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A couple of hours' drive north of Sydney lies the town of Cessnock. This is the gateway to the oldest commercial wine region in Australia: the Hunter Valley. The first vines were planted here in 1823, and when James Busby returned with cuttings from Europe in the 1830s, he helped to establish the Hunter Valley as a major Australian wine region.
The region lies in the foothills of the Brokenback Range (part of the Great Dividing Range), and is divided into three official sub-regions: Pokolbin, Broke Fordwich and the Upper Hunter. While the Lower Hunter is not an officially recognised sub-region, it is often used to describe the areas of Mount View, Cessnock, Lovedale and their surrounds.
Thanks to its proximity to both Sydney and Newcastle, the Hunter Valley is at the forefront of wine tourism in Australia. Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors from Australia and overseas flock to the region to enjoy the multitude of cellar doors, outdoor concerts and quality local produce.
With its historic vines, unique terroir and innovative and progressive winemakers, the Hunter Valley is one of the most highly regarded wine regions in the country.
At first glance, the Hunter Valley does not seem particularly suited to the production of premium wines. It has a warm, subtropical climate, with high levels of humidity, and low diurnal temperature variation. It is also quite a low-lying region, with vineyards planted on very slight gradients or flat areas. On paper, these factors should prohibit the growth and production of quality fruit. And yet, the wines produced here are some of the most iconic and sought after in Australia and the world.
There are couple of vital climatic factors that allow the Hunter Valley to produce these exceptional wines. Firstly, there is a moderating influence from the coast, bringing cooling sea breezes which provide respite from the baking sun, as well as circulating the air, thus helping to avoid rot and mildew which can be a very real problem in humid areas. Secondly, the nearby Brokenback Ranges act as a natural reservoir for cloud cover, trapping it over the region and thereby providing protection from the sun and heat.
The soils throughout the Hunter Valley region vary greatly with soils in the Lower Hunter, Pokolbin and Broke areas ranging from sandy alluvial flats to deep loam and friable red duplex soils, while in the Upper Hunter the rivers and creeks contribute to the area’s black, silty loam soils often overlaid on top of alkaline clay loam. There are also strips of volcanic basalt in the Brokenback hills that are prized by growers for their tendencies to restrict vigor and concentrate mineral flavours in the grapes.
The Hunter is an area that is hard to generalise about, with the range of soils, microclimates and topography all creating a diverse and varied region, which gives rise to some exceptional wine.
The undisputed star of the Hunter Valley is Semillon. In other regions around the world, Semillon produces fairly neutral whites, that are prone to low acidity and flabbiness. But in the Hunter, this variety miraculously comes alive. In its youth, Hunter Semillon has crisp, fresh citrus flavours, and distinctive minerality. But over time they develop honeyed, nutty, toasty notes, akin to an oak-aged Chardonnay. The enigma of Hunter Semillon is how growers can achieve such incredible depth and concentration in the fruit, whilst maintaining such low sugar (and resulting alcohol levels). Jancis Robinson MW has been quoted as saying that "Hunter Valley Semillon is Australia's unique gift to the wine world." High praise indeed!
Following closely on the heels of Semillon are Shiraz and Chardonnay. These two varieties make up the triumvirate of Hunter Valley stalwarts that have helped to elevate the region to such heights. Hunter Shiraz displays a much earthier, more savoury tone than its South Australian counterparts, and the top examples can cellar well into the long-term. Similarly, Chardonnay from the Hunter Valley region is often made in a fuller-bodied, richer style, with barrel fermentation and maturation a common occurrence. These wines, too, have great potential for ageing under good cellar conditions.
Other alternative varieties have begun to emerge in the Hunter Valley, with grapes such as Verdelho, Chambourcin, Gewurztraminer and Tempranillo being planted to great success.
Krinklewood, Mount Pleasant, Brokenwood, Lake's Folly, Margan Wines, Andrew Thomas Wines, Scarborough Wine Co., Tyrrell's Wines, Usher Tinkler Wines, De Iuliis, Harkham Estate, Glenguin Estate, Meerea Park, Vinden Estate, MJ Becker Wines, Hart and Hunter, Gundog Estate