I drink a lot of the stuff, write about it, and have pretty strong opinions on wine, so I’ve thought for a while now that I should get my hands dirty and do a bit of vintage work. I’ve spent plenty of time in wine regions, in vineyards, and in and around wineries, but of course this is not the same as actually being involved in turning grapes into cherished vino.
And so it was that I organised with Jim Chatto, chief winemaker at Pepper Tree, to spend a week in the winery in late Jan/early Feb, at the early stages of what has proved to be a very challenging vintage in the Hunter Valley. I traversed vineyards, helped crush grapes, and cleaned tanks. I learnt lots, helped out where I could, and drank some very nice wine in the process. All up it was a great week.
This post I will just concentrate on the vineyards and vintage itself, while in my next post I will look at Pepper Tree and working in the winery.
During the course of the week I had the chance to accompany Chatto as we walked and tasted through a number of great Hunter vineyards that Pepper Tree sources fruit from, including Tallawanta, Braemore, Steven, Trevena, Coombe Rise, and then also Quayle in the upper Hunter (there was also a sneaky trip into Lovedale but we’ll keep that one quiet). Having previously tasted many wines from these sites, and indeed written about some of these vineyards, it was great to actually kick the dirt, taste the fruit, and just gain a better understanding of where these wines come from.
(Jim Chatto tasting through the Quayle vineyard in the upper Hunter)
The first thing that stood out to me during my vineyard wanderings was the obvious difference in the taste of the fruit between the vineyards and even within vineyards. For those that taste grapes regularly, this difference might appear to be bleedingly obvious, but without having previously had the chance to taste grapes from multiple sites in a compressed period of time, it wasn’t necessarily apparent to me that the differences would be so evident. A Semillon grape from Braemore tastes distinctly different from that of Tallawanta, Coombe Rise etc. The unique character and typicite of a site can be readily discerned. This enlightenment was similar in a way to lining up a whole bunch of wines from the same region and tasting through them. The distinct differences between individual wines or indeed vineyards becomes more evident when viewed next to one another.
At a more detailed level, it was interesting to identify blocks or sections of vineyard that produced different flavours. Tallawanta vineyard was planted in 1920, sits on red soils, and produces beautiful old vine Shiraz. It straddles a small, gentle hill, and as such has both east and west facing slopes. There’s a great intensity to the fruit here. Tasting both slopes, however, it was immediately evident that the western slope was much more advanced and better tasting this vintage, having benefitted from whatever afternoon sun had been afforded it during this cool and wet vintage. In a hot vintage this would likely be reversed with the eastern slope looking better, benefitting from the protection it is afforded from the afternoon sun. This gives Chatto a level flexibility across different vintages to ensure fruit of the appropriate quality goes into one of his top wines, the Coquun Shiraz.
Another comparison of interest was that between Braemore and Trevena. Braemore, planted in the 1960s, is synonymous with great Hunter Semillon, and is considered by many something of a Grand Cru in the Hunter. Trevena, on the other hand, was planted in the 1920s but doesn’t have the profile that Braemore or many of the other great Semillon vineyards in the Hunter have. Braemore and Trevena sit side by side on the same alluvial flat, with only a small dirt road separating them. If someone had told me that the whole area was Braemore I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, as there are no obvious terroir differences between the two sites. And yet tasting through the two vineyards it was evident that Braemore had better tasting fruit, and apparent why Braemore has risen in the wine lover’s consciousness in the past decade, while Trevena has perhaps not. The difference wasn’t huge, but it was there. The reason for this? I don’t think it has much to do with soil or aspect, as there is not much to obviously pick between the two in that regard. However, they are owned and managed by different vignerons, and looking at the respective vineyards it is quite obvious that Braemore is a site that receives a lot more love and care than Trevena at present. If Trevena can receive a bit more attention in the next decade there would appear no reason it can't come to be considered one of the Hunter's top semillon vineyards.
And on this point, the Trevena example serves to highlight that as much as the Hunter Valley has done a great job in elevating and promoting wonderful single vineyard wines, there is still upside in plenty of the vineyards. There are older vineyards, like Trevena, that still need more work, while there are also younger vineyards that are just starting to come into their own. Chatto has recently released a 2010 Shiraz from the Tallavera vineyard, an elevated site in the Mount View area. It is his play on a Tyrrell’s 4 Acres style shiraz, has received some great reviews, and I’ve got a bottle here that I will review shortly. The key thing for me however, is that they are only 15 year old vines up at Tallavera. One would imagine that the vines are only starting to hit their straps now and that the quality of fruit produced will continue to improve with time. In the Hunter, some further vineyard care and time should give voice to an even greater number of complex, ageworthy wines than already grace wine lovers cellars.
Excitingly, for lovers of the trinity of wine, vineyards, and maps (I can’t be the only one!), there is work being done on a comprehensive Hunter Valley map, that overlays soil type, with both subregion, and vineyard. Given its history, the Hunter perhaps understands as much about its sites as any region in Australia, but there is still insight and knowledge to be gained and it will be great to see this map produced.
The above was perhaps a big picture view on Hunter vineyards, but how were things looking for this vintage? Well it’s a mixed bag. Most of the fruit I tasted in late Jan/early Feb was fantastic, and in fact Chatto made the comment that it was some of the best tasting Hunter fruit he had had. The cool summer had allowed for a long, slow ripening of flavours to develop. However, on the other side of the coin it has also been a wet vintage, and rained for much of the week that I was there. There has continued to be on and off rain since that time. The full story has of course yet to be played out, but this will be a variable vintage. Some vineyards had more or less been written off while I was there, because of the rain, including the Tallavera Shiraz, while other vineyards still had that beautiful tasting fruit hanging at the time. It will be a site and winery specific vintage. Chatto’s regular refrain was that he had to hold his nerve and be patient. There was some great tasting fruit out there, but pick too early in fear of the rain and any wine you produce will likely taste pretty green. Of course the flipside, and the fear for all winemakers, is that you might push your luck with the rain and end up having not much fruit at all.
(A wet looking Steven vineyard)
I think whites will generally be pretty good, with many sites being picked before the rain could do too much damage, and all reports are that there is some very good Semillon in the making. The reds on the other hand have been a struggle with rain coming at exactly the wrong time, which is a shame for many reasons, not least of which is that there was some beautiful Shiraz in the offing. It’s not been a complete write-off like the 2008 vintage in the Hunter for reds, and Chatto managed to pick some shiraz off Tallawanta, but plenty of vineyards have not been picked. Many Hunter winemakers are sourcing fruit from outside the Hunter to make some red wines for the vintage. Of the Hunter Shiraz that has been picked, I very much doubt that the fruit that will end up going into premium wines, and potentially the beneficiary will be some of the entry level wines.
I guess in some ways it would have been nice to have seen a vintage where the weather had been perfect, and beautiful fruit kept rolling through the door for the whole week I was there, but in some ways this was perhaps the more educational experience. A tough vintage, with tough decisions to be made in both the vineyard and the winery. For a marginal, yet great wine region like the Hunter, this however, is often the way.