For those people who discovered Australian wine at the time it exploded onto our shores in the UK, during the 1980s, it would probably have been the Hunter Valley wine region where the grapes were sourced. It would not have been a wine from that region’s two signature grapes, Shiraz and Semillon, which they tasted, but a buttery, fruit-laden, Chardonnay. Rosemount’s base in the Upper Hunter produced the quality Show Reserve and single site Roxburgh wines which a few aficionados sourced, whilst the rest of us, still wearing our shorts when it came to wine, so to speak, guzzled up their diamond label. For many, that was the first Aussie Chardonnay which passed our lips. To all but a few it was a revelation. Back then, the Hunter Valley was Australian Wine Central.
That might come as a surprise to a lot of people. Rosemount, not the export giant it was in the UK, is now far more centred on McLaren Vale, whilst the great Hunter Shiraz wines, such as those made by Maurice O’Shea at Mount Pleasant in the first half of the 20th Century, are but a distant memory to most. Hunter Semillon is certainly still one of the world’s great wines. Unoaked, in youth it often tastes like concentrated lime cordial, but with age it convinces most drinkers it has been meticulously tutored in the finest French oak barrels, and how it ages.
With low alcohol (often 11%) and a steely mineral core, the wines may show a resemblance to Riesling, and before these wines required stricter labelling on export markets, they were often labelled as “Hunter Riesling”. Although few people drink Hunter Valley Semillon outside of Australia today, its reputation is rising once more on the back of sheer quality and younger winemakers putting faith in that quality.
The Hunter Valley is climatically a terrible place to grow vines in some respects. Described as semi-tropical, summers are humid with low and almost constant cloud cover, and harvests can be wet. The volcanic terroir, cut by alluvial river beds, do both provide promising soils but viticulture here is not easy. The region’s advantage has always been proximity to Sydney, around 100 miles to the south and now well connected via the Pacific Motorway (M1).
So why, you ask, is the Hunter Valley still an important part of Australia’s current wine scene as well as the country’s wine heritage? Before he died in 2006 Australian wine writer and famous wine judge Len Evans was interviewed by Max Allen. According to Allen, Evans said (The Future Makers, Hardie Grant Books, 2010, p320) that “Hunter wine has improved out of sight in the past ten years…and it’s thanks to the new ones. There’s a fantastic cadre of young people…swapping information…being very critical of each other.” Perhaps this is where to look for future greatness as the Hunter Valley struggles to be seen once again as a region for some of Australia’s finest wines.
Over the years the large vineyards of the Upper Hunter Valley have contracted. It’s easier and cheaper for the large corporations to source fruit in South Australia, and indeed from other less well known wine regions in NSW. The generally quality-focused Lower Hunter Valley, an area less than 10km wide and maybe 15 to 20km north to south, sits west of a line drawn between the mining town of Cessnock, and Branxton to the north. The region is centred on Pokolbin, not really a village, more a cluster of a couple of stores and restaurants on Broke Road, between the Visitor Information Centre (useful for a free large scale vineyard map) and the Hunter Valley Gardens, by the roundabouts to the west.
Within this area sit a cluster of wineries, many now boutique in size. Some make their money and fame from wonderful wines of genuine quality, whilst others benefit from the well developed tourist trade. Around the wineries you will find a surprising number of places to stay, to eat, to listen to concerts, look at art, or take a balloon flight. Personally, I’d never argue that the region is beautiful. Not in the way of so many wine regions. But it unquestionably has its own charm, and at least the Brokenback Mountains make a hilly, blue-hued, frame for the vineyards.
Hunter Semillon forms only a small part of the output of the wider Hunter Valley, not surprising as the whole region produces less than one hundredth of Australia’s wine output these days. The region’s fame far outweighs its importance to the “industry”. The Lower Hunter Valley without doubt suffered in the past, as its reputation for some wonderful old wines gave way to the prominence of the bulk producers (mainly) in the Upper Hunter. But in that quiet period others got to work, to rebuild that reputation. Along with Semillon, the valley does provide the right conditions for characterful Shiraz, at least in some vintages. So the revival of the Hunter seems to be focused on those two varieties.
To the wine lover on export markets, especially the UK, names such as Tyrrell’s, Mount Pleasant (the old McWilliams homestead), Lindeman’s, Brokenwood’s Graveyard Vineyard, or possibly Lake’s Folly, founded by Sydney doctor Max Lake in 1963, arguably Australia’s first boutique winery, might be most familiar. Locally there are others building reputations based on quite thrilling wines. I have chosen two producers to highlight who are beacons of excellence by any standard. Perhaps the better known of the two, Andrew Thomas Wines, will be profiled in the second Hunter Valley article. Here, I visit Gundog Estate. If you haven’t heard of them, don’t worry. I hadn’t either until the middle of 2019.
Gundog Estate was founded in 2011 by Matt Burton and partners. Matt, with a degree from Charles Sturt, had gained experience abroad (France and USA), before a career at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley. Coldstream’s former owner, Aussie wine writer James Halliday, has always called the Hunter Valley his first love, though I have no idea what made Matt choose a region in New South Wales, perhaps a little in the doldrums at the time, over that prestigious Victorian vineyard just outside of Melbourne. But choose it he did, and he chose to focus his efforts here on Semillon and Shiraz. Since his first vintage Matt has gone on to scoop many awards, including becoming, in a circular journey of sorts, a “James Halliday Five Red Star Winery”.
Gundog Estate’s tasting room is in the old school house, located on McDonald’s Road, on the right, south of the Broke Road roundabouts. Five vineyards make up the estate’s core fruit. The 48 Block sits a little way behind the tasting room, whilst two more sites, Sunshine Vineyard in the north of Pokolbin, towards Rothbury and The Old Road Vineyard, both sit beside the long Wine Country Drive. That leaves Vernon Vineyard (farmed by David and Sue Vernon, who Matt has worked with for more than twelve years) and Somerset Vineyard, both to the south, either side of Mount View.
Matt treats all his Semillons in the same way. Only the free run juice is used, just as in Champagne. Fermentation is cool, after which the wine rests on fine lees for three or four months. The Shiraz parcels get a two-day cold soak, and are fermented without cooling in open-top vats. The oak regime is intended to play a supporting role, and Matt isn’t looking for overt oak influence, though new oak can be around 30% via the purchase of a brand new oak puncheon occasionally for each wine. Maturation in oak is usually limited to ten months.
The Chase Semillon 2019 – The source is old vines in the Somerset Vineyard, where the vines were originally planted on sandy loam in 1965, giving a youthful dry and fresh lime citrus wine with added lemon grass and zippy apple from a ruthless selection of low cropping fruit. Alcohol sits at 11%.
Hunter Valley Semillon 2018 – Up at a heady 11.5% abv, this wine is sourced from heavier soils around Mount View. There’s more of an earthy texture here, and perhaps the acidity, more lemon than lime, suggests earlier drinking. It is nevertheless a characterful wine and nicely differentiated.
Hunter Valley Semillon 2013 – It’s so important to get a handle on how Hunter Semillon ages, although at six years old the wine isn’t fully mature. Indeed, some Semillon will go through a dumb phase at this age. Here we have a smoky fruit character, almost plummy with a bit of stony texture, and plump too. Bigger on the palate, it’s a classic example of a wine you might swear had seen oak.
Somerset Vineyard Semillon 2014 – The vines on this old creek bed are on their own roots, not grafted onto American rootstocks. The soils are interspersed with volcanic elements and limestone, on west facing slopes planted in 1965 and 1970. Lime is concentrated on the palate here, but appended with a sour/bitter savoury note. Released at four years old, this is still very young and might go thirty years if allowed. It doesn’t need that long, but it is rather a shame most is consumed on release. The acid backbone will grant it that age, but there’s a touch of richness to tempt the impatient.
Wild Semillon 2019 – This wine is fermented on skins (2 weeks) using only wild yeasts. It has fairly prominent acidity and even a little “Sauvignon Blanc character”, but the wine doesn’t come over as completely dry. This is perhaps the rather peachy fruit, which goes well with the very textural result of the winemaking. A different take. Alcohol is at just 10.5%.
Wild Semillon 2014 – it’s always good to try an older vintage of any current wine. The bouquet of this 2014 has developed a gorgeous floral element, and I used the same adjective for the wine as a whole. The acidity has held but there’s just more complexity and the single dimension of the 2019 has broadened into a multi-dimensional wine.
Indomitus Albus Semillon 2018 – The labels of the Indomitus wines show a photographic image of the 12th century Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex. This temple has been left pretty much undisturbed since its discovery. Matt is keen to avoid calling the Indomitus wines “natural wines”, but the philosophy is nevertheless to intervene as little as possible, to show yet another side of Hunter Semillon.
The Albus Semillon wine grew as an extension of the Wild Semillon, 50% of the must seeing skins during fermentation for around three months, using wild yeasts of course. Very little sulphur is used. The result is high in acid, but textural. The bouquet is concentrated then explosive. It has a slightly sweet side and a definitely savoury edge too. Complex. It’s far more out on the edge than any Hunter Semillon I’ve tasted before. A bottle drunk later was thrilling, just pipping a bottle of the Wild Semillon 2014 we drank back in Sydney (good as that bottle was). In my view, though, it does need more time.
Gundog does make wine from other regions’ fruit. There’s an extremely good Canberra District Riesling (we tasted the 2019) which comes from vines Matt controls at Murrumbateman. Only 100 dozen bottles are currently released each vintage, but it is rightly jumped on, I’m told. Matt also makes a very nice Indomitus Rosa from fruit he sources in the Hilltops Region of NSW (not far from Canberra District, of course). Unusually, the variety is Nebbiolo, making a salmon pink wine with a remarkable scent which is both floral and of pineapple! Delicate, yet a wine of texture, 13% abv, food friendly…I was rather taken with it.
There’s also a concentrated Rutherglen Muscat (don’t spit this one), and a partnership range with Dylan McMahon from the Yarra Valley, for several wines off volcanic soils near Seville. From the latter label I tasted D’Aloisio’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2017. It’s a wine where the malo is not encouraged, though the fresh acids are balanced by 30% new oak and 13% abv. The result is fresh and textured. Texture seems a trait here. Now we come to the Hunter Shiraz.
Rare Game Shiraz 2018 is remarkably refined with scents of violet combined with dark fruits. A good tannin structure holds it all together well. The low cropped vines are in Somerset Vineyard and Tinkler’s Vineyard, off red volcanic soils. It’s not cheap at Aus$60 (cellar door), but it will age for 5-to-15 years, gaining with complexity.
48 Block Shiraz – The fruit here was once used by Lindeman’s. Matt began working with the Tinkler family in 2014. The vineyard produces small berries, which when picked on the early side produce the kind of Shiraz Matt likes to make, known locally as “Hunter Burgundy”. The bouquet for me is deep cherry, but with a high tone too. The fruit is treated as if it were Pinot Noir so there’s delicacy (despite alcohol up at 13.8%) and spice. The spice comes through a lot, though the fruit has a nice ripe sweetness at the same time. Quite plush.
The Somerset Vineyard 2014 is in the same vein, elegant, savoury and medium-bodied. The Old Road used to be called “Will’s Vineyard” when it belonged to De Bortoli. Will Capper still manages it, but the name was changed due to trademark issues. Planted in 1980, it sits on clay loam and iron-rich gravels. The style is broad and rich, in some contrast to the other two single vineyard Shiraz wines. The single vineyard wines are not on general release. As with so many producers, but this seems especially true of the Hunter Valley, you need to join the Cellar Club to get them. You can understand why. Otherwise, if on general taste they would be gulped down by all the coach parties before they hit your cellar.
Despite the relatively low international profile of Gundog Estate, I would recommend a visit. The very pleasant, and friendly, tasting room, run by genuinely knowledgeable and engaging staff, is at 101 McDonald’s Road, Pokolbin. It won a Best Small Cellar Door Award from Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine in both 2013 and 2018. It is open seven days a week, 10am to 5pm (except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Easter Sunday). It shares space with the Gourmet Pantry. You can buy a charcuterie and cheese platter to soak up the wine if you wish, and very decent coffee to wake you up afterwards. But more importantly, the wines are seriously impressive.
Gundog Estate’s web site is here.
The Tasting Room
Some famous Hunter sights – Lake’s Folly, Mount Pleasant and Tyrrell’s