The Hunter Valley; Part 1

Dear readers, it is with a heavy heart that I announce that these next 2 Friday Focus pieces will be my final ones. After nearly 5 years with Wine Ark, I will be riding off into the sunset; however I have been assured that the Friday piece will still be around, so never fear! I wanted to take this opportunity to sincerely thank you all for letting me into your inbox every Friday afternoon, and for the huge amount of positive feedback I receive almost every week. It makes climbing this mountain (also known as the Masters of Wine exam) that little bit easier.

So in reference to this, I thought this week I would take it all back to the beginning- to the first wine region I ever visited as a gangly and clueless teenager; the Hunter Valley. Being a complex and historically-rich region, it will take me 2 weeks to cover, so this week I’ll get into the history, geography and climate of the region. Next week I’ll cover the unique grape varieties and styles of wine made here, as well as what makes its wines globally recognisable and relevant as well as look to the future of the region.

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As most of you would already know, the ‘Hunna’ as it is colloquially named is located due west of Newcastle, and about 175km north of central Sydney. The Hunter was the first established wine region in Australia, with vines first planted here in the mid-1830s by the Grandfather of the Australian wine industry, James Busby. Busby was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland, where his father managed farms. Busby had it in his head that wine could be made in ‘the colonies’ and went about studying winemaking and viticulture in France before moving to Australia. While on the five month boat trip, he wrote his first book; Treatise on the Culture of the Vine, though this was criticised as being overly technical. In 1824, Busby was given a land grant of 800 hectares here in the Hunter and on a 4 month tour of Europe in 1831 collected 680 vine cuttings, which he had shipped back to Sydney. Some were sent to his farm in the Hunter, some planted in the Sydney Botanic Gardens and some to the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. These cuttings, harvested before the arrival of Phylloxera to Europe, formed the base of Australia’s wine industry, and the oldest vines on the planet today, such as Turkey Flat’s Ancestor Shiraz vines, now 171 years old, trace their lineage back to these original cuttings. Some clones of varieties such as Chardonnay and Shiraz grown in Australian vineyards today, long since extinct in the Old World thanks to Phylloxera, are direct descendants of Busby’s imports.

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Busby was a great believer in the inherently healthy attributes of wine, especially when compared to the most common drink at his time, harsh whisky or rum. His love of wine and his books on the vine inspired subsequent generations, both locals and new arrivals from the Old World to take up the torch and try their hands at making wine in these colonies. One of his most famous quotes is one I hold as one of the truest reflections of life;

‘The man who could sit under the shade of his own vine, with his wife and children about him, and the ripe clusters hanging within their reach, in such a climate as this, and not feel the highest enjoyment, is incapable of happiness and does not know what the word means.’

The Hunter Valley is one of the most northern wine regions in New South Wales, and is further north than any region in South Australia, which translates to it being fairly warm here. Added to this is the relatively low altitude of the region, which can add to the warmth. High altitudes are what can usually offset the warmth in wine regions closer to the Equator such as Mendoza in Argentina or the Golan Heights in Israel, but here in the Hunter, the vines just have to deal with it, and often swelter through 40+ degree days and high levels of humidity which encourages sunburn, vine shutdown and fungal diseases. The biggest danger for the winemaker however (although excessive heat and humidity are not great) is the rain. Due to the unique location and the building of daily high pressure systems in the summer, big storms with torrential rainfall can hit right when the grapes reach maturity. This is disastrous for the quality of the grapes, and is often the major deciding factor of the quality of a vintage in this region. If heavy rain hits at harvest time, humidity increases further and disease grows almost overnight on the wet, sugar-filled berries. This drenching can also seriously water down the grapes if not a lot of water has fallen beforehand- the vines suck up as much water as they can hold, and much of this goes straight to the berries, increasing yield, but diluting flavour, colour and palate weight. Described as a ‘climactic witches’ brew’ by James Halliday, many believe that if vines had not already been planted here for nearly 2 centuries and we had to start again today, the Hunter Valley would not even be considered as fit for viticulture.

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We’re glad it was though, because it became the crucible of modern Australian viticulture, which might have followed a very different path without direct access to Australia’s first and largest city. Today it is at the forefront of research into managing disease in vineyards and dealing with excess heat, both topics becoming more and more relevant every year. Experimentation and adaptation have always been the Hunter’s trump card and today this region grows an incredible diversity of grape varieties of all styles and flavours. Tune in next week for my final Friday Focus to learn more about the varieties that made the Hunter an international touchstone as well as a look into the future of this diverse Australian region.

Mark Faber
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles