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Hunter at Balmoral

I first went to the Hunter Valley in search of wine in 1961.

I was the designated chronicler for an outing of The Friends of Ye Olde Crusty Tavern, a wonderful wine cellar and restaurant established in George Street Sydney by the late great Leo Buring. It was dedicated to Bacchus from the 1930s until the mid-70s.

Hunter Valley wine This Magnificent Life
From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales
[Home and Away 24160](Mitchell Library)
The Friends undertook this outing to the Hunter Valley with enthusiasm every year. We travelled by train to Cessnock and then by coach. We realise that is really old and possibly frightening stuff for many young drinkers, but while we welcome all forms of innovation and experimentation, we believe the appreciation of good wine will always have a generous slurp of history in it.

For those interested in the back story of what’s in their glass today, please hang on.

Vine cuttings arrived with the First Fleet in 1788 and were small but regular cargo on subsequent ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope on the voyage from England. The rocky surrounds of Sydney Harbour were not the best place to grow grapes. Even the shores of the mighty Parramatta River were not hospitable. Grapes survived a bit further south on Macarthur’s farm in Camden Park, but the place where acres of rows really took hold was in the Hunter Valley, a few day’s ride to the North. We’re talking 1830s here, before the Barossa and the Yarra flexed their vines…

In the 1960s, the major players were Tyrrells, McWillliams, Lindemans, Draytons and Tullochs. We were welcomed to their wineries and were poured wines from just two grapes, Semillon and Shiraz.

In the warm sun outside his earth-floored corrugated iron shed, Hector Tulloch cooked us splendidly thick country beef steaks and poured us his three-year-old Pokolbin Dry Red. Shiraz, of course.

Could I have had a better start to wine appreciation in the land down under? The Hunter is not that far from home, and I’ve been back many times.

A little while ago, we didn’t have to travel far at all.

One of Sydney’s most loved Harbour Beaches, Balmoral, hosted Hunter Valley Uncorked on October 16th.

Behind them, the sunseekers. In front the wine lovers

In a miserably wet Spring, this single day was magnificent. Warm and dry, with no wind. The crowds flocked in. On the beach, there were sunbakers but not too many swimming as the water was still around 17 degrees. The bodies on the sand were outnumbered by the colourfully clothed folk mingling on the grass around the rotunda crossing from stall to stall with glasses in their hands. There were rows of tables set up, and picnic rugs were many.

Hunter Valley wine This Magnificent Life
Many stalls many choices

There are only so many pours you can carry in a day, so I decided to limit myself to the classics for which the Valley is justly famous, the Semillon and Shiraz. Oh, OK, an occasional Chardonnay, a variety pioneered and perfected by Tyrrells in the Valley. Save up for a Vat 47 for a special occasion.

I actually started the day with a newcomer from the Wine Selectors tent. They are the driving force behind the day’s event, and I was chatting about their involvement when this generous chap took my glass and splashed in a vibrant red.
It had that clean, slightly edgy savoury character you’d expect from a Tuscan original. ’Very Italian’, I said. ‘It’s Hunter’, he said. ‘Sangiovese.’
‘Nice work’, I said.

Wine Selectors were showcasing their Hunter selections on the day, but they offer the wines of 500 wineries, boutique and big name across the country. They have been at it 45 years and have the home delivery system well worked out. It’s well worth a look at their site. www.wineselectors.com.au

After a quick rinse with spring water, I started on the Semillons. Brokenwood, Thomas and Tulloch were outstanding. I tried the current vintage entry-level and also some of them with a few years of age on them. Yum.

Brokenwood Semillon This Magnificent Life
The other Hunter grape. The white beloved of Jancis Robinson

Jancis Robinson, the world’s leading wine writer, has described Hunter Semillon as one of Australia’s greatest gifts to the world. It starts light lemony and austere but ages for 10 or 20 years to become golden and toasty. The perfect wine with seafood, and we were in an appropriate setting.

On to the red. Sturdier stuff. But Hunter shiraz generally has nowhere near the power or heft of big Barossa or McLaren Vale champions.
More midweight on the palate but super bright redcurrant fruit when young. Deceptively gentle, it too can age for years, developing complexity and rich spiciness.

Reserve shiraz from a Hunter veteran

I enjoyed the shiraz from Briar Ridge, Hungerford Hill, Tulloch, Thomas and Brokenwood. I went back to the last two for their rarer, more expensive offerings, Sweetwater and Verona. That was worth the trip.

Hunter Valley Wine This Magnificent Life
A touch of flamenco to dance with the wines

There were food stalls. Paella. Pancake. Hunter Cheese. And a smart Hunter restaurant, Twine, was driving our nostrils mad with some of its signature dishes prepared fresh for the day.

A splendid Hunter restaurant brings its kitchen to the beach

The sun shone. The people smiled. The band played on.
Disappointed by a lousy rainy Spring, I failed to respect the sun and wandered home with a red face. No matter. It was a splendid outing.

Thomas Hunter Valley This Magnificent Life
Another beautiful shiraz from a younger champion

I’m not Australia’s oldest wine writer; Halliday edges me by a couple of years in age and much, much more in knowledge and experience. I’m certainly not Australia’s most learned or articulate wine writer, but I’m among those who’ve been at it the longest.
I’ve been shown around most of our wine districts, and I’ve been the receiver of multiple pours of generosity all over the land.

But I remember my start and will always have a strong voice for the wines of the Hunter,
As a reviewer, you have a sense of loss writing about an event at which your readers were not present.

You try to convey what you felt and hope they feel something of it too.

Hunter Valley Uncorked Balmoral This Magnificent Life
Wouldn’t be a Balmoral picnic without our friends

Hopefully, for Sydneysiders, The Hunter will come again to Balmoral next year.

In the meantime, keep your eyes on the wines of this region.
Many of the now 150 vineyards are experimenting with lesser-known grapes varieties, and that’s a good thing, but you can’t go wrong enjoying the purity of style in the unique Semillon and Shiraz of this Valley.

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Ian MacTavish

Mr MacTavish is a celebrated writer and one of Australia's more respected Wine reviewers, appearing regularly in national magazines, in print and on line. So far, he has never been heard to say 'no' to a wee dram.

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