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Bruce Tyrell: the Don Quixote of Semillon
Name: Bruce Tyrell
Once introduced by Jancis Robinson as 'the Don Quixote of Semillon', Bruce Tyrrell is the fourth generation of the famous family that helped found and shape the Hunter Valley following the decision of his great grandfather, British immigrant Edward Tyrrell, to plant grapevines on 320 acres of land at the edge of the Brokenback Range in 1858.
As managing director of Tyrrell's Wines, Bruce Tyrrell is head of one of Australia's oldest, continuously operating, family-owned wineries in Australia that produces an extensive range of wines from a variety of vineyards from its home in the Hunter Valley to McLaren Vale and the Limestone Coast in South Australia and Heathcote in Victoria.
With his children Jane, John and Christopher now also involved in the family business, Tyrrell's Wines is set to endure as a family concern for many years yet.
Nearly 60 now, the straight-shooting Bruce Tyrrell took a rare break to reflect on his illustrious career, sighting his role in helping to bring Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to the contemporary Australian wine menu, the wine company's national expansion, and contributing to Semillon becoming the Hunter's trademark as career achievements he particularly relished.
'But, there's also things you regret, that you didn't do and things you wish you'd done better,' he said. 'The decisions that are the hardest are the ones that are to do with people because you can make or break someone's life. There's been a couple of those decisions over the journey.'
A constant challenge with great rewards
Tyrrell described growing grapes and winemaking in the Hunter as a constant challenge with great rewards.
'Vineyards in other areas like McLaren Vale have always had it easy,' he said. 'There's guys down there facing the problems caused by the tough 2011 conditions and they're all panicked, they don't know what to do.
'The things that make the Hunter great is you've got these old vineyards, wonderful soil and it's one of those places where you consistently make wines with the ability to age and to age gracefully and to age for a long time.'
Alluding to a promising career as a footballer in his younger days, Tyrrell admitted he always strove to win, whether it was in the vineyard or on the football field.
'You always want to be known as being the best; I don't like coming second, I don't like losing,' he said. 'When I played football, if we were losing, most of the opposition could still feel it three days later because I hit pretty hard. I used to hit harder when we were behind than when we were in front.'
Stopping short of knee-capping the aspirations of anyone interested in getting into the wine industry, Tyrrell's advice is nonetheless straightforward.
'In the short term, you want to be bloody brave. The prospects of getting a return in this business aren't very good, especially if you're a smaller operator. There's maybe 100 small ones around the country that are doing okay. It's hard work for very little return, if any.'
The toughest it's been
Tyrrell admitted the wine industry was currently 'the toughest it's been in my lifetime'.
'We've had to cut staff, we've had to do a number of things. I haven't spent the amount of capital I would like to have spent in the last four years,' he said.
'I've maintained my good growers here locally. I don't have any cowboys left; I got rid of them about eight years ago. I'm now just dealing with old family growers who know what they're doing. I want to keep them in business.
'The hardest thing at the moment is not being able to increase prices at the same level as our rising costs. At the end of the day, with the dollar where it is, if we pull out all the cheap grapes, they will get replaced by cheap wine from overseas.'
Tyrell said the consolidation of the retail sector, led by the two main chains, was also driving the prices down.
'The retail end of our business now, in Australia, consists of two chains and another six or seven significant retail groups who behave very much like the supermarkets,' he said.
'Who does fine wine the best in bulk in any quantity? Dan Murphy's and they do it bloody well. They're not as good as they were, but they still do it well. But, when you continually screw prices down, eventually the quality follows. It's a race to the bottom. You end up with crap product at a cheap price, yet there's a whole lot of people out there willing to pay a bit more for quality.'
Tyrrell acknowledged that Semillon had been 'the obsession of my life'.
'Twenty years ago Jancis Robinson did introduce me in London as 'the Don Quixote of Semillon',' he recalled. 'She was here a few years ago as a guest judge for the Hunter Valley Wine Show. The first night there was a dinner here and she asked me if the passion for Semillon still was as strong as it always was. I said 'sweetheart it's never been a passion, it's always been a bloody obsession'.'
Love at first aroma
Tyrrell said making Semillon made him 'one of those lucky people who get to work with something that is truly unique', describing his first encounter with Semillon as 'love at first aroma'.
'[Tyrrell's winemaker] Andrew Spinaze and I are both obsessed with it, him even more than me,' he said. 'I love the structure and the acid. My great love in wine is old whites; if I never drank reds again in my life it wouldn't bother me. I could drink 10-plus-year-old Chardonnay, Semillon and Riesling and I'd be happy.'
What doesn't make Tyrrell happy is the concept of man-made climate change.
'Climate change has been happening since the dawn of time,' he said.
'In recent years the Hunter Valley weather patterns have gone back to where they were 40 years ago. We've had extreme vintages all my life time and we will continue to have extreme vintages.'
Tyrrell said 'climate change had become a political thing, and a term bandied around in the press'.
'A customer of mine sent me an email last year when the climate change thing was everywhere,' he said. 'His email said: 'You have to understand, we are only 7000 years into a 20,000-year weather cycle!'
'That's a bit more than my brain can handle, but I am inclined to believe him. Look at history, look at the time of the Tudors in England, it was the time of milk and honey, it was warm and there grapes all across the bottom part of England. But, when the Romans were there, it was cold and wet and miserable the whole time. Why was Greenland called Greenland? Vikings went there [and] it was green. When they finally left it was frozen.
'If we believe as a race that we control what happens with the weather then we take ourselves way too seriously.'
What Tyrrell does take seriously is his choice of closure.
'Would the public accept the same failure rate in condoms as they would in corks?' he asks, adding that cork 'used to be the best thing we had'.
'Cork and a glass bottle were probably a whole lot better than a stone jar with a wax-covered wooden plug, but now the best thing we have got is a screwcap.'
'The golden age of Semillon is under screw cap, 10-11 percent alcohol, no oak or the slightest touch of cork taint. If you're a 15.5% Barossa Shiraz, chock-a-block full of American oak, you're probably not going to notice a little bit of cork taint. But, in our whites, like our Semillon, it would be a huge factor.
'Cork taint aside, the biggest problem for corks is random oxidization in our whites, because some age at three times the rate they should. You get a dozen 10-year-old white wines and open them up, you have 12 totally different bottles, under cork, from fresh to brown and stuffed.'
Having trialled 'every synthetic manmade option', Tyrrell said screwcaps were 'the best'.
'They're not perfect; you get the odd one that's a problem. But, you're not going to functions anymore, sending a third more wine than you really need.'
'Enormous' tourism potential
Tyrell said the Hunter's tourism potential was 'enormous'.
'The Hunter is one of the areas that's got the safer future,' he said. We're within four hours of 40-45% of the population of Australia, and we've built a fantastic tourism infrastructure around us. We're drawing three million visitors a year here, and climbing. So, we're able to talk direct to the real customer and tell our story.'
Tyrell said that's 'yet another reason why coal seam gas exploration had to be stopped'. He believes any attempt to extract coal seam gas would unleash salt water, and fracture the earth and the community.
'The Hunter Valley was a vast undersea canyon that rose up to become a shallow tropical sea. It has plenty of coal; it's also high in salt,' he said. 'There were 14-15 bores capped in this area recently and they were all between 8 and 14 parts per million of salt - you spray that on your lawn and it's dead.'
Tyrell said he was not anti-mining.
'But, I'm opposed to any move that screws up the potential to grow food,' he said. 'Go out into the donga and the rough country that's not going to grow anything, and mine all you like, but don't come in here on fertile, arable flats and wreck them forever.'
What motivates a man who has achieved so much in the industry?
'What gets me out of bed in the morning? The dog barks,' he laughs, then adds: 'You want to go on and see the place survive and go on in family hands. In the next three or four years I'll start to try and scale things back a bit. I'll be 60 at the end of the year but I feel like I'm 35. I'll be like my old man - I'll retire two weeks after I die.'
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