A glimpse into Keith Tulloch’s winery in Pokolbin

Blood is definitely thicker than wine at Keith Tulloch’s winery (tastings). The Tulloch name is one of those most closely linked with Hunter Valley history, along with Tyrrell (tastings), Lindeman (tastings), Drayton (tastings), Wilkinson (tastings) and Wyndham (tastings). But of that esteemed group, only Tyrrells, Draytons and Tullochs still work in the Hunter today.

Jay Tulloch continues the tradition of founder John Younie Tulloch at Tulloch Glen Elgin Estate (established 1895 – tastings) in De Beyers Road, Pokolbin, while his cousin Keith has always gone his own way.

Keith Tulloch is the son of distinguished viticultural researcher Dr Harry Tulloch, now 81 years young and still working among the vines. A Roseworthy trained winemaker, Keith worked at The Rothbury Estate (tastings) and later was Len Evans’s choice for his own personal winemaker for the Evans Wine Company. Clearly a winesmith held in high regard by the great man.

Visit the Keith Tulloch winery in Hermitage Road, Pokolbin and you will find a modern, stylish cellar door, with an excellent restaurant, Muse Kitchen, and capacious winery, all located around a courtyard. It’s like a modern interpretation of the old French farmhouse design. Keith’s wife Amanda is an interior designer, and her influence can be seen everywhere, from the huge vase of flowers that greets you as you enter the cellar door, to the upstairs tasting room and club members area, to the layout of the entire complex with its paved paths, hedges and gardens. Visitors can’t just wander in and freeload, they must go upstairs and take part in a seated-at-a-table, paid tasting, tutored by trained staff. Activities organized for club members and regular customers are many. Wine is a serious matter here.

Outside the main buildings is a vine nursery, where Keith will proudly tell you 60 clones of semillon vines and 40 of shiraz reside. Harry Tulloch established this collection at the family’s previous vineyard, Mount View Estate (tastings), and when that property was sold, he gave the collection to Keith as his legacy. It would be fair to say it’s a gift very few dads have given their sons.

And few sons would appreciate it as Keith does. He is a Hunter wineman through and through, and that means semillon and shiraz are running in his veins where most of us have blood.

Another family link: Keith Tulloch’s flagship red wine is named The Kester Shiraz (tastings), its source a single vineyard in the Milbrodale area of the Hunter sub-region Broke Fordwich. The vineyard was once owned by his grandfather Jim Tulloch, and Keith still buys some of its best shiraz grapes. “My grandfather used the grapes in his Tulloch Private Bin Pokolbin Dry Reds (tastings), so there is a historic link.” Another link: Kester was the maiden name of dynasty founder J.Y. Tulloch’s wife.

The Kester is a very smart red, quickly establishing itself as one of the Hunter’s best shirazes. The 2011, on sale now ($65 – tastings), is a superb wine: fleshy with the classic smoky coaldust regional character, while barrel samples showed the 2013 (tastings) is fine, peppery and elegant and the 2014, from a great landmark vintage, is shaping to be an extraordinarily good shiraz.

Keith Tulloch’s semillons come, as do most of the Hunter’s greats, from the hallowed white sandy soils of the old creek beds on Hermitage Road, Pokolbin. Tulloch’s vineyards lie next to Casuarina on what Keith calls “the Grand Cru strip of Pokolbin” – an area which includes Tyrrells’ HVD, Trevena and Braemore. “Forty year-old unirrigated vines on one to two-metre deep powdery silt soils, yielding a paltry one to two tonnes per acre of intensely flavoured juice every year.”

He says semillon vines have a weak root system, but in sand their roots can get down to the sub-soil moisture. “The heat stays in the top layer of sand and lower down it’s cooler. As well, sand doesn’t crack like clay: vines on clay here get stressed without irrigation.”

This soil is perfect for semillon. It has good moisture retention down deep, without risk of the root-zone becoming water-logged in the wet. Yet it also has good drainage, so that when it rains, the water doesn’t flood the roots causing vines to drink too much, with consequent berry splitting.

“White sand gives low vigour. The vines are in balance and they give wines of great purity,” Tulloch adds.

The Keith Tulloch Field of Mars semillons, named with their vineyard block numbers, come from this area. There’s also chardonnay, and Tulloch – keen to make the “finest, tightest, most ageworthy chardonnay that I can” – believes the small blocks of chardonnay he’s planted on unirrigated white sand will be in the ideal place.

Judging from the 2013 (tastings) and ’14 (tastings) Keith Tulloch chardonnays and the ’13 Field of Mars chardonnay tasted recently, he’s on the track. These are wines of finesse and delicacy (and moderate alcohol), but also wines endowed with the level of richness and complexity that we expect of chardonnay.

Indeed, all of the recent and current Keith Tulloch wines I tasted were exceedingly good: the semillons including Field of Mars single-block semillons, the Hunter (tastings) and Tumbarumba (tastings) chardonnays and Field of Mars chardonnay (tastings), the Tumbarumba pinot noir (tastings), the various Hunter shirazes including The Kester (tastings), The Wife (tastings), The Doctor (tastings) and Field of Mars (tastings) labels. Even the Hunter botrytis semillon (tastings), barrel fermented in a Sauternes style, is superb.

The most impressive red I tasted was the 2011 Field of Mars Shiraz (April 2015 release – tastings), of which just 137 dozen were made. But the most intriguing was The Doctor 2011 (tastings), partly because of the way it came about. Recognising the stellar quality of the 2011 reds, Keith and Amanda asked Harry to taste all the barrels of 2011 shiraz and put a chalk-mark on the ones he liked best. They then blended those barrels, bottled the wine and labeled it The Doctor, without telling him. Later they presented him with the finished article, much to his surprise. An especially ageworthy, chocolaty, black-fruit style with fine tannins, it’s available for $120 direct. A worthy one-off to salute a valued mentor.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 11 Nov 2014.

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