David 28 May 2015
It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Hunter Valley. Early in my career, when I worked in Victorian and South Australian wineries, I didn't have a connect ion with the region. But even taking this into account, I couldn't help but feel the Hunter’s glory days and international recognition of the 1960s and 70s were far behind it, with many of the once famous names having gone. Today there are over 150 wineries in the Hunter, producing about 3% of the nation’s wine and while there’s no doubt there are some great producers, only a handful are keeping the Hunter flame alight. The commercial reality is that proximity to Sydney and wine tourism now drive the Hunter. Slightly pessimistic I know, so you can imagine my joy when I visited recently and found a relatively new player that really impressed me.
The Hunter’s rise to prominence goes back to James Busby, generally recognised as the father of Australian viticulture. He arrived in Sydney in 1824 and published two significant books; Treatise on the Culture of the Vine (1825) and the snappily titled A Manual of Plain Direction for Planting and Cultivating Vineyards and for Making Wine in New South Wales (1830). But his most significant contribution was a trip back to the major wine regions of France and Spain in 1831, where he collected 543 vine varieties, of which 362 made it back to NSW. These cuttings went initially to the Botanic gardens in Sydney, from where they were distributed to Busby’s brother-in-law’s property in the Hunter, as well as to John Macarthur’s property at Camden and the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, from which thousands of clippings were taken and spread throughout SA.
Prior to Busby, plantings in the Hunter were minimal and his efforts increased these to around 500 acres by 1840. As well the region’s reputation was growing. Wines from the Hunter were exhibited at the 1855 Paris Exhibition where they received praise, awards, and were even served to Napoleon III. Although as John Beeston cheekily notes in his A Concise History of Australian Wine, “history does not record what Napoleon did with them.” From 1866 to 1876 growth in the Hunter was spectacular with the area under vine rising from 860ha to 1800ha. But as is often the case, the boom didn’t last. Recession in the 1890s was followed by war, depression and more importantly a shift in drinking preferences to fortified wines, for which the Hunter was unsuited. This led to a prolonged decline so that by 1956 there were only 466 ha of vines. But the 1950s and 60s saw a move away from sweet fortifieds and toward dry table wines and by the 1960s and 70s the Hunter was flourishing. This was the Hunter’s golden age - its fame cemented with names such as: Maurice O’Shea, Lindeman’s, Leo Buring, Tulloch’s, Drayton’s, Tyrrell’s and more recently Max Lake. Amazingly it’s still the freakishly good wines from this era that have a cult following among wine nuts.
Today the Hunter grows a range of varieties but its fame lies in Semillon and Shiraz. Hunter Semillon, often referred to pre-1980s as Hunter River Riesling, is regarded as one of the great white wines of the world. Low in alcohol, unoaked and dry - this wine is fresh, tangy and citrussy when young. In many cases though it ages 20+ years, evolving into something soft and rich, with burnt toast and honey characters. Hunter Shiraz is also unique. The Oxford Companion to Wine describes them as “extremely distinctive, moderately tannic and long lived wines with earth and tar overtone, sometimes described as having the aroma of a sweaty saddle after a hard day’s ride. At 20-30 years of age the best acquire a silky sheen eerily close to wines of a similar age from the Rhône Valley.” You can see why in years gone by Hunter Shiraz was often referred to as Hunter River Burgundy.
The producer that piqued my interest in the Hunter this time is De Iuliis Wines (pronounced de yooly-iss). Joss De Iuliis migrated as a child from Italy in 1960 and in later years built a successful engineering business in the Hunter, which he sold in 2003. But he still held dear the winemaking traditions and vineyards his family had owned for generations in the Abruzzi region of central Italy. In 1988 Joss and wife Anna bought a property in the Lovedale Road region, in the heart of Pokolbin. About 40 acres of vines were planted in 1990, with most of the fruit being sold to Tyrrells.
Things were about to change though. Joss and Anna’s son Michael, completed postgraduate studies in oenology at the Roseworthy Campus of Adelaide University in 1999. He went on to be a Len Evans Tutorial Scholar (2004) as well as a Finalist in the Young Winemaker of the Year Awards (The Wine Society, 2005). He was also one of 8 Nominees for the 2013 Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year. As James Halliday said of Mike “He has lifted the quality of the wines into the highest echelon.”
The family were now winemakers as well as grape growers. They built a new state-of-the-art winery in 2001 and continued to plant new vineyards as well as acquire established ones. These days the family has about 80 acres of their own vineyards and source additional fruit from a handful of carefully selected growers. They handle about 150 tonnes of grapes, making them a small to medium sized winery by Hunter standards. In comparison, Tyrrells does close to 3,000 tonnes and Margan does between 600-700 tonnes.
De Iuliis is considered one of the Hunter’s top producers, with James Halliday’s Australian Companion to Wine rating the winery 5 stars every year since 2010. At the Hunter Wine Show last year, De Iuliis won a swag of awards including 3 Trophies and 5 gold medals. They make a range of wines, both red and white, but at this time of year I feel like a red. So here are two to hit the spot.
1. De Iuliis Shiraz 2013
The fruit for this wine is sourced from 4 different Hunter vineyards. It was fermented using cultured yeasts in small closed fermenters and spent an average of about 12 months in a mixture of small and large oak barrels.
This is a delicious modern Hunter Shiraz, bursting with clean, fresh fruit. It’s a deep purpley-red with loads of yummy sweet berry flavours. But it’s more than just fruit. As the wine opens up you’ll find beautifully balanced savouriness and spice as well as a subtle chocolatey finish. Walking the line between generous and lean, this is medium-bodied Hunter structure with smooth and delicate tannins.
“Excellent colour; a wine that is comfortable in its skin, effortlessly demonstrating what Hunter Valley shiraz is all about: plum, blackberry, fresh earth, polished leather and soft tannins all encompassed in a medium-bodied, perfectly balanced framework, great now or in 20 years time.” 94 points, James Halliday.
A great score from Halliday, particularly given the price, although I’m not sure about keeping it for 20 years - I’d give it up to 10.
95 points, NSW Wine Awards 2014.
Easy drinking, especially at this price.
I can offer it for $23 a bottle. OUT OF STOCK.
2. De Iuliis Steven Vineyard Shiraz 2013
This is what Hunter Shiraz is all about. Its fruit comes from the historic Steven vineyard, an iconic 30 acres planted in 1968 by Lindemans in the heart of Pokolbin. This vineyard was a source for the glorious Lindeman ‘Bin’ wines in the 70s, 80s and 90s, many of which were made by legendary winemaker Karl Stockhausen. De Iuliis had leased the vineyard from 2009 and in 2013 bought it from owners Bill and Imelda Roche.
It’s important not to confuse the Steven vineyard with the Stevens vineyard - another famous Hunter plot, still owned by the Stevens family. Fruit from Stevens also went to Lindemans for many years, but since the early 90s Tyrrells has been the recipient.
Back to Steven (without an s)… 2013 was an early vintage, with several sweeps made through the vineyard to ensure an optimal pick. The ferment was started with natural yeast, which Mike supplemented with cultured yeasts to ensure its safe progression in open fermenters. Aged in a mixture of old and new barrels for about 12 months, the wine underwent very light fining and filtering.
Mike told me that, when picked, the fruit had a real lightness to it and this is evident in the finished wine. It’s medium-bodied and elegant but still vibrant. Some medium-bodied reds lack mid-palate fruit - not the case here. It’s refined, intense and beautifully balanced. And at 12.5% alcohol, lower than many Barossa brutes - just one of the reasons I like this wine.
“Raspberries, light earth, spice and gentle creamy fondant oak - some liquorice emerges with a bit of air. Light to medium bodied and all just so - clean red fruit with a little boysenberry perkiness - true Hunter Burgundy style with silky tannin, bright pippy acidity, purity and excellent minerally length. You can almost guarantee this will be superb in about ten years time.” 94+ Points, Wine Front.
This is definitely a nod to the classic Hunter River Burgundy of years gone by. It’s a style the Hunter does best and a good argument for leaving the bigger reds to regions better suited.
, Hunter Valley Wine Show 2014.
97 points , James Halliday, Top 100 wines of 2014. What a bargain.
I can offer it for $36 a bottle. SOLD OUT.