If you look west while driving down the A-15 in Australia's Hunter Valley from Tamworth towards the turnoff for Broke Road, you might think for a moment that you're in the Napa Valley. Carpets of grapevines spread over rolling hillocks, with property lines defined by stands of oak trees and eucalyptus; a range of blue-green mountains marks the horizon. In the other direction, the landscape is more like Sonoma, flatter, with meadows and furrowed farmland interrupting the vines here and there. Then, in the late afternoon light, off the road in the woods, you see the kangaroos.
Though not as well-known internationally as South Australia's Barossa Valley and perhaps not as trendy among connoisseurs as Margaret River in Western Australia, the Hunter Valley is not only one of the country's major wine regions, but also the very birthplace of Australian wine. It is also the home of what is quite possibly the country's most significant and original contribution to the vinicological world: long-lived wines of great character and complexity made from France's sémillon grape, which in its native country is mostly blended with sauvignon blanc and sometimes muscadelle, and which rarely makes exceptional wine by itself anywhere but here.
With my old friend Jonathan Waxman — the wine-loving chef–restaurateur whose establishments include Barbuto in New York City, Adele's in Nashville, and Montecito in Toronto — I toured Hunter Valley late last year. We found a vibrant wine scene, plenty of good food, comfortable and sometimes luxurious accommodations (we loved Spicers Vineyards Estate, a sprawling five-star "guesthouse" outside the town of Pokolbin, surrounded by vineyards and native bushland), a first-rate producer of smoked meats and seafood (Lovedale Smokehouse), and, at the Hope Estate winery, an outdoor concert venue (the largest in Australia for the over-40 audience, we were told) at which, to our dismay, we had missed the Rolling Stones by one night — all less than a two-hour drive from Sydney.
The valley was a natural to become Australia's first wine country. Its proximity to Sydney (and thus to a ready clientele for its wares and a major port for export), its climate (humid, but less so than nearby coastal regions, and warmer than the higher elevations to the west), and its soils (including large tracts of sandy alluvial earth and crumbly loam) made it attractive to investors, who saw wine as a potential cash crop. The Australian government was all for the idea, too.
"Remember," Gus Maher, general manager of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourish Association, told us when we sat down with him on our first morning in the region in the parlor at the Mercure Resort Hunter Valley Gardens hotel, "that Australia was a penal colony, and people came here drinking rum. The government wanted to get people off rum, and wine seemed like a good way to do it." The pioneer in this regard, he told us, was a Scotsman named James Busby, who traveled through the winelands of Europe and South Africa gathering cuttings (including syrah vines from Hermitage in France's northern Rhône, which was to be renamed shiraz here) and began planting them in 1825 on acreage he'd bought between the towns of Singleton and Branxton.
Others followed Busby's lead, and a selection of Hunter Valley wines sent to the Paris Exhibition of 1855 impressed judges so much that they chose a locally made sparkling wine to serve, instead of Champagne, to Emperor Napoléon III at the Exhibition's closing banquet. Despite this early acclaim, according to Maher, "Quality wines didn't really start appearing here until the 1950s or early '60s." Len Evans, whom Maher describes as "the first modern-day entrepreneur of the Australian wine industry" — he was the country's first regular wine columnist and founding director of the Australian Wine Bureau — was a great supporter of the region. One major local producer, Tyrrell's Wines, founded here in 1858, released the first commercial chardonnay made in Australia, called Vat 47, in 1971, thereby kick-starting an entire huge segment of the country's wine industry. Today, there are more than 120 wineries in the Hunter Valley.
Chardonnay is the most widely planted white wine variety planted in the area today, with sémillon coming second, but we're here mostly for the sémillon — and for the region's unusually elegant shiraz. We pretty much start at the top, visiting a winery called Brokenwood, founded in the 1970s by a group of hobby winemakers and now producing sémillon and shiraz of extraordinary quality (among other wines). The winery's top-of-the-line sémillon is the ILR Reserve (the initials are those of Brokenwood's managing director, chief winemaker, and co-owner, Iain Leslie Riggs), a wine released only after five years of bottle age.
The winery's wine education manager, Damien Harrison, met us in the Brokenwood tasting room and poured us two vintages of the ILR, the 2007, citrusy and spicy in aroma, with a nose of honey and beeswax, then rich, lemony, and almost oaky (though the wine sees no oak) on the palate. Waxman and I looked at each other in amazement; it was easily one of the best white wines we'd had all year. Both these wines are long sold out, but 2014 was a landmark vintage in the region, so make a note to watch for that one in 2019.
We got a preview of the vintage when Harrison took us into the barrel room, where we sampled the 2014 Graveyard Shiraz, beautifully rounded and full of intense cherry fruit, and much more Rhône-like than Australian in finesse and structure. "Twenty years ago, we were a little embarrassed by our shiraz in the Hunter," Harrison said, "because it wasn't a big 16-percent wine like they make in Barossa, but now we're very happy with what we can do."