The Hunter Valley is Australia’s oldest wine region and is defined by its rich historical tapestry. Famous Australian wine names like Len Evans, Audrey Wilkinson, Maurice O’Shea, Murray Tyrrell, and famous wine families like Drayton, Tulloch and McWilliams are all borne of the Hunter Valley and its winemaking traditions.
In a rugged and unforgiving environment, these pioneers helped lay a foundation of hard work and determination that would come to form bedrock of the Australian wine community’s success. Today, this legacy is continued by many familiar names complimented by a new generation of innovative young winemakers
‘When our connoisseurs sip, taste and purchase, there will no longer be any doubt that NSW can produce a wine of superior quality… the days are fast approaching when a few indefatigable wine growers… will reap their reward in having the honour of pioneering their adopted country as one of the great wine producing countries of the world…’
Dr Henry Lindeman
James Busby – The father of Australian viticulture?
James Busby was vital in helping establish the Hunter Valley as a key wine region, which in turn was vital in establishing Australia as a grape growing country. He arrived in Australia in 1824 as a young man, travelling with his parents having completed studies in viticulture in France.
Soon after his arrival, Busby was appointed as a teacher of viticulture at a male orphan school not far from Sydney. While he lost this position when the school came under the control of the Church and School Corporation, Busby’s passion for the vine could not be dismissed as easily as he was. In 1825 his first book on grape growing and winemaking was published, A Treatise on the Culture of the Vine and the Art of Making Wine, but this was just a prelude to what we be his lasting gift to Australian wine.
In 1831, Busby spent four months’ traveling the wine regions of France and Spain. He visited many classic regions, collecting cuttings from vineyards along the way. Upon his return to Australia in 1832 he distributed over 20,000 of these to fifty or so vignerons in the nascent Hunter Valley area.
Plantings from these cuttings eventually made their way to other parts of Australia including the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, and the Yarra Valley. Many of Australia’s precious old vines can trace their history to the Busby collection. A priceless legacy that continues to contribute to Australian wine’s world class reputation to this day.
Lindeman, Wyndham and a man called Audrey – Three proud vignerons
Now that they had an exceptional selection of vine cuttings, it was time for the vignerons of the Hunter Valley to make something with them. The first to do so was George Wyndham who migrated from Wiltshire, England to Australia and planted vines in the Pokolbin sub region in 1828.
Despite initial struggles and an abandonment of the vineyards at Dalwood in the 1840s, Wyndham eventually made a success of his winemaking venture. When he passed in 1870 George owned one of the largest vineyards in New South Wales and his wine’s renown had spread across Australia and its colonies.
Dr. Henry Lindeman, another Hunter Valley innovator, emigrated to Australia in 1840. Before long he had set up as a G.P. in the region and planted vines on his ‘Cawarra’ property in 1843. Despite trials and tribulations - including an arson attack on his cellar and wine stocks - by 1850 Lindeman had earned a reputation for wines of exceptional quality.
While his wines were an inspiration to the region’s early vignerons, his real legacy was both his work in promoting the fledgling wine industry as President of the local vineyard association and his love for the varieties that would become the region’s signature vines. Lindeman’s work with Verdelho, Semillon and Shiraz provided an inspirational beacon for others to follow. Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine the region without these three varieties and much of the thanks for that must go to Henry Lindeman.
The name Audrey Wilkinson lives on today through the historic vineyard, winery and stunning cellar door run by the Agnew family. Audrey lived through the first ‘boom’ of the Hunter Valley, one that saw significant people like Drayton, Tulloch and O’Shea plant vineyards that would enjoy world renowned in later years.
As well as being an important part of the early days of the Hunter Valley, Audrey also lived through the ups and downs of this evolving wine region. And through times of both boom and bust, Audrey’s reputation for producing exceptional wines through the use of innovative technology and winemaking methods continued to grow. After living a full and rewarding life Audrey passed at the age of 85 in 1962, just as the Hunter Valley was about to undergo a renaissance that would cement its place as one of the world’s greatest wine regions. None of this would be possible without pioneers like George Wyndham, Dr. Henry Lindeman and Audrey Wilkinson.
Maurice O’Shea – The father of modern Australian winemaking
Maurice O’Shea made thrilling table wines at a time when the vast majority of wine produced and consumed in Australia was fortified. He was a visionary; one who used varietal labelling for his wines along with the names of friends and relatives while others were stuck to pedestrian vat numbers and letters.
In the early 1900s the Hunter Valley was not the center of fine wine and fine dining that it is now, rather it was a harsh and lonely place. The site of the Mount Pleasant vineyard was planted with vines by English migrant Charles King in 1880, a person blessed with the unintentional foresight to plant vines on what would become one of Australia’s most revered sites. Maurice O’Shea fell for the place at the age of 24, purchasing King’s property in the Pokolbin area of the Hunter Valley in 1921.
Mount Pleasant - 2017 Halliday Winery of the Year
Maurice was determined to make a success of his newly christened Mount Pleasant Vineyard. Sometimes he struggled with the land and the Hunter’s climate. From 1927 to 1939, for instance, every second vintage was adversely affected by severe hailstorms. But from a simple shack on the side of a hill he set about defining just how great fine Australian wine could be.
Initially he worked with the existing Old Hill vineyard at Mount Pleasant before planting the now-renowned Old Paddock, Rosehill and Lovedale sites. Over the next thirty-five years he gained the respect and admiration of wine lovers from across Australia. He, alongside the McWilliam family who purchased the vineyard but gave O’Shea full creative freedom, helped to spark a revolution in Australian wine that continues to this day.
The bright future for Australia’s oldest wine region
Today there are over 100 vineyards in the Hunter Valley and it is one of the most visited wine regions in Australia. The region’s most famous variety? Tough to call but many would argue that it is Semillon, which wine writer Jancis Robinson has called ‘Australia’s unique gift to the world.’ Picked early to preserve its natural acidity, the wine is typically fermented in stainless steel and bottled immediately. When young they are crisp, dry and lemony but with 6 – 8 years of bottle age the texture changes and flavors of fig, toast and honey emerge. These wines are capable of aging gracefully for well over 20 years.
But it’s not just white wines that has made the region famous. Medium bodied, savoury and long-lived Shiraz is a delicious counterpoint to the more famous Australian styles of this variety from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. Wines like Tyrrell’s 4 Acres, Brokenwood’s Graveyard and Mount Pleasant’s Old Hill Shiraz all come from exceptional sites that produce ethereal wines that speak clearly of the history and evolution of this great region.
The next generation of Hunter Valley winemakers - names like Usher Tinkler, Richie Harkham, and Gwyn Olsen - are respecting the traditions of the Hunter while pushing the boundaries with new styles, varieties and techniques. Minimal intervention, preservative-free Semillon, vibrant alternative varietals like Tempranillo, Fiano and Barbera and Shiraz and Pinot Noir blends that hark back to Maurice O’Shea’s greatest wines. These all reinforce the Hunter Valley’s reputation as being a classic fine wine region that refuses to rest on its considerable laurels, no matter how tempting that might be. Something that wine lovers around the world can truly be grateful for.