New style of shiraz from Hunter Valley

Shiraz is Australia’s most widely planted red variety and it can be used to make a wide range of styles.

Oak-heavy forms of shiraz from the Barossa Valley captured world attention some years ago. But other styles – ranging from cool climate shiraz in Victoria, through to new approaches in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales – are becoming appreciated.

The leader in the latter group is Tyrrell’s Wines, which is family owned and recognized as one of Australia’s most successful privately-owned wine companies.

Edward Tyrell established the vineyard on the slopes and valley of the Brockenback Ranges in the Hunter Valley after emigrating from England in 1858. Bruce Tyrrell, Edward’s great grandson, is the managing director and oversees exports to more than 30 countries.

Bruce’s son Chris represents the fifth generation of winemaking. Earlier this year Chris was accepted into the “future leaders” program run by the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, as well as being named “rising star” at the Hunter Valley Wine Industry awards.

In parallel with this recognition is the vast number of awards Tyrrell’s wines have received in recent years. The 2009 Vat 9 shiraz, recently released, has already gained five trophies and two gold medals.

Chris said the secret to the estate’s success is the quality of the vines. The shiraz vines have an average age of 50 years. Hot weather in the weeks prior to harvesting the fruit in February 2009 dehydrated the berries and concentrated flavours, as well as increasing sugar levels.

Tyrrell’s is unusual in the way it makes its red wines, fermenting in open concrete vats. I have seen the vats, having visited the vineyard several times since my first trip in 1973. The walls of the vats are 25 centimetres thick and echo with history. Grapes are pressed as whole bunches. The juice is hand plunged, and pumped over six times a day.

This shiraz was matured in a combination of new (60 per cent) and one-year French casks. Tyrrell’s prefers to use 2800 litre casks rather than the most common barrels – 220 litre barriques – so wines are not overpowered by oak flavours.

This gives the wine a softness that makes it approachable now, as well as being worthy of cellaring for a decade. The 2009 shiraz has a creamy texture, a reflection of modern shiraz styles from the Hunter Valley. An aroma of plums and dark berry fruits, with a touch of violets plus a subtle sweetness, rounds out the sensation of pleasure associated with this wine.

“The oak fills out the mid palate, which is extended with a clean acid structure,” Chris said.

The other joy of the Hunter Valley is semillon. Vat 1 is Tyrrell’s flagship wine. The current release is the 2005, made from vines planted in 1908.

As a young wine semillon offers a neutral aroma and tastes of lemons. But a decade later it goes gold in colour and tastes of honey and toast – the kinds of characteristics one would see in a mature white burgundy. The wine’s evolution and style is unique to the Hunter Valley.

This result is unusual because the wine never sees any oak. It is matured in stainless steel for five months before being bottled. It is amazing that a wine that starts so neutral ends up so majestic, without any oak influence. “It is fairly simple wine-making,” Chris said. “The winemaker’s job is to get out of the way and let the grapes and terroir speak for themselves.”

Semillon tends to be low in alcohol, at about 11 per cent. Tyrrell’s has been using stelvin instead of cork closures since 2003, and this approach guarantees the quality of the wine if properly cellared.

The 2005 semillon has already received five trophies and 22 gold medals. Only 2000 cases were made. Semillon represents perhaps 0.5 per cent of Australia’s wine production. While it is rare it is a joy to taste and should be pursued.

Australia’s best-known wine critic, James Halliday, gave this wine 97 points out of 100.

Published in China Post and the Jakarta Globe, 13 September 2012, page 10. Find a link here.

Categories: Not home, wine

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