Is "terroir" relevant to The Hunter Valley?

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Vineyard rows in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales

Vineyard rows in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales [©Tourism New South Wales]

There is no single word in English that captures the full extent of the meaning in the French word 'Terroir'. Robin Tedder, MW, looks at the concept in relation to the Hunter Valley.

Terroir usually means collectively the sum effects on grapes and therefore wine characteristics of the following: climate, site, and exposure, aspect/slope, rainfall and humidity, wind temperature/diurnal as well as seasonal variations, soil composition and drainage. All of these factors, along with rootstock and clonal selection, combine with man's management of the vineyard site to impact on the vigour and balance of each. Every vineyard which produces fruit of the highest quality is 'in balance'.

Mat Kramer, an American wine writer, has coined the term 'somewhereness' which is the closest thing in the English language I have found to terroir. I believe for a wine to rank as a great and to be truly distinctive it should speak of whence it came and not just be a simple amalgam of primary fruit character, sweetness, alcohol and oak.

Generally speaking all the great vineyards of Europe, the Americas and Australasia, including the Hunter Valley, are relatively low yielding. The wines that have made the Hunter's name come from either, dry land vineyards or irrigated sites where water is used to establish young plantings and to prevent excessive stress only. High yielding 'grape factories' can produce moderate quality wine from one or two varieties (especially the ubiquitous chardonnay) in the dry years. Most Hunter vintages are humid (often wet) and fungal disease problems become endemic in overcropped vineyards.

Two Major Varieties

The two varieties on which the Hunter's long-term reputation is established are semillon and shiraz. Neither variety suits high vigour sites and when planted in either fertile soils or excessively irrigated the results are consistently poor. Despite the success in recent times with chardonnay the search for terroir in the Hunter is best interpreted through semillon and shiraz .

The reasons for this are;

  • there are lots of good chardonnay sites all over the continent,
  • the oak handling and winemaking practices (barrel ferments, oxidative handling, malo lactic ferments etc) common to many chardonnays serve to overwhelm or hide the regional characters and,
  • chardonnay in the Hunter is a relatively recent phenomenon (last 25 years only).

Semillon

Hunter unoaked Semillon is a unique wine style and alongside Rutherglen Muscat possibly Australia's most distinctive contribution to the global world of wine. Given that the wine is fermented dry in steel and bottled early without any malo lactic fermentation or oak handling, it is also as pure a reflection of the grapes used to make it as a wine can be. Therefore when searching for the elusive terroir in the Hunter Valley, semillon may be the best interpreter of region, sub region and even individual sites.

There are potentially many sub regions within the greater Hunter Valley including the following:

  • Brokenback slopes
  • Mount View
  • Lovedale
  • Rothbury Deasey's Lane
  • Hermitage Road
  • Old North Road BelfordSouthern Broke
  • Milbrodale Road Fordwich slopes
  • Monkey Place Creek
  • Minimbah Singleton
  • Denman
  • Yarraman Road
  • Giants Creek


and several others I'm sure.

A good example of Hunter Terroir is to be found in comparing Semillon grown on the grey loams at Lovedale and on the sandy soil of the Broke Fordwich region. The Broke wines at their best are less grassy in aroma, yet more lemon citrus like in flavour, often leaner in body, but both are capable of many years bottle ageing. The flat loams of Pokolbin have been producing classic Semillon for well over a century. Then again within the Broke Fordwich sub region there are one or two vineyards which produce a fuller bodied style. They come from low yielding vines planted in red soils of ancient volcanic origin. Here is terroir at work!

Shiraz

Turning to Shiraz there are fewer distinguished sites to choose from. The older established shiraz vines planted in the residues of reddish soils of volcanic origins on the crests adjacent to the Brokenback range (and often several kilometres away) have proven their worth over 150 years. The best wines made from these vineyards (where yields rarely stay above 2 tonnes per acre) are redolent of place and regional characters. Their complex earthy savoury aromas and soft dusty tannins, often made with little obvious new oak influence, contrast markedly with the highly alcoholic, super ripe 'Ribena-like style' with highly charred American oak sweetness found in many modern Australian reds.

Clearly the classic Semillon and Shiraz wines of the Hunter are both regional in style and quite unique, whilst also showing a complex, well balanced characteristic which develops further with extended cellaring. Sadly the common perception of the region in some markets is too often based on the bland, commercial high volume styles, made from fruit grown in the hot irrigated inland areas, by Hunter based producers. It is also unfashionable in some quarters to be from a 'warm ' climate despite the indisputable fact that Bordeaux is warm, Rioja likewise, whilst the Southern Rhone is positively hot!

Over long periods of time regional styles evolve and the market usually recognizes this. In order to better differentiate our wines in an ocean of fruity varietal competition from around the planet, perhaps we should pay more attention to our own Hunter Terroir.

Regions

  • Lower Hunter (NSW)
  • Hunter including Newcastle (NSW)
  • Upper Hunter Valley (NSW)
  • Hunter Valley (NSW)

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