Tyrrell’s Wines: History, Semillon and Shiraz in Australia’s Hunter Valley

Before we visited Tyrrell’s Wines in October 2019, as part of the Wine Media Conference held in the Hunter Valley, I didn’t have a full appreciation for the history behind the winery. But standing beside the ironbark slab hut built by Edward Tyrrell, when he settled 320 acres along the Brokenback Range at Pokolbin in 1858, brought that history alive. And the Tyrrell’s wines we tasted demonstrated the family’s commitment to their own historic vineyards and others throughout the Hunter Valley.

Tyrrell Family History in the Hunter Valley

Our guide for the evening was Chris Tyrrell, fifth-generation family member and chief operating officer of the winery. That one-room hut, which Chris jokingly called the château, was Edward’s first home as he prepared to clear the land to make way for agricultural crops that would include grapes. Edward named the property Ashmans after his grandmother’s family home in Suffolk, England. He went on to build what Chris referred to as a proper home just a few hundred yards away. Edward married Susan Hungerford and they raised their large family in the home. 

Andrew Pengilly (L), vineyard manager and Chris Tyrrell (R), fifth-generation family member and COO Tyrrell's Wines photo
Andrew Pengilly (L), vineyard manager and Chris Tyrrell (R), fifth-generation family member and COO Tyrrell’s Wines

Just adjacent to the family home is the old workshop and the earthen-floor winery built in 1863 ahead of the first vintage in 1864. That earthen-floor winery is still used for winemaking at Tyrrell’s Wines today.

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Tyrrell's Wines Old Hut Vineyard photo
Tyrrell’s Wines Old Hut Vineyard

The earliest generations learned from other grape growers and were mentored by some of the finest winemakers in the Hunter Valley. The winery is managed by the fourth and fifth generations of the family. And 2020 marks current chief of winemaking Andrew Spinaze’s 40th vintage with Tyrrell’s Wines.

Meeting an Old Vineyard

Shiraz and Semillon were the focus of winemaking from the beginning at Tyrrell’s. We took the short walk from the château to a block of Shiraz dating to 1879 where Andrew Pengilly, Tyrrell’s vineyard manager, filled us in on the details. It was one of the first vineyards planted on the property. Aside from its age, this vineyard is so prized because it is pre-phylloxera stock that derives from the earliest vineyard material brought to Australia from Europe. It is planted on its own rootstock, as are almost all of Tyrrell’s vineyards. Knock on wood, Hunter Valley vineyards have never been infested with phylloxera. Signs near the vineyards ask visitors not to enter them as part of an effort to keep the pest out.

Tyrrell's Shiraz vineyard planted 1879 photo
Tyrrell’s Shiraz vineyard planted 1879

These twisted vines stand in red soil and are worked largely by hand. Viticulture doesn’t follow any defined protocol, but vineyard practices follow the less is more philosophy. Gone are the, “chemical warfare days of the 1990s”, as Chris jokingly referred to a time when a chemical solution for every vineyard condition was preferred, for something that respects and values soil complexity and health. Tyrrell’s has always preferred under-vine tilling to the application of herbicides. 

This old vineyard is the source of vine material for new plantings of Shiraz at Tyrrell’s because of its high quality. Amazingly, even new plantings from this vineyard can be farmed without irrigation, so strong is the vine material. Dry farming is used in all except one small vineyard at Tyrrell’s.

At 140 years of age these vines have gnarled but relatively thin trunks. Because most of the rainfall in the Hunter Valley falls during the summer months, rather than in winter when grapevines put on girth, these vines look much younger than their age. 

When asked about the row spacing in the vineyard, Chris told us with some embarrassment that every-other row was removed in the 1960s after his grandfather purchased a tractor to replace the horses he had used in the vineyard. The only problem was that the tractor was too wide for the vineyard rows. 

These heritage vines are an important part of Tyrrell’s history and the history of the valley. In addition to old vines owned by Tyrrell’s the family leases other old vineyards. In all, they farm over 22 acres of vines that are 100 years of age or older. These old vineyards are the source of grapes for the Tyrrell’s Sacred Sites range of wines.

Tasting Semillon and Shiraz in a Historic Winery

The old winery building is unassuming from the outside with its corrugated roof. But that’s part of its charm along with its 100-year old vats and oak vessels of all sizes and ages. Until a new winery was built in 2016 all of the winemaking was done in these buildings. For 120 of those 158 years the space was too small according to Chris. Now the winemaking space suits the vineyard sites.

Four generations of the Tyrrell Family
Four generations of the Tyrrell Family

We stepped down into what’s called the film room (movies used to be shown here back in the day) for a seated wine tasting. Large-format oak vessels line the walls.

Semillon and Shiraz tasting at Tyrrell's Wines
Semillon and Shiraz tasting at Tyrrell’s Wines

Tyrrell’s Hunter Valley Semillon

This variety loves the deep, gray, sandy soils on the flats of the valley. Crop load is managed through pruning choices and fruit thinning as needed. Here Semillon develops full flavor at very low sugar levels enabling early picking.

Winemaking is straight forward with pressing, including 50% stems, cool fermentation with inoculated yeast, 6 weeks on the lees, filtration and bottling generally by the end of June. Picking can begin by mid-January. This winemaking style allows the vineyard sites to speak for themselves.

Tyrrell’s Wine Vat 1 Semillon is the winery’s flagship wine and the most-awarded Australian white wine. These wines begin as concentrated, complex wines with notes of stone fruit, bright acidity and nice weight. With age in the bottle they develop into a serious wine with even more concentration and a delicious toasty, honeyed, (though not sweet), waxy character that is even more attractive than the young versions to my palate. At 21 years of age the 1998 Vat 1 was still lively. 

As an aside, a few days earlier we enjoyed the 2005 Vat 1 Semillon at Aria in Sydney and thought that wine was amazing. To taste the 1998 vintage and find it similarly complex and fresh was a revelation.

The Single Vineyard Semillon wines provide a taste of Semillon from various sites. Stevens Vineyard is located closer to the mountains and has darker, heavier soils resulting in mineral-driven, round Semillon. HVD Vineyard is located close to a creek with a mixture of dark and sandy soils. This site produces a larger crop and results in more flavor with smooth texture. Finally, Belford Vineyard is located on the poorest soils furthest away from the mountains. The crop is small and results in a Semillon with citrusy character. 

Tyrrell’s Hunter Valley Shiraz

Shiraz prefers the weathered, red soils in the Hunter Valley. Handcrafting begins in the vineyard with shoot thinning, wire lifting, crop thinning as required to reach desired crop levels. Sunscreen, which is sprayed on the canopy, is uses to protect the grapes during heat spikes.

Winemaking in the cellar is hands off. 10 to 15% whole cluster is the rule and the grapes are destemmed prior to fermentation but not crushed.  Grape caviar is how Chris described the grapes, which are left to begin fermentation naturally. Fermentation can take 5 – 6 days to begin. The Shiraz spends 2 – 2.5 weeks on the skins with only gentle extraction. Air is used to turn the cap rather than manual punchdowns in an effort to achieve that gentle extraction. Aging takes place in large French oak casks for 15 months. The wines are settled, but not fined, and filtered before bottling.  

Tyrrell’s Shiraz will challenge your notion of Australian Shiraz in the very best way. The current style here is medium bodied with great depth of fruit flavors, spice, earth and smooth tannins. These are wines with no heat, not too much alcohol and they love food. For example, the 2018 Vat 9 Shiraz has 13.5% abv.

This lighter style of Shiraz is what the Hunter Valley has been know for from the very beginning. Early in Hunter Valley’s history, when wines were labeled according to style not grape variety, Shiraz was labeled Burgundy. 

The Vat 9 Shiraz did show an evolution of winemaking style at Tyrrell’s. The 2009 is made in a style that is bigger, riper and more tannic. The 2014 vintage is more in the current style made in the old winery. The 2017 vintage represents the new style in the new winery. All have their appeal and I found the more recent vintages absolutely charming.

Continuing the emphasis on single vineyard sites the three final wines represent unique sites of various ages from the same vintage. Winemaking is consistent across the vineyard sites. This kind of comparison makes for an interesting tasting experience.

The Mother’s vineyard has a particularly interesting history.

The Take Aways from Tyrrell’s Wines

Tyrrell’s is all about family, historic vineyards and a commitment to quality wines. The Tyrrells are quite literally one of Australia’s First Families of Wine. Fourth-generation family member Bruce Tyrrell is managing director and like Murray, his father, has been awarded the Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) in recognition of his contributions to the Australian wine industry. Bruce has made it his mission to purchase and lease some of the best old vineyards in the Hunter Valley.

Semillon:

  • Try Hunter Valley Semillon young to appreciate its fresh character. You will be charmed.
  • Try aged Hunter Valley Semillon for its complexity. You will fall in love.
  • Hunter Valley Semillon is ageable, giving it an important characteristic in common with other great wines of the world.
  • In the Hunter you may hear the French pronunciation of Semillon or the local pronunciation of Seh-mill-ahn.

Shiraz

  • Tyrrell’s Shiraz is bright, fruit forward and complex without being heavy, too ripe or too alcoholic. They are lively, food-friendly wines you should try if you’re interested in tasting a more finessed version of Australian Shiraz.

Tyrrell’s Wines are available in the US and around the world. In lieu of visiting Tyrrell’s Wines in the Hunter Valley, look for these outstanding wines at home.

Tyrrell's Wines Cellar Door photo
Tyrrell’s Wines Cellar Door

When we can travel internationally again, put Australia and the Hunter Valley on your travel list. The Hunter Valley is the first wine region established in Australia and it’s so pretty. Be sure to visit Tyrrell’s Wines for a first-hand look into the history of the Tyrrell family and a taste of the valley’s historic vineyards.

Cheers!

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