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Raising a glass to the Hunter Valley


Small family-owned wineries with a rustic simplicity and a penchant for making fine Shiraz and Semillon made the Hunter Valley famous over a century ago. In recent years though, the influx of tourists and the burgeoning market for Australian wine have transformed the sleepy valley and its winemaking culture. Larger commercial wineries now abound in the Hunter with the likes of Rosemount and Wyndham Estate overshadowing many smaller boutique wineries, and much of the area has turned into a holiday resort with golf courses, fine restaurants and summertime concerts.

View at Audrey Wilkinson Winery

Yet the hospitality and rural charm that once defined the Hunter Valley still remain untouched under the veneer of commerce. Audrey Wilkinson, one of the first wineries founded there, is synonymous with the valley’s history and traditions and a visit there is an ideal way to enjoy a slice of the quintessential Hunter experience. It begins with a warm welcome to the cellar, and a tour around the small museum decorated with paintings around the walls depicting the pioneering winemakers from the Wilkinson family. “Audrey Wilkinson”, my host tells me in a soft, mesmerising country tone, “was in fact a bloke, despite what the name suggests. More interestingly though, he never drank – yet produced some of the first wines that put the Hunter on the map.” The old vineyards still remain and continue to produce excellent wines, most of which stand on shelves around the cellar. Many of these are the classic Hunter wines – Shiraz, Semillon and Chardonnay, accompanied by the Iberian varietals Tempranillo and Verdelho that now thrive in the warm Hunter climate.

Tasting sessions can be easily organised on site with the cellar staff, and it’s worth booking in advance when coming on weekends, particularly in the summer. But on a weekday in the middle of winter, the winery is almost empty as I sit down with one of the cellar hands. He talks about the Wilkinson family’s history for ten minutes, continuing where he left off about Audrey Wilkinson and going over several later generations before pulling a bottle down from a shelf and pouring me a sample of the Oakdale Chardonnay-Semillon – one of the valley’s favourite blends – to start the tasting. A blue ceramic spittoon is provided, but after swirling the wine and bringing a sample into my mouth to enjoy the smooth citrus flavours and refreshing acidity, I’m a little loath to spit the wine back out. I do so though and move on to two others; an austere, unwooded Chardonnay and a sweeter Verdelho, before a flask of water is offered to cleanse my palate.

My host leads me on, pouring me a dry rosé and then several reds, providing an informative commentary mingled with the characteristic Australian dry wit to accompany each one. I’m told about the history of the Tempranillo, the complex Hunter Shiraz, and the lottery that comes with each season in the Hunter Valley, which sometimes sees heavy rain, burning heat or even the occasional hailstorm during the harvest. “Not all the Wilkinson wines come from the Hunter because of this”, he explains, before pouring me a sample of Merlot grown in Coonawarra, one of South Australia’s most famous winemaking regions. It’s magnificent, a deep plum colour with a spicy bouquet and a silky texture, and the pick of the wines tasted so far.

The best is saved for last – new glasses are produced, and three smaller, slimmer bottles are taken down from a shelf; the Wilkinson dessert wines. The late harvest Semillon comes first, a thick, opulent wine of deep gold with a sweet honeyed flavour that the Hunter Valley is well known for. A Muscat follows, and I finish with a sample of the Liqueur Verdelho. It’s a strong, fiery drink that warms the throat on the way down and the rich aftertaste lingers on my tongue as I leave the cellar for the open air and the stunning view several minutes later.

The imposing Brokenback Mountains that border the valley lie in the distance to one side, while the Hunter’s plains sweep out in front of the cellar door. The historic Oakdale vineyards lie below, mud-brown and barren at this time of year, but one can only imagine how spectacular the view might be in the spring or summer, when the vines are in bloom. Even in mid winter, the sight is stunning with the landscape dotted with trees and the odd lake or winery, and the sparkling blue Australian sky above. There’s no need to wonder why the first Wilkinson pioneers picked this particular spot in the valley to start making wines and building the Hunter’s reputation.

View at Audrey Wilkinson Winery

Just a short drive away, the serene backdrop of the valley’s hills and vines is disrupted by an ostentatious structure of concrete and metal. Shaped like an amphitheatre and glaring harshly under the midday Australian sun, the winery imposes itself upon the eyes. But Tempus Two is about grabbing attention. Its finest wines are released onto the market in elegantly designed Italian glass bottles that stand out in shop shelves, the lawn in front of the winery hosts a variety of events across the year, and a few locals murmur about it being fancy and pretentious with a nightclub’s atmosphere – a long way from the traditional Hunter winery.

It’s easy to make such preconceptions while passing through the ornate veranda – decorated with angled metal pillars, reflective panels and a fountain – and walking by Oishii, the Japanese restaurant in the complex with an adjacent espresso lounge. The tasting room does little at first to dispel such thoughts with its dimmed lights, a stylish stone bar counter and soft trance music pulsing in the background. But underneath the flashy exterior, there’s plenty of substance to Tempus Two.

After an effusive welcome from the winery staff, I’m taken to the bar for a tasting where a glass, spittoon and wine list are placed in front of me. A look at the wine list says plenty about the Tempus approach to winemaking; a combination of both regional tradition and innovation. The traditional Australian favourites remain, but the list is decorated by more exotic blends and varietals rarely seen in this part of the world; Zinfandel, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris and a blend with the Rhone grapes Marsanne, Viognier and Rousanne.

The tasting commences with the Tempus white wines. The range of flavours and styles is remarkable, from zesty, tropical Gewürztraminer to the sharper Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend. As I taste my way through the range of whites, I’m regaled by the winery’s history. Tempus Two started out as “Hermitage Road”, a small boutique winery run by Lisa McGuigan under the umbrella of McGuigan Wines, a fourth-generation family run winemaking company renowned throughout the Hunter. French appellation laws forced the name to be changed, and “Tempus Two” – second coming – was born. Judging by the quality of the wines, it seems that it’ll be on the map for a while. Most are outstanding, with the Melange a Trois blend leaving a particularly strong impression with its lively nose of citrus zest and a mouth-wateringly acidic palate. 

The Melange is followed by a glass of water and the first reds; two impressive Cabernet-Merlot blends. Shirazes follow, and these mark the highlight of the tasting. The first, the Vine Vale Shiraz is from grapes sourced from the Barossa Valley, and this is stereotypical Australian Shiraz with a spicy nose and generous plum and oak. The next is more unusual, blended in the Rhone style with the Hunter’s grapes. I’m told that it contains 3% Viognier, and it has a mesmerising, intense nose with spice and slight floral hints. Far more powerful than the first, it leaves a rich, fruity aftertaste in the mouth.

We finish with one of the best known Tempus wines, their Botrytis Semillon. It’s another eye catcher in its fancy bottle, and has sweet honey and passionfruit notes with a sticky finish. After pouring away the last dregs in my glass, I’m led through a pair of glass doors to the other part of the winery – the ‘business area’. It’s a stark contrast from the tasting room; instead of music, fancy lighting or stylish bottles on display, rows of large steel tanks fill the area with a stench of alcohol pervading the air. Jackie, my host, explains that this is the fermenting room where the Tempus wines are made.

I’m then taken next door to the oaking room, filled with stacks of large barrels to age the wines in before bottling. The winemaking rooms are remarkably sterile with the freshly scrubbed floors glistening under the ceiling lights, and Jackie stresses the importance of hygiene here. “After all, this is mainly agriculture and food production”, she points out, before leading me to the grape press, kept outdoors under a sheet of tarpaulin in the winter. Standing next to the bulky, grape-stained machine and looking at the back of the building, away from the polished veranda and fountain, Tempus Two suddenly appears a lot less flashy than it first did – particularly with the rich aftertaste of the Semillon still lingering.

The winery tour has made one thing very clear: despite the change sweeping through the Hunter Valley’s culture, a lot has stayed the same; particularly those characteristics that defined the valley as one of Australia’s foremost winemaking regions. Underneath the more commercial and stylish exterior that’s come with time, the Hunter’s traditional hospitality and devotion to making fine wines remains untouched.

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