneysiders refer to it) is dominated by red clay that soaks up water like a sponge. Even in throes of Australia’s prolonged drought, Hunter’s sopping clay soils can cause root issues. Yet, against the odds, the Hunter produces some of Australia’s most respected wines.

Long known for its earthy, almost rustic long-lived shiraz, most experts concur that old Hunter bears an uncanny resemblance to its French cousin in the northern Rhone Valley. Don’t expect basketfuls of lush blackberry fruit and lavish oak from Hunter Valley. The Hunter’s wines rarely see the inside of a new oak barrel. Most are aged in old wood – if any at all – analogous to the Rhone Valley’s winemaking techniques. It is this use of old barrels that gives Hunter shiraz its complex earthy, gamey and sweaty characteristics. Though once believed to be part of the Hunter’s unique terroir, or site conditions, this earthy character once endearingly referred to as ‘’sweaty saddle’’ has now been attributed to the action of benign micro-organisms that thrive in the Hunter’s old barrels. Excellent classic Hunter shiraz producers include Barwang, Bimbadgen, Brokenwood, Clonakilla, Glenguin, McGuigan, Rosemount Estate: Balmoral Shiraz, The Rothbury Estate, Tower Estate and Tyrell’s.

In the 1960’s Penfolds – a dynastic Australian winery and creator of Australia’s most highly regarded cult wine, Grange – planted vines slightly north of Hunter’s key vineyards, initiating an Upper and Lower Hunter Valley schism. With some fifty wineries clustered around Pokolbin and the mining town of Cessnock, the Lower Hunter is regarded by many as the ‘’original’’ or ‘’real’’ Hunter Valley. The Upper Hunter Valley is as readily known for its horse breeding and racing as for its vineyards, but in 1969 Bob Oatley established Rosemount Estate, which imprinted the Upper Hunter Valley indelibly onto international wine maps when Rosemount’s full-throttle Show Reserve Chardonnay took export markets by storm in the 1980’s, a success soon followed by its equally lush Roxburgh Chardonnay.

The Hunter may produce come-hither chardonnay and crisp, fresh verdelho, but its blue ribbon wine is sémillon, a white Bordeaux variety which the Aussies idiosyncratically pronounce to rhyme with Babylon (rather than the more traditional French pronunciation: seh-mee-yohn). Tart and citrusy while young, Hunter sémillon undergoes a volte face at 5 -12 years of age that results in a toasty honey-pot of nutty, buttery fruit. Great sémillon producers include Allendale, Belgenny, Bimbadgen, Brokenwood, Lindemans, Mabrook, McGuigan, McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant and Tyrrell’s.

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