Welcome to Australia’s Hunter Wine Region

In October 2019 we traveled to Australia for the first time. We discovered a beautiful country with varied landscape and very friendly people. I’m happier now than I could have imagined that we made the trip. The impetus for our visit was the Wine Media Conference held in the Hunter wine region. We gathered for three days at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley in Lovedale and enjoyed an agenda packed with wine tastings, winery visits and presentations.

I love the idea of beginning our exploration of Australia’s wine regions with the oldest continually producing wine region in the country. It was also a very great pleasure to learn about the Hunter wine region’s history, viticulture and winemaking from a panel of three knowledgeable women living and working in the Hunter. That presentation, Introduction to the Hunter Valley and New South Wales Wine Industry, was presented by Julie McIntyre, PhD, Liz Riley and Liz Silkman who are a historian, viticulturist and winemaker, respectively. It was a very personal introduction to the region.

History

Julie McIntyre, PhD, is a Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle, about 50 km from Lovedale. She is the author of First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales and Hunter Wine: A History with John Germov.

Dr. McIntyre began her presentation in a way that deeply impressed me – by acknowledging the Wonnarua people, the Aboriginal Australians, who in Julie’s words, “managed and loved the region before colonization.” She went on to share interesting stories of the early settlers, which prompted me to order both books. 

Click on individual photographs in galleries to view. Close to return to the post.

Through her study of early documents, personal letters and diaries of founding families and others, along with early newspaper articles Dr. McIntyre pieces together the history of the region. Drawings and photos from this early period are particularly vivid and the combination of written and visual history makes the story of the Hunter Valley come alive in Hunter Wine: A History.

Unlike the United States, Australia has no native grape varieties. The first wine and vitus vinifera grape cuttings arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788 at what is now Circular Quay, Sydney. This land was the home of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. 

The ships made stops at Tenerife (Canary Islands), Rio de Janeiro and the Cape colony in southern Africa during the voyage. Wine was purchased at these stopovers and vine material was purchased in the Cape.

The first vines were planted in the Government House kitchen garden near Circular Quay in Sydney shortly after the First Fleet arrived. A painting of the site is pictured on the cover Dr. McIntyre’s book, First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales.

A small amount of wine was made in 1792 from an unknown variety at Rose Hill in Parramatta near Sydney. Dr. McIntyre described the wine as strong and red. Winemaking here was not to continue long term, however.

Beginning in 1797 European scouts and settlers began invading Aboriginal lands and named the region Hunter’s River, after acting Governor John Hunter. The area is the closest to Sydney that was viewed as suitable for agriculture and for that reason attracted the earliest settlers. By 1825 blocks of land, about 2000 acres each, were allotted along the major river fronts in the eastern part of the Hunter Valley. Convict labor was used to develop the farms. 

During the early years of colonization, Aboriginal men worked as guides for British explorers. Some Aboriginal people worked in the wine industry, but were not allowed to own land. By 1898 liquor laws prohibited licensees from serving Aboriginal adults.

In 1827 the Hunter’s River Agricultural Club was formed by a group of wealthy landowners. On behalf of the club, James Webber requested vine cuttings from the Sydney Botanic Garden in 1828. There were 16 varieties available to farmers, but which varieties were sent is not known. The first vineyards were planted the same year.

By 1832 there were 10 vineyards planted in the Hunter’s River area and Edward Parry of the Australian Agricultural Company documents the company’s first vintage. 

Names of note and their estates from this early period of settlement include: James Phillips Webber (Tocal), the Busby family (Kirkton), George Townshend (Trevallyn), George Wyndham (Dalwood), Richard and Maria Windeyer (Tomago), Dr. Henry Lindeman (Cawarra).

In 1847 the Hunter River Vineyard Association was formed by 12 vineyard owners. The association continued for over 30 years and this cooperation among growers becomes an important factor in the improving quality of wine and success of the region.

Dr. McIntyre details the story of Alexander Munro, the only convict to become an owner of vineyards in the Hunter. He was convicted of theft in 1829 at the age of 14 in Inverness, Scotland and sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. He worked off his seven-year sentence in Hunter’s Valley assigned to John Browne. 

Browne helped Munro establish a business when he became a free man. Munro went on to marry Sophia Lovell (also a convict), become the owner of several properties and the first mayor of Singleton. He established Bebeah vineyard in 1860 and built a winery. The vineyard was managed by fellow Scotsman, William McKenzie, and won many international wine awards in the 1880s.

Dr. Julie McIntyre slide photo
Image of Dr. McIntyre’s book and vineyard views of Alexander Munro’s Bebeah vineyard from “Hunter Wine: A History”

Over time, property ownership changed from large blocks owned by the very wealthy to smaller blocks owned by less-wealthy settlers and the Upper Hunter Valley became more populated. 1858 Edward Tyrrell purchased 320 acres near Pokolbin and named it Ashmans.

In 1866 the Wilkinson family’s first 98 acre purchase (Oakdale) is recorded at Pokolbin. Dr. McIntyre described the Wilkinson family as the first who came to the Hunter’s Valley intending to make wine. Several family members (and generations) of this influential family would train as winemakers in Europe, own vineyards in Hunter’s Valley, work as winemakers for other families and share their wine knowledge.

In 1895 John Younie Tulloch became a landowner when he received property in Pokolbin to settle a debt owed to Tulloch’s store by the Hungerford family. The property, which Tulloch named Glen Elgin, was planted to Shiraz.

The Hunter became known for quality wines, but they were not made in large quantities. And the style of wines that were so successful in the Hunter, Hocks (medium-bodied white wines from Semillon) and clarets (red wines with lower alcohol), were not the preferred style at the time. By the 1880s South Australia was emerging as Australia’s largest wine region and the style of wine made there was heavier, higher in alcohol and more often fortified. This heavier style was the preferred style and it traveled better during export.

In 1901 Australia became a nation with the federation of the six Australian colonies. The same year the Pokolbin and District Vinegrowers Association (PDVGA) was formed to protect the interests of Hunter winegrowers and winemakers against the larger South Australia market and to promote exports worldwide.

Early efforts of the PDVGA successfully promoted legislation to prevent both the adulteration of Hunter wine and counterfeit branding of wine as Hunter in origin.

Shiraz was planted early in the Hunter’s history. Other varieties mentioned in Dr. McIntyre’s book include Shepherd’s Riesling and Hunter River Riesling (both Semillon), Verdelho, Pedro Ximenes, Black Spanish, Verdot and Malbec. I found it interesting that cedar and beech were used to make some wine barrels in the early years of winemaking.

Over the generations the fortunes of the Hunter region rose and fell. It suffered the effects of economic depressions, World Wars and the temperance movement. Powdery and downy mildew both ravaged the vines, but the Hunter escaped infestation by phylloxera. Flooding and bushfires have also taken their toll. 

Vineyard acreage expanded, contracted and has expanded again. Dr. McIntyre noted that by the 1950s vineyard acreage had decreased to that of the 1860s with only 10 vineyards and 4 wineries remaining. This small group of families would continue making quality wines and maintain the Hunter’s vineyard heritage for the next expansion beginning in the 1960s and 70s.

Dr. McIntyre stressed that the Hunter wine region was not predestined to become a wine region. It was only through the many adaptations made by successive generations of winemaking families that the region succeeded. Now some seven generations later the region is recognized as one of Australia’s premier wine regions.

Many present-day Hunter wineries trace their history back to founding families or properties. Later in the day we enjoyed a memorable visit and tasting at Tyrrell’s Wines where we met Chris Tyrrell, a fifth-generation family member. We met Chris beside the slab hut built by Edward Tyrell in 1858. It was an extraordinary experience.

Viticulture

Liz Riley is the owner of Vitibit, a vineyard management firm in the Hunter Valley. She was named 2017 Viticulturist of the Year by the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology. 

Liz Riley, proprietor Vitbit photo
Liz Riley, proprietor Vitbit

Liz described herself as “somewhat of a blow-in to the Hunter”, alluding to the fact that she’s only been in the valley for 21 years. She was quickly taken in by the beauty of the valley, its people and the wine. She  married, Jerome Scarborough of the Scarborough Wine Co. family, and is raising a family in the valley.

Soils and landscapes within the Hunter are varied. The Brokenback Range, which is part of the Great Dividing Range, runs along the southern edge of the valley. Liz described the region as comprised of “ranges and flats” or a combination of hilly, undulating and level areas.

Liz described the hills that roll through the valley as covered with red-brown earth with clay loam over limestone. These red soils are free-draining, but hold moisture too. Red grape varieties, and Shiraz in particular, love these red soils, though Liz told us most grape varieties thrive in them. Creek flats and lowlands are mostly clay loams over a clay base with 20-40mm of powdery, pink-gray soils. These white soils best suit white grape varieties. There are areas with a mixture of soil types within a small space as well.

Weather in the Hunter is challenging and has become more unpredictable in the 20+ years Liz has been in the region, both from season-to-season and within seasons. And the region is getting hotter. Harvest used to begin by Australia Day (January 26), but now it is common to begin harvest for sparkling wines in the first week of January.

Over the years the timing and method of pruning has been modified as a response to warming temperatures. Water management is essential and modern viticulture employs technology to monitor soil moisture along with plant density mapping. These technologies allow vineyard decisions to mitigate changing weather events for the current harvest as well as planning for future vintages.  

A vine sunscreen has been developed as a way to adapt to warming temperatures. A super-fine, white clay dust is applied to the canopy and fruit zone to protect against sun damage. The sunscreen is primarily a physical barrier to protect the fruit zone not shaded by the canopy, but the white powder reflects heat and can keep the vines cooler. This approach can reduce the risk of physiologic shutdown during heat spikes and prevent harvest delays. Additionally, it can be used as a tool to control ripening so that all the grapes don’t ripen at once.

Many old vines (pre-1968) remain in the Hunter Valley, some of which originated from the Sydney Botanic Gardens (via the Cape) or Europe (via James Busby) at the beginning of the Hunter’s colonial history. These old blocks are pre-phylloxera and potentially are of wide genetic diversity, even though some varieties remain unknown. Semillon, Shiraz, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Verdelho are among the varieties identified.

Semillon, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Verdelho are the stars of the valley according to Liz. She described Semillon as “the red head of the family” and it doesn’t cope well with hot weather. Fortunately, it is harvested early. The clay sunscreen described earlier is used as a general practice on Semillon in the Hunter.

Chardonnay is the hardest to grow due to its tight bunches and high sugar levels at physiologic ripeness. It requires lots of work in the vineyard, though it can make lovely wines according to Liz. Recent experimentation with the Bernard Chardonnay clone is part of a strategy to make fresh wines and cope with climate variability.

Shiraz is an early ripener and copes well with both heat and drought. It doesn’t generally shrivel in the Hunter as it can do in the Barossa, but it does shrinkle – just gets a bit wrinkled. It is resilient in wet conditions as well thanks to its open bunches.

Verdelho is the easiest variety to grow in the Hunter and has wide appeal with consumers.

Recently “the Os” are being planted more widely in the Hunter: Albariño, Fiano, Sagrantino, Vermentino and Tempranillo. These varieties can help spread the risk of unfavorable weather, as does experimentation with various rootstocks.

Liz considers herself a steward of the land and is incorporating more sustainable methods in her viticultural practices. And just as she has learned from the generations before her, she expects to share her expertise with the next generation. “Family ties bind,” Liz told us as she finished her presentation.

Winemaking

Liz Silkman is the winemaker at Silkman Wines, which she owns with her husband Shaun, and at First Creek, which is owned by Shaun’s family. She has past experience at Brokenwood as well. All are highly-regarded Hunter wineries.

LIz Silkman, winemaker photo
LIz Silkman, winemaker

Liz does not come from a multi-generational wine family, but rather from a family of cattle ranchers in the Hunter Valley. So, why make wine in the Hunter, a region prone to rain at the wrong time and now warming temperatures? Both the style of Hunter wines and the closeness of the winemaking community drew her into it. She described Hunter wines as wines of place – reflective of the vineyards in which the grapes are grown. And the Hunter is comprised mostly of small, family-owned wineries. This smallness requires winemakers to talk to each other about their craft and is the basis for the collegiality that so appeals to her.

Hunter Semillon is well know for its ageability, but Liz cautioned us not to dismiss Semillon as a young wine. She described them as charming, with length and complexity. The style that has become synonymous with Hunter is picked at a low sugar level, vinified in stainless steel and bottled under screw cap. In general Semillon is low in alcohol and, flavorful with variations in style depending upon the type of soil in which the vineyard is planted. Sandy soils yield a lighter style of Semillon and red clay soils a fuller style.

With aging in the bottle, Hunter Semillon develops considerably. As a young wine, in the first five years, expect a lean, citrusy wine. Toasty, nutty, creme brulee flavors develop by the 10 year mark. At 15 years or more the wine becomes golden with a soft complexity. 

2005 Tyrrell's Wines Vat 1 Hunter Semillon photo
2005 Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1 Hunter Semillon

Just a couple of evenings earlier we tasted a 2005 Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1 Hunter Semillon with dinner (excellent, btw) at Aria in Sydney. That wine was one of the most memorable I’ve ever tasted. At 14 years of age it was round, with layered flavors of beeswax and toast and unlike any wine I have ever tasted. 

In general, Hunter Valley red wines are medium bodied and very ageable. Less new oak with large format aging along with a gentle hand in the wine cellar is the style. Liz mentioned Shiraz from McWilliams, Tyrrell’s and Brokenwood in particular as examples of Shiraz that all reflect the sites where they are grown. She went on to note not all winemaking facilities are the most modern and marveled that Tyrrell’s still has a dirt floor in their winery.

When asked about the best emerging varieties in the Hunter, Liz listed: Gamay, Tempranillo (though the birds love this variety too) and possibly Lagrein. She also noted that old-style blends of Shiraz and Pinot Noir are seeing a comeback. 

I had no idea of the long and interesting history of the Hunter wine region before hearing Dr. McIntyre’s presentation. Nor did I realize the challenges of growing grapes and making wine in the Hunter before hearing Liz Riley and Liz Silkman speak. This was the best possible introduction to the region.

The Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley is a two-hour drive from Sydney. We used Kings Hire Car to and from the valley from Sydney and can recommend the service. If you plan to visit Sydney, once we are all free to travel again, be sure to make time for a visit the Hunter wine region. It is a charming and beautiful wine region and you will be impressed by the Semillon, Shiraz and the Os. 

Cheers!

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