40 Candles on Brokenwood’s Cake

The Hunter Valley is probably the most difficult place to grow grapes in Australia, with a risk of summer rainfall that most regions seldom have to fear. This year, though, much of the eastern half of the continent is having a Hunter summer. Rain, rain and more rain, from Queensland through NSW and Victoria and down to Tasmania. Ironically, though, the Hunter is having an excellent season and has so far escaped the big wet.

In southern Victoria the scene is chaotic, as abnormally high humidity has encouraged all manner of moulds and mildews, and chemical fungicide with which to combat the disease has run short. If any wine company shouldn’t run out of fungicide it’s the Rathbone group (Yering Station, Mount Langi Ghiran, Parker Estate and Xanadu), as the Rathbones own Nufarm Chemicals. But marketing manager Gordon Gebbie admitted they were relieved to have Xanadu in the group, as Western Australia is having a dry season and they were able to bring fungicide across to Victoria from WA.

I’m dwelling on the Hunter Valley while I reflect on last November’s Brokenwood 40th anniversary bash. I tasted virtually every wine Brokenwood had made since the start (tastings), including the highlights, Hunter semillon and shiraz. The tasting covered the regular Brokenwood Semillon from 1982 to the present (tastings), the Reserve ILR Semillon from 1992 (tasting), and special single-vineyard bottlings. And the shirazes, especially the flagship Graveyard Vineyard dating from 1983 (tasting), as well as a special wine you may not have heard of yet, named HBA (tastings) – a blend of the best barrel of Graveyard with a similar quantity of McLaren Vale shiraz, in homage to famous blends of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s under such now-defunct labels as Hardys St Thomas and Reserve Bin and Mildara Special Bin reds.

The HBA project began between Bill Hardy at Hardys Tintara and Brokenwood’s managing director Iain Riggs in the early ’90s. But the Hunter vintages of the early ’90s were so poor that the project didn’t get off the ground till 1994. In Riggs’s own words, 1990 was horrendously wet, there was a drought in 1991 (with reduced crops), 1992 produced no fruit at all, and the ’93 crop was so small they couldn’t spare any Hunter fruit. The first vintage HBA, 1994, was locked away for 10 years before release. Ten years of cellaring continues to be part of the recipe.

I thought the lineup of Graveyard shirazes was superb, although the oldest vintages hadn’t all aged as well as I’d anticipated and several were starting to tire. As we might expect in a region of extremes, the ups and downs – traceable to seasonal conditions – were quite significant. Only two vintages, 2002 and 2008, yielded no Graveyard bottling at all.

But equally impressive were the HBAs. These were produced in 1996, ’98, 2000, and thereafter every year until 2010 except the horror wet year of 2008, when the Hunter Valley as a region produced virtually no red wine at all.

In the beginning, HBA was known internally as Quail, named after one of the blocks of the Graveyard vineyard. When the wine is deemed not up to par by the time of release at 10 years, it is ‘declassified’ and labelled as Quail Shiraz. A Quail was released from 1994 and ’97.

The initials HBA refer to James Halliday, John Beeston and the late Tony Albert, the three original partners of Brokenwood.

If I had to describe HBA’s style and explain how it differs from Graveyard, richness and generosity of flavour would be the key difference. HBA is more fleshy, textural, and has more of the mid-palate richness typical of McLaren Vale (the region’s nickname used to be “the middle-palate of Australian wine” – itself a reminder of the days when inter-region blends were commonplace).

Graveyard on the other hand has more “Hunter character” – that distinctive earthiness or sometimes leatheriness peculiar to Hunter red wines.

Vintage variation is so pronounced in the Hunter because of its climate and weather. Of recent years, 2007 shaped up as an excellent year but on reflection I don’t regard it as a great year – a view reinforced when I judged the ’07s at last year’s Hunter Valley Wine Show. Too many of them are tough and clumsy, high in alcohol, or overbuilt… drought-year wines. But Graveyard is an exception, a really profound wine with a great future.

As already mentioned, ’08 Hunter reds are a non-starter, but ’09 – also on sale now – seems more and more an outstanding red vintage. The wines have a classical elegance that to me defines Hunter shiraz. Tyrrell’s Vat 9 (tastings) deservedly won trophies at the above-named show, and is a beacon for the regional style. The ’09 Brokenwood shirazes are also stand-outs: wines of balance and moderate alcohol (around 13.5%); wines of effortless charm and quality, character and harmony, which delight now and continue to do so for many years. We will have to wait till late May for the $150 2009 Graveyard (tasting – and eight more years for the HBA), but the regular ’09 Brokenwood shiraz (tasting) and ’09 Verona Vineyard (tasting), which I tasted just the other day, are both marvellous wines, available now at $40 and $50 respectively. The regular shiraz is nick-named Baby Graveyard, as it’s composed of Graveyard young vines and declassified Graveyard old vines. As the price difference hints, the Verona is marginally superior, being a touch more concentrated, but both are lovely.

Perhaps the greatest wines are grown in regions where viticulture has the most obstacles, where vignerons take the most risks and often teeter on the brink of failure; where the difference between great and poor harvests is widest.

*The 2000 HBA is on sale ex-winery for $220.

First published Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 25 January 2011. 


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