But there remains one district 100 miles (160km) north of Sydney as famous as any in the country, even if it Is progressively being overtaken by the state’s swelling roster of new wine regions. The Lower Hunter Valley around Branxton and the mining town of Cessnock represent a triumph of proximity over suitability. The Hunter, as it is known, is a far from ideal place to grow grapes. It is subtropical; the most northerly of Australia’s traditional wine regions: summers are invariably very hot and autumns can be vexingly wet. The prevailing northeast winds from the Pacific counter the extreme heal to some extent, and summer skies are often cloud-covered so the direct sun is diffused. More than two-thrills of the region’s relatively high annual rainfall of 29in (750mm) falls in the crucial first four months of the year, harvest time. There is plenty for the farmer to curse: vintages are as uneven as they are in France.
The reason for the rash of wineries on the map is not so much a natural affinity with the vine as the fact that they an-just two hours’ drive front Sydney and a mecca for wine tourists and investors. No other Australian wine region sets its cap so obviously at the casual visitor. Restaurants, guesthouses, golf courses, and. of course, cellar doors proliferate.
The soil that gave the Hunter Valley its reputation is found to the south in the foothills of the broken back Range. Around the east side of the hills, there is a strip of weathered basalt, the sign of ancient volcanic activity, that restricts vine vigor and concentrates often distinctly mineral flavour into the grapes. The red volcanic soils on higher ground, such as those of Pokolbin subregion, are particularly suitable for Shiraz, the classic red grape of the Hunter, based on some particularly old clones. Semillon grown on the white sands and loams – alluvial crock beds – on lower ground is the traditional while, even if it has been overtaken quantitatively by Chardonnay. No more than medium-bodied, Hunter Shiraz is sometimes beefed up with stronger stuff imported from South Australia, up to the permitted maximum of 15%, although winemakers are increasingly keen to show off the Hunter’s uniquely “Burgundian” style. Soft and earthy but long and spicy. Hunter Shiraz from a successful vintage may ripen relatively early, but lasts well and grows complex and leathery with time.
Hunter Semillon is one of Australia’s classic, if underappreciated, wine styles. The grapes are picked at low sugar levels, fermented in vat and bottled fairly early at around 1195 alcohol without any softening (and accelerating) malolactic fermentation. These grassy or citrus relatively austere young wines age in bailie quite magnificently into green-gold, toasty, mineral-laden bombs packed with explosive layers of flavour, although the style is not for neophytes. Verdelho also has a long history in the Hunter.
Tourism is all-important in the Hunter Valley in Sydney’s backyard. Golf sometimes seems more important than wine. At least the hot-air balloon rides am designed with vineyard viewing in mind.
The Hunter was in the forefront of Australian’s love affair with imported French grapes. In the early 1970s, Murray Tyrrell, inspired by Len Evans, the impresario not only of the Hunter but of modern Australian wine in general, did with Chardonnay what Max Lake had done in the 1960s with Cabernet: put down a marker no winemaker could ignore, his Vat 47. It launched a thousand – make that a million? Australian Chardonnays.
Chardonnay is also by far the principal, some might say only, grape variety in the Upper Hunter subregion put resoundingly on the map in the 1970s by Rosemount. It lies 40 miles (60km) to the northwest on higher ground around Denman and Muswellbrook. Rainfall is lower and irrigation freely practiced. The Broke Fordwich subregion half an hour’s drive west of the urea mapped here is currently much more dynamic, producing distinctive Semilinns on sandy, alluvial soils.
Beyond the Hunter
To the west of the Hunter, about 1,500FT (450 m) upon the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range, Mudgee has also made its mark since the 1970s. Its origins are almost as old as those of the Hunter Valley, but Mudgee dwelt in obscurity. il the hunt began for cooler districts. Intense, long-established Chardonnay and Cabernet (especially from Huntingdon Estate) are its traditional strengths; Riesling and Shiraz can be wry good, too. Haring added Poet’s Corner and the historic Montrose to the Oatley family’s existing vineyards retained after the sale of Rosemount, Rosemount founder Robert Oatley’s eponymous new venture is easily the region’s dominant force.
New South Wales has seen a sustained and vigorous quest for new wine regions, all of them in cooler, often higher, pockets of the state. The latest addition is New England. Australia’s highest wine region, which rises to 4,330ft (1,320). Orange, on the slopes of the extinct volcano Mount Canobolas, is defined by altitude. Its vineyards, about 1,970 ft (600m) and sometimes much higher, are distinguished from the rolling hills of the Central Ranges wine zone, The range оf varieties that can be grown at such heights is wide, but a common thread of Orange wines is notably pure natural acidity. Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay thrive. In the higher reaches, beneficial aspect, rigorous canopy management, and ruthless yields are hallmarks of the best reds.
Cowra has a much longer history for lush. Fulsome, exuberant Chardonnaysgrown at fairly high yields and much lower altitudes: on average only about 1,150ft (350m). Hilltops, a little to the south, around the town of Young, and higher than Cowra, is much more recent and like most, of these relatively obscure New South Wales wine regions, tends to grow fruit – notably red grapes, Chardonnay and Semillon – for wineries outside the region. There are half a dozen small enterprises, by far the most important being McWilliam’s Barwang. The great surprise about Canberra District, the cluster of vineyards around the nation’s capital, is firstly that there are so many of them, secondly that almost all are actually In New South Wales, and thirdly that they have been in existence for so long. Research doctors John Kirk of Clonakillu and Edgar Rick of Lake George planted the first vines as long ago as 1971. The former’s son Tim virtually pioneered Australia’s popular Shiraz/Viognier blend modeled on Cote-Rotie. The highest vineyards such as Lark Hill’s, now biodynamic, are not just cool but cold (frost can strike), and the result can be some of Australia’s most delicate Pinot Noir. Riesling, and even Greiner Veltliner.
Shoalhaven Coast is also developing fast, all hough, like Hastings River around Port Macquarie to the north, it suffers from high humidity. Hybrids such as Chambourcin offer a solution of a sort. Tumbarumba is another extremely cool, highly-altitude region, of particular interest to blenders of refined Chardonnays and sparkling wine. And an increasing number of Tumbarumba-labelled whites are being bottled by producers in nearby Hilltops and Canberra District.
These labels represent some of the best wines from all New South Wates vineyards, not just those that can 6e labeled “Proudly Hunter Valley”. Helm of Canberra has long been one of Australia’s prime exponents of Riesling, while the extensively bc-mcdaUed 842 is grown on one of Tumbarumba’s finest vineyards. Ross Hilt represents Orange, white Moppityisa Hilltops ambassador, and Montrose is produced in historic Mudgee.