The macro-climate of a wine region governs whether it is capable of producing ripe wine grapes at all, while the subtle characteristics of a much smaller area – a particular vineyard for example – may determine the sort of wine that can be produced from it. These characteristics include the climate, its soils, the lie of the land, and the effects of each of these elements have on each other. In France this is known as ‘terroir”
The most widely planted grape varieties in the Hunter Valley, in descending order, are Chardonnay, Semillon and Verdelho among the whites and Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot among the reds. Prior to the late 1960s, there was very little Chardonnay found in Australia. In the Hunter Valley Penfolds has a small experimental planting. According to Murray Tyrrell of Tyrrell Vineyards, one night he jumped the barb wire fence of Penfolds and pruned a couple cuttings from Penfolds’ vine and planted them in his vineyard. Whether or not that story is true is hard to prove but what is well known is that Tyrrell’s 1971 Vat 47 Chardonnay is widely credited with ushering in the Australian Chardonnay craze of the late 20th century. Today in the Upper Hunter Valley, Chardonnay account for more than 70% of the areas planted and is sometimes blended with Semillon. Hunter Valley Chardonnay is characterised but it rich, oaky flavors with peaches and cream notes.
James Busby’s collection is the likely origin of Hunter Valley Shiraz and today the Hunter Valley is home to some of the oldest own rooted Shiraz vine in the world with some vineyards boasting vines that are in excess of 120 years of age. Hunter Valley Shiraz is characterised but its astringent, gamy noted but has a tendency to develop in the bottle over 20 to 30 years into a silky, texture earthy wine with notes reminiscent of a Rhone. Traditionally Hunter Shiraz has carried the descriptor of “sweaty saddle”. While this was once thought to be a terroir characteristic of the areas volcanic soils, it is now known to be caused by ethyl-4-phenol that comes from the exposure of the wine to certain strains of yeast in the Brettanomyces family.
While there were likely some plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in the 19th century, Hunter Valley Cabernet seemed to vanish at the turn of the 20th century and didn’t regain a footing in the Hunter until Max Lake reintroduced the variety along with the other Bordeaux varietals of Petite Verdot and Malbec in 1963. Today, Hunter Valley Cabernet exhibits more the regional traits of a Hunter Shiraz than it does with the varietal expression of Cabernet exhibited in Bordeaux and California. It tends to be very earthy and is usually cross blended with wine from regions outside the Hunter.
Maurice O’Shea of Mountain View pioneered planting of Pinot noir which he used to blend with Shiraz. The Pinot noir grown in the warm Region IV climate of the Hunter exhibits very little varietal similarities with the Pinot noirs of Burgundy and Oregon where it tends to produce a low acid, fruity wine. While an obscure grape mostly associated with the fortified wines of Madeira, Verdelho has developed a bit of a niche in the Hunter Valley where its thick skin and high acids tolerate the humidity and heat.