Hunter Valley Part 2 – Andrew Thomas

If you read an article which perhaps just touches on the Hunter Valley you will see several famous names listed as the region’s best known and finest producers, but the chances are that if a couple of producers less well known to you are tacked on at the end, one will almost certainly be Andrew Thomas. The reputation of Thomas Wines is long established in Australia. After all, Andrew’s first vintage for his own label was 1997. Before that he had honed his skills with that great Hunter name, Tyrrell’s, a mile or two down the road. But during the following decades these wonderful wines have gained both international recognition and cult status.

The Hunter Valley as we know it, the area around Pokolbin, began its viticultural story in the 1860s, though vines had been planted not too far away at Wollombi, on the convict road north from Sydney Cove, in the 1820s. Since then the region has seen its ups and downs. A bank crash in the 1890s, the removal of protective tarrifs with Federation, the arrival of downy mildew in 1917 at a time of labour shortage, the misery of the economic woes of the 1960s, all could quite easily have killed off this region’s viticulture. So could the race to the bottom from some quarters in later decades. I would suggest that the current revival of the Lower Hunter as a wine producing region, not just a place for weekend tourists to come to is, more than anything else, down to people like Andrew Thomas, and his unerring quest for quality and terroir expression.

My first Hunter Valley article focused on Gundog Estate, but it is where you will find all my preliminary comments and my brief introduction to the Hunter Valley, and its history and heritage. You can read Part 1 here. This second part will focus on a tasting at Thomas Wines in November 2019.

It was a remarkably hot and sunny Sunday morning when we drove almost to the western end of Broke Road and turned right up Hermitage Road. The weather was a late spring pointer to what is looking like a hot summer, and I coincidentally saw a photograph only this morning of beautifully healthy small bunches developing on Andrew’s vines, but equally some very parched earth. A complete contrast to the squelching mud I was wading through in the New Forest last Sunday.

Hermitage has its own identity within the Valley, and the “Hermitage Wine and Food Trail” lists not only vineyards but also local produce, boutique beer and cider makers, cheese making and a host of other gastronomic and leisure activities, including a newly constructed cycleway. The Thomas Wines tasting room sits just off Hermitage Road on Mistletoe Lane, within a small complex which also houses the Brokenback Bar and The Mill Restaurant, along with several local accommodation options.

The tasting room itself is large, clean, modern and smart, as perhaps befits a boutique producer whose multi-award winning wines represent some of the finest in the Hunter. This is where you first meet Andrew Thomas, whether he’s there or not. One whole wall contains the photograph below, of the man himself in the vines. I think the photo expresses the whole philosophy of the winemaker in one click of the lens. Andrew is known for his single vineyard wines from Semillon and Shiraz, the valley’s two signature varieties. The focus is to make the best wines from these grape varieties in the region. Two varieties…but many different bottlings. Currently there is just one diversion, as in Two of a Kind (below).

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Semillon

Some people have suggested that Andrew Thomas has revolutionised Hunter Valley Semillon. The variety is generally under appreciated in the wider world of wine, especially since it became more or less a minor part of the White Bordeaux grape mix. The Hunter Valley is not the only place in the world capable of making creditable Semillon as a single varietal wine, and in fact an increasing number of fine Semillons are coming out of Western Australia. But the Hunter Valley produces a singular style, famous for being an unoaked wine which tastes oaked once properly aged (where “properly” can easily mean twenty years or more). It’s a style which in its youth can persuade a taster that they have Riesling in their glass, and indeed some producers in the distant past labelled their Semillon as “Hunter Valley Riesling”. The long list of Thomas Wines Semillons begins with Synergy.

Synergy Semillon 2019 – this wine is a blend from different sites in the region. Braemore Vineyard, which Andrew has owned for around twenty vintages, forms the core, but the rest are from contract growers. It is important to point out that one of the key elements in Andrew’s success has been his relationships with local growers. A strong bond between grower and winemaker allows Andrew to source the best fruit at perfect phenolic ripeness for each cuvée. It cannot be stressed enough just how important these relationships are to the pursuit of quality.

The wine is fruity and easy to knock back, as you’d expect from a wine which sells at a near ridiculous Aus$20 at the cellar door, for this level of quality. As a good introduction to the range, it shows a tiny bit of residual sugar with citrus acidity not too prominent, and a bit of tropical fruit on the palate.

Two of a Kind Semillon 2019 – Unusually for Andrew, this special cuvée blends Hunter Valley Semillon with 45% Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills. It’s a way Andrew can express a different Semillon tradition, the “Bordeaux Blend”. It’s a very nice wine and not one I’d turn down a bottle of. There’s also a matching Shiraz, a blend of 55% Hunter fruit with 45% from McLaren Vale. I didn’t taste it (sold out), but that 2017 made it into James Halliday’s “Top 100 Wines of 2018”.

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Six Degrees Semillon 2019 – This is another take on the variety, where the fermentation is stopped to create an off-dry wine. Andrew’s inspiration here, interesting in the light of my earlier comments on young Hunter Semillon, is the Mosel.  The result is 8.5% alcohol and around 35g/litre residual sugar. This is balanced by fresh lime acidity and a little apple freshness in a light wine for early drinking. It is rather Riesling-like, but think again and you might guess it’s Hunter Semillon.

Fordwich Hill Semillon 2019 – We now move up a gear. Fordwich Hill is the first of the Premium releases. The vineyard is at Broke Fordwich on the western fringe of the valley. The soils are volcanic, with granite debris washed down from the hills, and the area seems to get a little less rainfall than other parts of the region. The wines tend to have a broader tropical palate, with more stone fruit than lime. This is without doubt a contemporary Semillon. The Andrew Thomas wines seem to exude precision, and even a degree of austerity in youth, and this wine certainly shows precision even with the broader stone fruit style. Everything seems to hang from a delicate, filigree, frame. Just 270 cases produced.

OC Semillon 2019 – The first thing my palate noticed here was a touch more complexity. OC stands for Oaky Creek Road (in Pokolbin, off McDonald’s Road). The terrain here is one of loamy and sandy flats. Andrew says that this site is more suited to producing a classical rendition of the grape, so it is perhaps less contemporary than his other wines. This manifests itself in a steely lime backbone running through a grassy wine with a degree of austerity. Hopefully customers will understand that this is a wine to age a decade or more. One worries that they might be fooled by the $26 price tag, a mere £13 or so for a wine of genuine quality.

Braemore Semillon 2019 – This vineyard, planted near the tasting room on Hermitage Road in 1969, is on flat land made up of alluvial river deposits. After a very warm ripening period the grapes were hand picked in January, whole bunch pressed, and fermented with wild yeasts and left on lees until bottling in May this year. Despite the warm summer this 20th Anniversary bottling of this vineyard still retains a low alcohol level (10.7%) and acidity of 7g/l. In some ways it is more approachable now than the OC, but it really will age magnificently if allowed. You get orange blossom and lemongrass up with the grated lime zest. The acidity is refreshing rather than rasping, and its freshness is off the scale amazing in terms of overall concentration. A classic in the making, for sure. It really does justice to a great vineyard.

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Braemore Cellar Reserve Semillon 2014 – This may not be a fully mature version of this vineyard cuvée, but at five years old it is just beginning to dip its toes into its drinking window. The bouquet has changed, from a pure and linear citrus to something with a more ethereal edge (lime blossom, springlike). The palate has developed a honey note whilst the citrus element has gone from lemon juice to a rounder lemon curd. The colour is just a touch darker than the lime green glow of youth. To be honest it is lovely now, but in a decade it will evolve to add nuts and perhaps brioche, and the acidity will round out further. But whichever style you prefer, this old vine cuvée is up with the very best Hunter Semillon. The Cellar Selection wines are available to signed up members. Just over 250 cases, or more specifically 512 six-packs, were kept back, at $390/6 ($65/bottle).

Shiraz

Andrew Thomas makes such amazing Semillon that we must not forget that he’s equally adept with Shiraz. The variety in some ways has its Australian home in the Hunter, but it is very different in style here to that of the Barossa or McLaren Vale. It can be a more restrained rendition, with more savoury elements. Historically, these wines could age as well as any in the world, but there was often a leathery element which crept in. They used to call it “sweaty saddle”, a result of brett (brettanomyces), a form of bacterial spoilage.

The result was that whilst the wines undoubtedly aged with complexity, the fruit could be hidden under the saddle. With contemporary Hunter Shiraz the fruit purity of well tended old vines is kept centre stage. The old vines give genuinely intense fruit on both nose and palate, but the savoury nature of the wines, the trait which in my opinion makes them so much more food friendly than the alcoholic fruit bomb style, is not lost.

Synergy Shiraz 2017 – As with the Semillon of this name, this is a blend of different sites, and an introduction to Andrew’s reds. I know one wine writer (my favourite in the UK if you must know) who would definitely call this his trademark “smashable”, as indeed does Andrew. It’s actually whacking out 14.3% abv, but it tastes much lighter, fruity, peppery, and purple-rimmed. Barbecue material.

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Sweetwater Shiraz 2017 – Sweetwater Ridge is a vineyard at Belford, in the north of the region, planted in 1998 on loam over ironstone and limestone. It’s a vineyard which can be vigorous so the fruit is thinned out more than most sites. Fermentation contains around 10% whole berries to add a fruity zip, and maturation is in 300-litre French hogsheads. The bouquet is very floral, rose petal and violets with an undercurrent of cherry. There’s a little tannin and structure, but there’s also a lovely sweet spot of fruit which suggests that whilst this will age you could broach it now, or soon, if you want to.

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The Cote Shiraz 2017 – If Semillon used to be called “Hunter Riesling” then Shiraz often went by the name of “Hunter Burgundy” in this part of NSW. The name obviously came from the more savoury and lighter (relatively) style of wine you got from Hunter Shiraz grapes. Pokolbin boasts many historic vineyards, and “Côte d’Or” is one of them, the source of this cuvée, just south of Oakvale. The vines were replanted in 1971 on loam, and this 2017 is the first time Andrew has released a single vineyard wine under this name.

The fruit was destemmed  and given a 48-hour cold soak. It then spent seven days more on skins whilst fermenting, before gentle pressing into 300-litre hogsheads (25% new). The bouquet is all sweet fruit and spice, pretty intense. The palate has structure and supple tannins, with real texture. The fruit is just lovely, but the tannins and the savoury qualities point this towards a 20-year snooze in the cellar if you can manage it.

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Elenay Shiraz 2017 – The unfathomable name actually relates to the practice of nose to tail eating…”L an’ A” purportedly meaning “lips and arse”. It was originally made from barrels which didn’t make the cut, leftover, but it is no “leftover wine” now, in quality terms. Sweetwater, Kiss, Belford and Dam Block vineyards provide the fruit for this barrel selection wine.

The bouquet here is quite intense violets, but for me (not noted by other tasters) I was definitely getting a little bacon fat forming (my nose is so well attuned to this, partly from my love of older Northern Rhônes, and partly from living in a vegan household). The palate has blueberry and darker fruit, all bound by French oak which sets this out as another twenty year wine. The price, $55, equates to less than £30 at the cellar door. You could be fooled into thinking this is not the serious wine it is.

Kiss Shiraz 2017 – The estate’s flagship Shiraz comes from a vineyard at Pokolbin Estate. The vines, on sandy loam, are fifty years old this year so this 2017 has serious old vine credentials by anyone’s definition of the term. After a 48-hour cold soak it was fermented on skins for nine days before 16 months maturation in the usual 300-litre hogsheads. It was bottled in May this year. It still shows the structure and tannin of oak ageing, but it is spicy as hell and is showing tiny hints of what is possible for the future. This will last over twenty years but may reach its plateau sooner. It would be a shame to drink it now, but if I had to…as the literature says, “Benchmark Hunter Shiraz”. Without doubt the finest Hunter Shiraz I can recall, and I have tried some of the older Mount Pleasant wines in the distant past.

If you can’t bring yourself to see Barossa Shiraz in the same fine wine category as Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie then you probably need to try this. Aus$85, assuming you can get some. Although Kiss sells out on release, or pretty quickly at the cellar door, you can take a look at the Provenance List.  This is a small list of back vintages straight from the domaine, all bottles kept back in temperature controlled cellars, then to wine cabinets in the tasting room when made available for sale. There are some large formats too. Try enlarging the photo for the details of current vintages and prices. I took a 2013 ($130).

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Dam Block Shiraz 2017 – This wine is known as “The Baby Kiss”. It comes from a 0.8ha block just across the dam from the “Kiss” vineyard at Pokolbin. 2017 is its third vintage. The fruit seems a mix of red and blueberry, perhaps more plush than Kiss, certainly concentrated but more approachable. It sees a couple of days fewer fermenting and a month less in oak, but overall the winemaking doesn’t differ a lot. The drinking window is estimated up to fifteen years or over, but it would be less of a waste to broach this sooner. It is only a little over half the price of The Kiss.

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I think that the top wines here truly are Hunter benchmarks. They are clearly modern wines. Andrew doesn’t seem to allow any faults to get in the way of their expression. Some of the cuvées have an unmistakable mark of the estate on them, yet all are clearly differentiated wines. If Andrew equally manages to illustrate a modern take on the Hunter heritage, it is definitely through allowing the different vineyards to express themselves. At the end of the day they are definitely wines of the vines rather than of the winemaker. They are also stunning.

Thomas Wines is at 28 Mistletoe Lane, on the corner of Hermitage Road, Pokolbin NSW. The excellent cellar door is open every day, 10 ’til 5, bar the usual big holidays of Christmas, New Year and Easter. The entry level wines are free to taste. A fee of $15 per person is charged to taste the premium wines, waived against any purchase. You can link to their web site here.

There’s one more new estate I want to mention here. We didn’t visit Tintilla, which is just round the corner from Thomas Wines. I was aware that my wife’s late Godmother had a relative who made wine in the Hunter but I had no idea who it was and she is sadly no longer around to ask. I only discovered it was Tintilla from her nephew, who we visited later in Sydney. The winemaker is James Lusby whose father, Robert (a vascular surgeon, so another of the Hunter Valley and Australian Wine’s medical men), founded Tintilla in the mid-1990s.

Back in Sydney we drank a bottle of the Tintilla Angus Hunter Semillon 2018, and I’ve just found out that this wine won the Len Sorbello Memorial Trophy at the Winewise Small Vigneron Awards 2019. It comes from Semillon vines grown on the estate’s dry river bed soils on a tributary of Rothbury Creek. The soils drain well, but the grapes need to be harvested before summer rains. This is a wine made with no skin contact and fermented and matured, in classic Hunter fashion, without oak. The style has that lemon and lime nose, with more floral touches too. The palate has a fine line of acidity, but with a touch of richness to ground it. Very nice, though I’m not sure it has any UK distribution. It’s only Aus$30 (a touch over £15) at the cellar door. You don’t need to pay a lot for good quality in the Hunter if you know where to look.

Tintilla Estate is at 725 Hermitage Road, Pokolbin. As well as grapes, the family farm an olive grove too.

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About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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