The Hunter Valley Wine Show


I’ve just returned from a week’s judging at the Hunter Valley Wine Show, a couple of hours north of Sydney. It was a fascinating week, both in terms of the wines themselves and the Australian approach to judging – I’ll be writing about both in more detail in due course. The last day of judging week sees the Celebration Luncheon where 500 of the Valley’s wine professionals get dolled up and celebrate the results. As this year’s International Judge, I had to give a speech describing my experience of the wines. I thought I’d reproduce it here.

“My family didn’t drink much wine when I was growing up, but every weekend my mother would open a bottle to go with Sunday lunch. It would be red, it would be cheap, it would be French, sometimes it would even be drinkable. But one time she bought something different and I still remember it to this day. It was rich, juicy and refreshingly easy to drink. It was a bottle of Rosemount Shiraz Cabernet. This was in the early nineties, so it’s possible it came from just up the road. If you’d have told me then that in 20 years’ time I’d be in that very region speaking to 500 mildly inebriated Australians about it, I don’t think I’d have believed you. But here we are.

My taste in wine has changed a lot since then. I see yours has too. I’ve learned a lot over the past few days, so I just wanted to share with you a few brief observations, firstly about the wines themselves, then about how they could fit within the UK market.

Now ask any winelover in the UK to name a few Australian wine regions and the Hunter Valley is likely to be one of them. This is great news. What is less good is that with so few Hunter Valley wines reaching our shores, our perception of the region is lagging behind the reality. For example, I asked some friends what came to mind when they thought of Hunter Valley wines, and the phrase ‘sweaty saddle’ came up again and again. This is not a description that I have used for any wines since I’ve been here.

In Shiraz I found fresh, drinkable, medium-bodied wines with vibrant aromatics. Normally it’s the Rhône that gets my blood pumping – I haven’t been a fan of powerful, ripe Shiraz since that bottle of Rosemount – but I found your wines to be hugely exciting. What’s more, judging the Wines of Provenance category has proved to me that they have a rare ability to age and improve over time.

In Semillon I found refreshing, mouthwatering, mineral wines with a unique sense of place – and again, an incredible ability to age, develop and improve.

And the Chardonnays – I had no idea you made such good Chardonnay. Stylish, restrained, bright and balanced.

Not to mention a bevy of other delights: Vermentino, Viognier, Montepulciano, Sagrantino, the list goes on.

  • Medium-bodied, fresh, savoury reds;
  • mineral, mouthwatering whites;
  • wines with a sense of place;
  • and a story to tell.

That’s what you’re making – and that’s exactly what’s currently working in the best wine bars and independent wine shops back home.

Another thing that’s doing well is natural wine. Now I’m not for a moment suggesting you all start growing beards and getting lackadaisical about personal hygiene, but there is an interesting point you can take away from their success that’s often overlooked. Many drinkers like these wines for what they feel the wines say about them. They want to drink something that they feel represents them and their values. Sometimes, as winemakers and wine professionals, we can forget that for many drinkers this, and that story behind the wine, is more important than drinking an exceptional example.

The success of natural wines also highlights the joy of diversity in wine. To really get wine drinkers interested and involved in a category, there needs to be diversity and a breadth of style for them to explore. So it’s great to see some winemakers pushing the boundaries, and this must be applauded. It was good to see winemakers like Margan and Vinden creating exciting new styles of Shiraz, and to taste modern expressions of Hunter Valley Burgundy from producers like the exemplary Silkman. It would be great to see an equally broad range of styles with your Semillons.

For many UK wine lovers, Hunter Valley is something of a forgotten region, partly because you don’t produce much in the way of mass market wines. These are often a jumping off point for exploring a new style. But actually these days it’s a selling point. People love rediscovering forgotten regions, especially ones that break the mould, have a fascinating history and that make excellent wines.

Just look at Beaujolais. Like the Hunter, it’s a long established, small wine region specialising in a lighter style of red wine… and it has suddenly come very much back into fashion. This is the perfect time to take another look at the UK, and a visit by a group of young guns that are championing these contemporary styles would be a good way to start.

Before I sit down, it just remains for me to say a huge thank you to the Hunter Valley Wine Show committee for inviting me to judge with you this year, and special thanks to PJ Charteris for looking after me while I’ve been here and making the experience so memorable.

Thank you.”