Louise Goldsbury raises her glass to the pioneering wineries of Australia's oldest continuous wine region, the Hunter Valley.
For the pioneers of the Hunter Valley, 2021 is just another year of challenges to crush, like a big tank of juicy grapes.
"We've seen it all before," says Christina Tulloch, CEO of Tulloch Wines, and it helps to be able to apply the learnings of 126 years of experience.
"When COVID-19 struck and we went into lockdown, I looked back at the history of Tulloch and realised it had survived world wars, depressions and even pandemics in the past. It helped me realise this was just another moment in time that the next generation of Tulloch would look back on and draw inspiration from to keep going."
The region's wineries have since bounced back from "the horrible year that was 2020", according to Ms Tulloch, who is also president of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association.
"Not only did the bushfires stop people visiting in our peak period, but they also played havoc with vineyards as so much of our crops were lost to smoke taint. We were very lucky that we didn't have any loss of physical assets, but up to 80 per cent of fruit wasn't picked in 2020, which is an incredibly difficult reality to face as a producer. We had already suffered severe drought, then the fires came, followed by the smoke-taint issues, and just when we thought we were at the bottom, COVID-19 arrived. The way our community has pulled together to help each other and get through the last 18 months makes me incredibly proud."
It's a story of resilience that can be told by many of the multigenerational wineries that have stood the test of time in Australia.
"This has a lot to do with the nature of our industry," says Ms Tulloch. "It is essentially agriculture, so you have to play the long game and work through the cycles that Mother Nature throws at you. Much of the success of a wine brand has to do with their story, enduring legacy and resilience. It's a tough business, so families that have it in their blood - and the passion to see a tradition endure - are the successful ones."
Another longstanding icon of the valley, Tyrrell's, has been family-owned since 1858. Tyrrell's owns seven of the 11 century-old vineyard blocks in the region, planted by early settlers in the 1820s, including the Hunter's oldest shiraz. Arguably its greatest asset is its hallowed Short Flat Vineyard, which produces Australia's most-awarded white wine, Vat 1 Semillon.
The winery embraces its heritage and unapologetically resists modern expansion. The original iron bark hut, where founder Edward Tyrrell lived, is still standing on the property at Pokolbin. The old oak vats and red cellar remain in operation, and tour buses or large groups are not permitted. The staff are friendly, with only eight visitors tasting in the cellar door at a time.
Tyrrell's is the first stop on our itinerary, arranged by Ultimate Winery Experiences. A basic tasting costs $10 per person, but we opt for the VIP Premium Tasting Experience, at $75 each, with a behind-the-scenes tour.
Scott Richardson, who has been part of the Tyrrell's team since 1988, leads us around the vines and the old homestead to a private room. His humour is as dry and sparkling as the Chardonnay Pinot Noir Brut that he pours at 11am on a Monday morning, before our official journey from current vintages to museum wines.
An entertaining hour is spent sampling the Single Vineyard and Winemaker's Selection ranges, selected from the family's cellar. Rather than taking it too seriously, Mr Richardson makes it fun and informal.
"Some people come here expecting a religious experience, to be transported, but it's just wine," he reminds us.
Next stop is the Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard for a picnic lunch overlooking the Broken Back Range. After a masterclass with an in-house wine expert, we choose our favourite bottle (the 2018 Malbec) and collect a hamper full of cheese, crackers, cured meats and olives. A rug is also provided to sprawl on the hilltop with spectacular views. Priced at $80 per person, including the wine, it's excellent value for an indulgent afternoon.
As showcased in the onsite museum, the winery's namesake Audrey Wilkinson planted the first vines in Pokolbin in 1866.
"The majority of our vines are 60 years old," says chief winemaker Xanthe Hatcher.
"The older the grapevine, the better-quality fruit you will get from it and with that the better-quality wine you will make."
Recent rainfall has created a very healthy start to the 2021 vintage, while the finishing touches are being made to last year's wines. Ms Hatcher's top picks from 2020 are the rosé and the gewrztraminer. Also ready for bottling are the 2019 Winemakers Selection Shiraz and 2019 Lake Shiraz.
"These are two wines that show just how good the 2019 vintage was," she says.
A later legend of the valley, Brokenwood Wines is famous for its Cricket Pitch range, Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz and ILR Reserve Semillon. The impressive cellar door has been revamped with an outdoor terrace, museum, casual dining venues and distinctive circular pods for a more comfortable seated tasting. A modern touch in Cru Bar + Pantry is a self-service dispenser that serves rare wines not available to sample elsewhere.
Recommended for foodies, the two-hour Brokenwood Journey offers an exclusive tasting of three whites and three reds, matched with delicious, delicate canapés. This is a sophisticated affair, with wines pre-poured into six appropriately shaped Riedel glasses at a set table in an air-conditioned space overlooking the barrel room. Our host with the most (wine), Roger, is full of knowledge and jokes in equal measure.
After the session, he suggests we bring an empty glass along for a tour covering Brokenwood's history and the process of winemaking, as it ends with a tasting of a pre-release shiraz straight from the barrel. Then we reconvene in the private room for a final drop of tawny to sweetly send us on our way.
The Brokenwood Journey costs $110 per person. From Monday to Thursday, a mid-week special deal of 'two for the price of one' is valid until 31 March 2021. Bookings are essential.
The local pioneer of accommodation is the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley. Home of the region's first conference centre, the only supervised kids club and the first hotel group in Australia to install Tesla car chargers, the resort is set to be fully powered by a solar farm, built next door.
The 41-hectare site also has a new water park for children (under construction in February), an adults-only pool, a teen lounge and games room, 18-hole golf course, large pub, restaurant, brewery and distillery, and the Ubika Spa. The best place to stay is the recently renovated villas or in a king room with private courtyard access to the new 25-metre Haven Pool. A complimentary night is added to every three nights booked before 30 April 2021.
Constantly innovating, trying new things and adding value, this creative community and rich history offers much more than drinking.
As Christina Tulloch says: "Our guests don't just get to try the great wines of the Hunter and how they are evolving, they get to experience a real piece of history and all the great stories and tales that come along with it."
Drive: From Newcastle, the Hunter Valley is a 50-minute drive. From Canberra, it is 4.5 hours straight up the motorways.
Stay: A king room at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley starts from $180.
Tours: To book tastings or a bespoke itinerary, see Ultimate Winery Experiences at ultimatewineryexperiences.com.au
Explore more: winecountry.com.au
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