Sunday, August 15, 2010

Gathering the Hunter's heritage

Storm over the Brokenback Ranges, Hunter Valley
As you know, I’m a big fan of non-mainstream wines such as tempranillo and barbera and fiano. So when a group of Hunter Valley grape growers and winemakers interested in moving beyond their local stalwarts, semillon and shiraz, invited me to address a seminar on alternative varieties, I leapt at the chance.

Unfortunately, before the seminar I sat down to a tasting of wines from the Hunter’s Heritage Vineyard Register - twenty utterly glorious bottle-aged single-site semillons and shirazes from the region’s oldest vines. It was awesome: the soul-satisfying complexity of the Tyrrells HVD and Meerea Park Terracotta semillons and the soil-drenched depth of the Drayton Joseph, Tulloch Hector and Mount Pleasant OP&OH shirazes all made the most deliciously compelling argument for classic grapes planted in classic Australian terroir. I left the tasting glowing with patriotic pride: these unique traditional wines are nothing short of national treasures.

Which is not, let me tell you, the best frame of mind in which to sit down to a seminar on alternative grapes. Sure, we tasted some very nice examples of Hunter-grown viognier (the Little Wine Co.), pinot grigio and barbera (David Hook) and tempranillo (Audrey Wilkinson). But I couldn’t get the beautiful, lingering taste of those old classic wines out of my mouth. Why, I kept wondering wistfully (and, unfortunately, out loud), when you already make semillon and shiraz so brilliantly why would you bother even trying to do anything else?

The answer, of course, is commercial reality.

The fact is that while traditional Hunter semillon and shiraz may well be wonderful drinks, they’re hard to sell, even in the Hunter - especially in the Hunter. Most of the millions of tourists who flock here aren’t after authentic, savoury wines of terroir: they’re after a nice savvy blanc or fruity red to knock back after a hard day’s golf. And as most of the region’s wineries rely on these tourists to survive, the pressure’s on to comply.

So of course winemakers should be exploring the alternatives. But it would be a tragedy to see traditional Hunter semillon and shiraz sidelined or even killed off by market forces, victims of the region’s own tourism success.
This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, Feb 6, 2010. 

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