Bruce Tyrrell bets on semillon and shiraz interviews
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Tyrrell's was established in 1858 and has been making great wines ever since

Tyrrell's was established in 1858 and has been making great wines ever since

Tyrrell's Wines, Hunter Valley, New South Wales
A tutored tasting at Tyrrell's Wines, Hunter Valley, NSW
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Bruce Tyrrell, Tyrrell's Wines, Hunter Valley, NSW [©]

Bruce Tyrrell, of Tyrrell's Wines in the Hunter Valley, remembers the days when the region was a quiet backwater where kids rode their horses to school and not much else happened. He placed his bets on the Hunter region to be the best in the world for semillon, and he's doing the same in Victoria's Heathcote, chasing the new number one spot for shiraz.

"The early days here we were fed by the cattle industry more than the wine industry. Now as late as 1967 there was only 600 or 700 acres of vineyard here in the Hunter, so it was very small. Just six or eight wineries, all tiny little operations, dirt roads, it was pretty quiet, not much happened," he says.

Tyrrell's had about six employees and made 15,000 cases of wine a year. "This was very much a backwater. I rode a horse to school for six years."

The Hunter Valley is a very different place now. "We are in this a time of globalisation and, you know, when we start running out of fuel and it gets to $2.00 a litre, it’s going to come back to the village environment to some extent.

"I’d hate to see our industry become like corn flakes, you know, it’s just a commodity and nothing else. It’s a bit like beer. A lot of the beer that comes out of big breweries all over the world, it all tastes the same and a lot of it’s not that good. I’d hate to see that happen to our industry. Our industry is a very personal one that needs faces."

Bruce says the wine industry is a very jealous mistress. "It doesn’t give you a lot of spare time. The thrills for me are still there or I wouldn’t be in it if it wasn’t. The bit I love is January, February, March, just coming into vintage and working the fruit, being able to then see something you’ve tried because a lot of it’s guess work. It’s not the same as picking your wheat or 'is the bullock fat and ready to send to market this week or will I leave him another week'?

"You’ve got to make those valued judgements and to see that come through. To see it come to a result and hopefully come to the result that you foresaw way back," he says.

There's also a long lead time - it's a patient mans game. "We’ve invested heavily in the Heathcote area in Victoria and every now and then I look at it and go 'Jesus Christ I hope this works'."

Bruce did the same thing in the Hunter Valley, deciding that the area did semillon better than anywhere in the world but the producer's weren't getting the best from it. "So I got the four or five best vineyards I could get my hands on, made those wines separately, and made sure their characters are maintained. Now it’s come to fruition and it is working. That’s a relief," he says.

"I suppose we’ve been the leaders of expanding that area [Heathcote] and taking it up to another level. I think there’s a tremendous future. [Heathcote] to me has the potential to become the shiraz area of Australia and we spent a fair bit of time selecting the right bit of dirt to get down there. I think we bought ours for 400 bucks an acre and it’s now selling for about $3,000.

"Mostly those top ones [wines from Heathcote], we're not going to see them until they’ve got some age. You're not going to see the wines under five years old. They go through a period of almost adolescence at about three or four years old - they’re a bit like a 15 year old with a bad attitude. Firstly most of them are between 10 and 11 percent alcohol so they’re fairly light. There’s no oak but often people, particularly Europeans, when they see them for the first time say what sort of oak are these ones because they get this incredible taste and there’s some great developed characters but most importantly they still keep this wonderful clean, fresh aspect. I’ve seen those wines from 40, 50 years old, still with freshness and vibrance and that’s what makes them special."

One of Bruce's Heathcote block's has shiraz vines planted in 1879, others from 1920. "We go back to those blocks whenever we are replanting to get the cuttings. So we maintain that line material for a very long time... We know they work and we know that they produce a certain style which is what we want. And we know that they can handle the conditions.

"We’ve got a vineyard where about 80 percent of it’s cuttings are off here and the other is some grafts and a clone out of McClaren Vale which is the star clone of McClaren Vale. Here when the going gets tough the vines that have come off these old fellows not a problem, never lose a leaf, get ripe. The other stuff throws its leaves and chucks it in and it’s simply because, I suppose, the vine’s not used to [these conditions]. This area is one of the great repositories of originally European vine material. They don’t have it anymore, haven’t for a long time, we’ve wiped them out. Though one of our historians tells me that those are first generation cuttings from La Chapelle which is supposedly the greatest shiraz vineyard in the world."

The Hunter is where is heart is, and Bruce says deep down the region hasn't changed that much in 50 years. "We are great re-users of things. You don’t knock it down and rebuild it just for the sake of it; if it’s still working you keep using it. But I think it’s also part of the charm of us.

"This area is now really the major tourism area in New South Wales and there are a lot of new places that look flash and they have their place but people walk into our winery and it’s what they expect a winery to look like - a lot of old, big barrels, the original part of the winery has still got the earth floor. I’m sure if we cemented it over we’d probably lose half our cellar door trade. It’s important for people to see that there are still things that are as they were.

"We always maintain varietal and regional character in wines and we offer freshness and cleanness and the best compliment we can ever begin knowing in one of our wines is someone saying 'Jesus that’s nice, I’ll have another bottle'. Not forgetting that at the end of the day the only reason you make a bottle of wine is to pull the cork out and drink it and enjoy it.

"I often say the worst people to ask an opinion on a wine or package is the trade or your own staff. One of the wonderful things of cellar door is that if you want to trial something, it’s very quick and very easy and very accurate because we get a whole cross section through here. You can very quickly find out what people want and also to follow trends and what they are drinking and they want things drier, they want them bigger, they want them softer, and you pick that up through [the cellar door]."


  • Hunter Valley (NSW)

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