The art of being different in the Hunter Valley
While the Hunter Valley is famous for world class Shiraz, Semillon and Chardonnay, there are innovative locals having great success with alternative varieties.
Published Selector Summer 2014-15
When you arrive at Ballabourneen in the Hunter Valley, there’s a good chance Charlotte will be there to greet you. Lying on her back with her legs in the air, she’s a submissive soul, just looking to be loved. She’s a dog, by the way, but I’m guessing you worked that out. While Charlotte might not be a pedigree, she’s got all the charm that comes with being a bitser; that allure of the unknown. A bit like some of the wines on Ballabourneen’s tasting list.
There alongside the regional pedigrees of Shiraz, Semillon and Chardonnay are Gamay Noir and Chambourcin, red varieties that have been staples on the world stage since the dawn of the vine, but are relative newcomers to the Hunter.
The introduction of newer varieties is being driven, in part, by some of the region’s younger winemakers and, as someone whose first Hunter vintage was in 1998, and who has been with Ballabourneen since 2007, Dan Binet fits that mould. As he explains, “young winemakers are still honouring Hunter traditions, but they’re also recognising the region’s need for reinvention.”
He also acknowledges that some alternative varieties appeal to young people just starting to explore wine. Bold Shiraz is often too much for those whose experience of red styles is limited so a medium-bodied variety such as Chambourcin, he says, can be a good introduction and Gamay Noir is often popular with those looking for a lighter style red.”
The Hunter also faces some challenging climate conditions and Dan says they need to find varieties that “get through drought, wet and, in between, freakishly cold.” He adds, “alternative varieties often survive the lesser years and Gamay Noir is a good example of that.”
Alongside Ballabourneen, Dan Binet has launched his own label, Domaine de Binet, which has the younger wine-drinker in its sights with its wider range of alternative varieties, including Tempranillo, Albarino, Gamay Noir and Petit Verdot. Located in Lovedale, the Domaine de Binet cellar door has been built out of a converted shipping container and has a hip, relaxed vibe.
When it comes to pioneering alternative varieties in the Hunter Valley, you don’t get contributions any more trailblazing than those of Suzanne and Ian Little of The Little Wine Company. When they joined forces in 2000 to launch their own label, they knew if they wanted a spot on restaurant wine lists, they had to make an impression. Rather than compete with the hundreds of Hunter Semillon, Shiraz and Chardonnay already out there, they decided to try their hands at alternative varieties.
Having planted Sangiovese in 1999, the Littles have since had great success with it, as well as with Tempranillo, Gewürztraminer and most recently, Vermentino, all of which are available for tasting at the Small Winemakers Centre.
The Little Wine Co Vermentino 2013 was their first foray into this white. A variety that originated in Spain, it’s doing well in the Hunter, however, Suzanne says, the fact that it’s a late ripener, often ripening after the reds, can be trying on the nerves as they have to patiently wait for it to reach its best without panicking and picking too early.
When it comes to alternative varieties, Suzanne has many admirers, among them winemaker Liz Jackson. “What I love about Suzanne’s winemaking with alternative varieties”, Liz says, “is she’s not trying to make them look like Semillon and Shiraz, she’s trying to let them speak for their varietal and speak for the region.”
At First Creek, Liz Jackson also ventured into Vermentino with the 2013 vintage. Liz explains that they had a similar experience to the Littles with the late ripening. “We started to pick reds before the Vermentino and it was amazing; huge bunches, big leaves and an open canopy. I couldn’t believe it, it just wouldn’t rot; everything else was falling down and it just sat there and sat there.”
The First Creek Vermentino 2013 was made without oak, resulting in a lively palate and maximum fruit flavours that had a great reception at cellar door. For the 2014 vintage, however, Liz decided to go back to the old world handling of white wines by fermenting it on skins. This process, she says, “imparts great tannins and texture and these amazing aromatics.” While the 2013 was an easy wine to understand, the 2014, she says, “polarises people because they either see it as having a bit of grubbiness, or they look under that and see amazing florals. That’s skins and that’s what skins in whites do.”
You’ll also find a Vermentino over in Mount View at the stunning Tallavera Grove cellar door. Their 2013 vintage was also fermented on skins and picked up a Gold medal at the Sydney Royal Wine Show in 2014.
Another white that’s turning heads in the Hunter is Fiano, first planted in the region by Mount Eyre’s Aniello Iannuzzi. While it’s a grape that’s quite commonly grown around his father’s home region of Campania in Italy, Aniello says he didn’t plant it for “sentimental reasons”. Instead, he explains, he took into account “its ability to tolerate mould and heat and ripening times”. Fiano is proving popular and the 2013 Three Ponds Fiano won a Trophy at the 2013 Hunter Valley Wine Show.
Another well known Hunter producer who’s delving into Fiano is Andrew Margan, who explains how it all began with an unexpected delivery. “I started making Fiano the day the poor truck driver turned up with four bins of the variety and nowhere to put it. I had a spare tank so I purchased the grapes. That was vintage 2014.”
He describes Fiano as being, “in between Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, as in medium bodied with melon and stone fruit characters” and adds that it thrives in the Hunter “because it keeps its acidity until ripeness, which means you can make a white wine with plenty of flavour and nice acid.”
A novel approach
Fiano is not Margan’s first alternative variety; he pioneered Barbera in theHunter, releasing the first wine in 2001 using vines from Italian stock planted in Mudgee.Breaking the mould is fundamental to Andrew Margan’s approach to winemaking as, he says, “The wine market needs to see producers and areas being innovative and dynamic. There is nothing to say that the best variety for the Hunter has not even been planted yet. I have a number of new projects happening centred around innovation.”
Speaking of innovation, in 2014 the Hunter Valley Wine Show introduced the Innovation Trophy, which was won by De Iuliis for their intriguing blend of Shiraz and Touriga Nacional.
Pushing the boundaries
Although Andrew Margan pioneered Barbera, David Hook has become a regional champion of the variety. He released his first Barbera from Hunter grapes in 2003 and his Reserve is now regarded as an Australian benchmark, winning multiple trophies. However, his flagship Barbera no longer features Hunter fruit, as David ended up turning to Orange for its cooler climate.
This has become common practice for Hunter producers; First Creek sources Tempranillo, Barbera and Sangiovese grapes from cooler climates such as Young and Orange, and at Allandale in Lovedale you’ll find Sangiovese from Mudgee and at Tamburlaine, Malbec from Orange.
While cooler regions might generally suit alternative reds, there are Hunter producers, such as the Littles, having success at home with these varieties. Pokolbin Estate’s Richard Friend has also had positive results with Tempranillo, Sangiovese and even Nebbiolo, which he planted on his Belebula vineyard in 1999. Richard describes this site as having “the right ingredients for these reds”thanks to the limestone soil and west-facing vines.
But if you visit the Pokolbin Estate cellar door, you’ll find what makes this Hunter producer truly unique: Riesling. While those of you of a certain age might have enjoyed Hunter River Riesling in your youth, you were in fact drinking Semillon. Actual Hunter Riesling is a rarity, which makes Pokolbin Estate’s 44-year-old vines all the more special and their wines ‘alternative’ for the Hunter.
To achieve their hugely successful Rieslings, including the 2011 vintage, which was named Riesling of the Year at the 2011 Winestate awards, Pokolbin Estate takes meticulous care in the vineyard to maximise the terroir and follow through in the winery utilising the talents of renowned winemaker Andrew Thomas. A visit to the beautiful cellar door offers a fascinating lesson in Hunter Riesling, not to mention a sample of their other award-winning drops.
Although no other Hunter producer is likely to come close to Pokolbin Estate in terms of their expanse of Riesling plantings, Molly Morgan is dipping its toes in the water with a few rows of Riesling to one day make a botrytis wine.
Of course, after tasting through the exciting range of Hunter wines, you might develop a thirst for that other alternative variety: beer. At Hope Estate’s recently opened brewhouse you can try seven unique beers ranging from the refreshing Pokolbin Blonde through to a more powerful Barrel Fermented Imperial IPA.
So here’s cheers to the modern face of Australia’s oldest wine region!