Hunter Valley Semillon
The Hunter Valley is recognised as the world leader in the production of dry white wines made from Semillon. Nowhere else on the globe do they craft a style even close to the Hunters’ traditional low-alcohol age worthy Semillon. Hunter Semillon is widely regarded as Australia’s unique white wine – a style unlike all others, based on unique climatic conditions, Australian ingenuity and more than 150 years of practise. As with most other varieties that came to call the Hunter their home, Semillon came to the region courtesy of the original Busby Collection, planted in the Sydney Botanical Gardens in 1832 by Australia’s original wine pioneer James Busby.
The first viticulturist to exploit the variety in the valley was thought to be James King of ‘Irrawang’ near Raymond Terrace, who made some early vintages of such promise that one of his wines was selected to be placed on the table in front of Louis Napoleon at the Paris Exhibition in 1855.
The link between Semillon’s arrival in Busby’s collection and its subsequent propagation in the Hunter Valley is possibly provided by Thomas Shepherd, a nurseryman and owner of Darling Nursery. Shepherd was a member of the committee which supervised the planting of the Busby Collection in the Sydney Botanical Gardens in 1832 and may well have obtained cuttings from the Botanic Gardens specimen at that time and subsequently propagated them. Henceforth, the variety though almost correctly named by Busby in his journal as Semillon became known as Shepherds Riesling and later still quite recently (1970s) as Hunter Valley Riesling. Today the variety goes by its proper nomenclature of Semillon although the pronunciation is always good for an argument in the region.
Hunter Valley Semillons are traditionally picked in the early part of the vintage with a sugar level of between 10 & 12 degrees baume. The wine is invariably fermented without the use of any oak and the finished wine is one of relatively low alcohol. Semillon, while young is delightfully fresh and crisp with zesty citrus characters, however the magic of Hunter Semillon is only truly realised with age. This remarkable wine can mature and blossom for two decades and beyond and many people believe the wines are at their best around 8-10 years after vintage.
Hunter Valley Shiraz
Shiraz (Syrah) in New South Wales pre-dates the Busby Collection by two years with the first recorded arrival of the variety in 1830 brought to Australia by Dr Dutton on the Lady Blackwood. What happened to Dr Dutton’s imported red variety is not recorded. Perhaps the few vines imported died – who knows? However, Busby made certain that both ‘Hermitage’ and ‘Ciras…Seyras’ (several of the variety’s known synonyms at the time) came back to NSW in 1832, when the Collection arrived.
The variety was collected twice by Busby; firstly in Roussillon (Kanguedoc), where it had been planted from cuttings ‘from the celebrated vineyards of Hermitage, on the banks of the Rhone’. The second cuttings came directly from the township of Tain, adjacent to Hermitage on the Rhone.
Busby of course saw to it that a duplicate of his collection reached his property ‘Kirkton’ in the Hunter Valley under the management of his brother-in-law William Kelman, and it is from there in the 1830s that most of the Shiraz (Hermitage) in the valley was sourced.
By 1848 the quality of Hunter Valley Hermitage was well established. And there in the Maitland Mercury of the time an account of a famous tasting where a bottle of the 1843 Hermitage from the Brandon vineyard was actually preferred by at least one of the tasters to a Chamberlin from Burgundy.
From here of course and from the Botanical Gardens vines in Sydney, Shiraz also spread in the late 1830s to the rest of Australia.
Hunter Valley Shiraz (known as Hermitage or Burgundy until the late 1970s) has established itself as one of Australia’s great red wine styles.
Hunter Shiraz wines made in the 1940s and 50s by the legendary Maurice O-Shea at McWilliams and Hector Tulloch at Tulloch are still drinking well at the turn of the 21st century.
According to Australia’s pre-eminent wine writer Huon Hooke, tasting some of these old Hunter reds in 2005, ‘was a reminder of what great ageing wines Hunter Shiraz’s can be’.
Hunter Valley Chardonnay
Now, in the early years of the 21st century, Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white grape variety and the most widely planted white grape variety in Australia. Busby brought Chardonnay to Australia from cuttings acquired in Clos Vougeot, Burgundy. In Busby’s journals it is written “the following two varieties (Pinot Noir is the other variety mentioned) are vines of Burgundy from Clos Vougeot. Chaudeny White is the only variety of white grape cultivated in the best vineyards”
What happened then to Chauden(a)y for the next 140 years? Well if it didn’t disappear, it certainly made little impression as a white varietal in the Hunter. It was not until the 1960s that it re-appeared in the Hunter Valley as White Pineau in the Penfold’s HVD vineyards (next to Tyrrell’s), where Murray Tyrrell famously jumped the fence a few years later and borrowed some of the pruning’s from propagation. These were to become the Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay wines of the early 1970s and most believe these wines were the first varietally labelled chardonnays in Australia.
From those origins the story of modern Australian Chardonnay really begins. These days, Chardonnay in the Hunter is a white variety of great importance with several producers making some of Australia’s finest styles.
Hunter Valley Verdelho
The one certainty about this grape is that it was not introduced by James Busby, but by the Australian Agricultural Company in 1825. It was later cultivated quite successfully by Sir William Macarther (son of John) at Camden, but was also introduced to the Hunter Valley quite early on.
Indeed, it may have been imported into NSW before 1825, as many ships bound for Botany Bay called either at Lisbon or the island of Madeira in Portugal to replenish water and supplies and Madeira was flourishing as a wine island from the late 18th century onwards.
Verdelho is a grape variety used to make the famous wines of Madeira. Busby himself notes that the variety was used by Mr George Townsend and Mr Park of Williams River by 1830. From the mid 1830s it was quite likely Verdelho was being cultivated by several vignerons in the Hunter Valley and was one of the original varieties planted by Dr Lindeman at Cawarra on the Paterson River in 1843.
Due to its natural ability to withstand heat and the occasional bit of rain, Verdelho has become a natural partner to the Hunter and its wines are growing in importance in the Valley. Hunter Verdelho is a naturally full-bodied, fruit driven style of wine that is becoming increasingly popular with Australian wine lovers.