McGuigan, Hunter and Coal Seam Gas

If you canvassed the most knowledgeable wine experts all over the world as to the world’s greatest winemaker, I doubt anyone would nominate Australia’s McGuigan Wines. Yet McGuigan has bragging rights to the title International Winemaker of the Year. Not just this year, but three times in four years – which is a record. The title is bestowed by the International Wine & Spirit Competition, which is one of the world’s biggest wine shows, judged in England. It’s been awarding this title for 43 years.

At the risk of being labeled a party-pooper or spoil-sport, I’d like to congratulate McGuigan (tastings) and its winemakers, headed by Neil McGuigan and Peter Hall. They make some lovely wines, as well as a few pretty ordinary cheapies.

The title International Winemaker of the Year is determined by summing all the scores achieved by that company’s medal-winning wines. There is no limit to the number of wines a company can enter, which enables a company to enter many wines and multiple vintages. However, ‘bombing’ the show is discouraged by the fact that non-medal wines detract from that company’s aggregate.

Aged vintages of dry white wines are relatively rare in any show: the latest vintage is normally the only entry. Older wines often do well.

McGuigan achieved gold medals with no fewer than six semillons, five under the same label, Bin 9000 – the 1997, 2003, ‘04, ‘05 and ‘11 vintages, and the ’07 Shortlist Semillon (tastings). All these are Hunter Valley wines made by Peter Hall. A Barossa shiraz also won a gold medal.

The ’04 won the International Semillon Trophy (for the best semillon in the entire show). Few countries make pure semillon dry whites, so it’s normally an Australian shoo-in.

The fact that there are few competitors globally in dry white semillon makes this award less significant, than say, the International Shiraz Trophy (which happened to be won this year by another Australian winery, Fox Creek (tastings), with its ’09 Reserve Shiraz).

Many of the headline trophies awarded by international wine competitions are questionable. Australian wineries regularly win them, eg. Peter Lehmann Wines has won the international winemaker of the year title more than once, and while the quality of the wines it exhibits isn’t in doubt, the fact that New World wineries often produce a multitude of different varietals and wine styles under the same brand-name gives them a distinct advantage over, say, a Bordeaux chateau which may produce only two or three wines. In France, for example, wineries tend to specialize in the handful of grapes that do best in their region. In Australia, one winery can produce sparkling, dessert, fortified, and dry whites and reds of many grape varieties. That’s our good luck for being adaptable.

Semillon is a specialty of the Hunter Valley, just as pinot noir is in Burgundy and chenin blanc in the Loire Valley. We don’t see producers in those regions entering multiple vintages and winning Winemaker of the Year, but there seems to be nothing stopping them. Perhaps they aren’t that intense about competing. Perhaps they just don’t care about these awards. Or maybe they’ve drunk all the older vintages themselves. Good for them!

* McGuigan Bin 9000 Semillon (tastings) is regularly one of the great bargains in Australian wine. The current release 2012 vintage is $13. Neil McGuigan says the firm has a program of holding back vintages for ageing, and the trophy winning ’04 is available at the winery for $50.

Coal seam gas splits Hunter Valley

Uncertainly about the future of coal seam gas exploration and mining in the lower Hunter Valley has winemakers up in arms. The O’Farrell Government has refused to restate its pre-election commitment that CSG mining would not be permitted in the vineyard area.

As well, the biggest CSG explorer, AGL, is accused of engaging in a PR campaign to enlist the support of the Hunter wine industry. In addition to recent purchases of vineyards totalling about 100 hectares, including the original Poole’s Rock vineyard in the Broke Fordwich sub-region, AGL has divided winemakers by having 400 tonnes of grapes made into wine in the 2012 vintage by contract winemakers, several of whom have since abandoned the mining company.

In what is seen by many as window-dressing and PR, the gas company instituted a scholarship for local winemakers. The 2012 winner was Daniel Binet, winemaker at Ballabourneen. Binet will again make wine for AGL in the 2013 vintage, on behalf of Wilderness Wines. Binet applied for the initial scholarship because he believed in safeguarding the future of the AGL vineyards, formerly known as Poole’s Rock and Spring Mountain.

The fact that he won some top show awards for his wines from those vineyards conflicts slightly with the view of Hunter Valley Wine Industry Association president, Andrew Margan, who says the quality of the wine off AGL’s vines is, on average, below production costs. He says it does nothing for the Hunter’s quality image, and just adds to the nation’s bulk-wine oversupply.

Margan says AGL’s scholarship and winemaking activities are an attempt to cosy up to the Hunter wine industry.

The scholarship was initially backed by Hunter wine veteran Brian McGuigan, whose vineyard contracting company manages AGLs’ vineyards. McGuigan Wines winemaker Peter Hall, contractor Greg Silkman (of Monarch Winemaking Services) and Usher Tinkler, who recently left Poole’s Rock to focus on his family’s Tinkler Family Wines, have all removed their support for AGL. They denounced the scholarship as a PR farce that they no longer want any involvement in. Tinkler trademarked his name, partly to prevent AGL using it to promote wine he’d made under contract.

AGL was this year expelled from the HVWIA, the only expulsion ever, as “their activities were considered prejudicial to the interests of the association,” says Margan.

The vineyard association’s position is that CSG is totally incompatible with viticulture, winemaking and wine tourism. It is concerned about the possible pollution of water, land and the environment by hydraulic fracturing for CSG, and says that while doubt about its safety remains, it should not occur at all.

AGL recently announced that fraccing will soon start in the Hunter vineyard area.

Winemaker Bruce Tyrrell says: “Our industry has been in the Hunter for nearly 200 years and along with wine tourism, we are a fully sustainable industry that can prosper for another 200 years and beyond. The CSG operators will be gone inside 50 years and no-one knows how big a mess they will leave behind.”

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 11 December 2012.


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