Tony Keys, The Key Files

Name: Tony Keys

Youthful enthusiasm drives Hunter Valley renaissance

There's an energy emerging from the Hunter Valley - a new vibrancy that's reaching out and telling the world 'if you want individual styles of wine, not in the bland brands that many consumers now consider Australian wine to be, then look to us'.

The oldest Australian wine region is enjoying a renaissance. Without dwelling on the full history, it's had its ups and downs over the past 170 years. One revival started in the 1970s; a decade later James Halliday wrote1, 'It will doubtless remain the most important quality-wine area in New South Wales for the next century at least. Just how much it will owe to the proximity of the vast markets of Sydney and Newcastle and how much to the inherent quality of its wine, is a matter which is likely to be fiercely debated over that century'.

During the 1980s, as the rest of the rapidly-expanding wine producing regions of Australia were wondering how the tourism worked, the Hunter was already far ahead of the game. However, when many regions realised the need for a coordinated export push, the Hunter was less enthusiastic. The attitude seeming to be 'why bother'; the punter is coming to us, why should we spend a fortune getting our wines to them.

Two decades later there is a realisation that wine, the cornerstone of the successful tourism industry, is not just the bait for the golf-playing-wine-enthused gourmand. The product itself is now seen to hold tremendous quality and individuality and has the ability to achieve higher recognition on the world stage. Driving this renaissance is a new wave of proprietors and winemakers while many of the longer-established wineries are joining the 'new thinking'.

During a recent visit many producers told me that although the cellar door, tourist-driven business was doing well (with just under 2.4 million day-trippers and overnight stays recorded in 2005 ), they were deeply shocked by the declining Sydney market. Bottle shops and restaurants were responding to consumer pressure to stock a wider Australian range and more imported wines. As Andrew Margan (Margan Family Wines) says, 'gatekeepers don't even give the Hunter Valley time. Many wholesales don't even have a Hunter wine on their list'.

Should distributors have a Hunter wine on their list? Certainly! They should have at least one (or two, or three?) Hunter Valley aged Semillons, recognised amongst the wine fraternity as one of the greatest exponents of dry white wine in the world. However, from the business's perspective, that is not necessarily what sells.

Semillon and Shiraz are the two varieties chosen to lead the attack on world wine consciousness. Semillon is an obvious choice, given the uniqueness of the Hunter style and the high-profile fans it has attracted. In a recent magazine article James Halliday said one of his favorite everyday wines was a five to 10-year-old Hunter Semillon. Huon Hooke, writing in GW Living Magazine on 14 April this year, said: 'It's a mystery why Semillon isn't more popular given the current fashion for lighter, unwooded dry whites such as Pinot Gris/Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and blends of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc'. Hooke goes on to say he is 'thinking mainly of Hunter Semillon'.

But the love of Hunter Semillon held by those 'in the know' matters little. It's convincing 'the rest' that is the challenge. Andrew Margan (Margan Family Wines) explains a fundamental problem: 'It has to be remembered that the Hunter plantings of Semillon are not huge and not everywhere within the Hunter is suitable for producing great Semillon'.

One division amongst winemakers is the purity of style. Phil Ryan, manager and chief winemaker at Mount Pleasant, is a strong advocate of keeping it simple, believing it to be a food wine without the need for rounding out with sugar or oak. Ryan does, however, speak from the advantage of working for a company (McWilliams) that releases its most famous Semillon (Elizabeth) at five year's of age.

Contrasting this approach is Daniel Binet from Capercaillie, which releases a popular, 'consumer style' Semillon under the Creel brand. Binet believes that sales are increasing as a result of 'taking the approach of making a softer, more approachable style'. 'A touch more sweetness, not as aggressive acidity and slightly riper in style. Because we are able to turn over this large amount with relative ease, we can make a traditional style Semillon named simply Hunter Valley Semillon', he says.

Mount Pleasant Elizabeth and Lovedale Semillon are, in this author's opinion, amongst the very best white wines that Australia has to offer and as a style 'aged Hunter Semillon' should be revered around the world. However, in most cases, to financially support the production of a great wine, there must be a faster-moving product that generates cash.

Binet defends his opinion: 'I don't have a problem with us making a more commercial style Semillon that might have a bit of oak or a touch of sweetness. Hell, I have people coming to cellar door, telling me they prefer a Margaret River Semillon or a South Australian Semillon rather than a Hunter Semillon and that simply makes me shake my head in disappointment. If you look at those other style Semillons they are riper, fuller in style and usually have a touch of oak; Hunter winemakers can do exactly the same'.

It's a debate that crosses and transcends the Valley, divides some winemakers and brings together others. Usher Tinkler is the winemaker at Pooles Rock and holds a pragmatic view: 'We are now making a range of Semillon - it doesn't all have to be put away for a decade before it's approachable. The consumer has come a long way in wine drinking and we keep pace by offering a range from young, fresh, very drinkable Semillon right up to the classics. The acceptance of screwcap has been great for this variety and hence for the region'.

Whilst recognising the importance of Hunter Semillon and Shiraz, Christina Tulloch looks beyond the two varieties: 'I don't think we should narrow our offering so much. I think the Hunter should be promoting our diversity (we also make excellent Verdelho and Chardonnay among other things) and we should be promoting our history. We have some of Australia's oldest vineyards of incredible historical significance and we have stood the test of time. If we can market that correctly, then that is something that no other region in Australia can boast'.

The full copy of Part 1 can be found in the May/June issue of the Wine Industry Journal. Part 2 will appear in the July/August issue.

Hunter Valley Wine Country Tourism Report 2005
The Age & Sydney Morning Herald weekend insert

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WID 2017