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Saturday 20 September 2014

How Hunter shiraz lost its way - and then rediscovered its mojo

Hunter Valley shiraz is a unique style of red wine that has long been an Australian benchmark. It is savoury and medium-bodied with sensible alcohol levels.

But is is not so long ago that Hunter shiraz lost its way; many of the wines were overblown and faulty.

Talking to three of the Hunter's style gurus this week; Andrew Thomas, Mike de Iuliis and Gwyn Olsen (who were in Melbourne to show off some of the trophy winners from the 40th Hunter Valley Wine Show),I was surprised at how readily they recognised the errors of the past.

Today's winemakers are not shy about blaming their predecessors and re-iterated what they said to me for a recent print article.

“The Hunter has only itself to blame for our shiraz not enjoying more popularity,” says outspoken Andrew Thomas from Thomas Wines (pictured below).

This is because the ‘old fashioned’ style of Hunter shiraz (sweaty saddle/barnyard characters etc.) was not actually a regional character, but a result of sloppy wine making in the past (read brettanomyces).

“The good news is that in recent years the Hunter has taken a focused, collaborative regional approach to eliminating this problem in our reds, and today we are producing wines with much more fruit purity and vibrancy, and those ‘faulty’ wines are definitely a thing of the past.

“Unfortunately, those who have not revisited Hunter shiraz in recent years may still have an old-fashioned perception of what our wines are like, but in my experience, the younger ‘new generation’ of wine drinkers (who have probably never been exposed to the older styles) are loving what they are seeing.

“Certainly, the younger generation of buyers in the retail and restaurant trade are lapping it up and it could be argued that new age Hunter shiraz is sexy again.”

De Iuliis (below) agrees, saying: “I think Hunter wineries/winemakers can take a bit of the blame for what happened in the past. I really think we took our eye off the ball here. We probably spent too much time trying to chase what we thought consumers wanted, rather than sticking to our guns and making wines in the true Hunter style. Too much time was spent chasing alcohol, oak and time in wood, producing lacklustre wines that were porty/oxidised and microbial.”

So just how OTT were some of those older Hunter shirazes?

Leading British wine critic Jancis Robinson once wrote: “The wines were so strapping, and often so lacking in focus, that they inspired that memorable tasting term 'sweaty saddle'. But there are still bottles hidden in ancient cellars attesting to the staying power of the wines that were then called Hunter 'Hermitage'.”

De Iuliis believes vintage differences may count against Hunter shiraz in a marketplace where so many wines are made to a formula and do not change from year to year.

“While knowledgeable wine consumers view this is a great strength, to be able to clearly see the effect of vineyard and vintage in a wine, to Joe Punter it can be confusing,” de Iuliis says.

“They want to know exactly what they are going to get every time they pick up a bottle off the shelf – what vintage it’s from or which vineyard is the least of their concerns. I think that there is still a sense of 'bigger is better' in the consumers' eyes, but this is slowly changing.”

So if Hunter shiraz is a thinking man's tipple, how to get that message across?

“The great opportunity for Hunter shiraz is that the consumer market is moving away from the big blockbuster reds and looking for wines with more finesse,” says Andrew Margan from Margan Wines (below).
To drink wines with less tannins and more acidity, like in pinot noir, is a market trend and the Hunter Valley personifies this style of wine.

“We need to get Hunter wine back into people’s minds, and mouths, and make them realise medium-bodied wine is not a bad thing.”

Thomas believes that a move away from big, alcoholic wines – as promoted by influential American wine critic Robert Parker – gives Hunter producers a chance to once again stake their claim as trend setters.

“Fortunately most consumers have now realised that those Aussie fruit bomb wines are not all they’re cracked up to be, are now looking for wines with more style and structure, and actively seeking out more medium-bodied wines,” Thomas says.

“The Hunter Valley has certainly been a beneficiary of this change in consumer preference.
Personally, I feel it’s a very exciting period to be a Hunter shiraz producer, and the wines we are producing (as a region) have never been better.

"There is a renewed focus within the region to bottle wines from distinguished individual vineyard sites using an attention to detail, yet minimum interventionist approach. Our wines still display that uniquely regional medium-bodied, savoury structure, but with an amazing fruit-driven vibrancy and varietal purity.

“It’s true we do occasionally experience some challenging seasons with our weather, but when we get it right (which is certainly more often than not) our shiraz is absolutely world class.”

“The uniqueness of Hunter shiraz is its, savoury, subtle and textural qualities," says de Iuliis, who has just released a spectacular 2013 Shiraz Touriga blend that may also signal a future diversion for this long-established style.

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