The Hunter Valley is the oldest wine region in Australia. It was the first wine region to be planted, back in the early 19th century, with cuttings brought back from Europe by James Busby, the father of Australian wine. Amongst those cuttings, six were of Syrah taken from the Rhône in France… in Australia we call it Shiraz.
Harkham Windarra is one of the youngest wineries in the Hunter Valley. It was established in 2005 by Terry Harkham and his son Richard, both decedents of a wine making family from Zichron Yaakov, in Israel, part of one of the oldest wine making regions in the world. Together, they make a Hunter Valley Shiraz in honor of Richard’s Grandmother, Terry’s Mother – Aziza.
Harkham’s Aziza flagship wines are fermented using wild yeast, and no other additions, including sulphur is used. The home vineyard, where some of the fruit for Aziza Shiraz comes from sits on red clay and graveled soils providing that typical Hunter Valley earthiness, and they crush between 20 and 25 tonnes per year, focusing on very small batches of a strict high quality.
Through minimal intervention – interpretation of the fruit, rather than manipulation – Richie believes they are able to truly express the “amazing terroir driven flavours that the Hunter Valley is renowned for.”
Speaking with me at his property in the Hunter Valley, Richard was excited to show me all the changes currently underway on their property on De Beyers Road, Pokolbin. The new cellar door was under construction, coinciding with a new members tasting room, adorned with butterflies, and a Mexican restaurant to be opened with a stunning panoramic view of the Brokenback range.
It’s full steam ahead, with hammers, and nails, tape measures and timber cuttings… but what of the wine?
Harvest 2013 had just finished, and by all accounts it was a great year – not outstanding, as it was shaping up to be – 24 hours of constant rainfall will do that – but certainly a million times better than 2012.
The story of Harkham’s natural wines is a bit of an accident. During the 2005 vintage, Richard undid too many bolts on the tank that housed that years ferment, and the small door holding the precious contents inside burst open and spilt all over the floor. No 2005 vintage that year, no first vintage at all.
Throughout the following years, Richard watched his father add the recommended packet acids and the sulphur satchels to the fruit bins before the fruit was sent through the crusher de-stemmer. The previous owner had made his wines using this method as well, and it wasn’t until Richard questioned this procedure and was able to experiment a little that things began to change. Before it was, “because that’s just what you do…” now, it was a question of “why?”
One day, during the 2009 vintage, after having finished racking the lees sediments into new barrels, Richard poured in a fairly large portion of the racked wine into a jug for his father to taste, to prove that you didn’t need to add anything more to process. “It was a really hot day, and it was very unusual for my Dad to do so, but he drank it and was surprised at how great it tasted!” Later on, that evening, they found him sleeping under the barrels in the cool room because he’d gotten drunk from the juice in the jug. The proof was in the pudding, and from then on they began to produce preservative free, additive free wines.
We trek out down behind the stripped back cellar door towards the winery where Richie, and his father discovered the processes of natural winemaking, with the help of Jayd Smith, Harkham’s contributing winemaker who has worked previously in Europe and Margaret River, plying his trade, before coming to work for Harkham in 2011.
As we approached the tin metal shed, the air was suddenly filled with the sound of horns, and a string section in full flight. Each instrument speeding their way up and down the scale, accompanied by thundering timpani’s and a piano lead set to a pulse. Richard likes to constantly play music to his soon-to-become wines, because he believes it helps to bring out the best in the fruit at various times throughout the wine making process. During extraction – a process involved with red wine making that carefully tries to get the right amount of flavour and colour out of the skins – he puts on Kabbalistic music as encouragement. For Richard, “everything is detail in winemaking… it’s the difference between a good wine, and a great one.”
Harkham wines aren’t just preservative free – they are also kosher, which means that it is grape wine produced according to Judaism’s religious law, specifically, Jewish dietary laws. It’s a tradition that dates back to biblical times, and for Richard and his father, it is an acknowledgement of their history and heritage. Terry’s Grandfather was a winemaker, and his Mother – Aziza – used to make wine from grapes grown in her back yard in Zichron Yaakov.
In order for a wine to be considered kosher, it must have the hechsher (seal of approval) of a kosher supervising agency or organization, and an authorised rabbi must be present throughout every step of the wine making process. This is so that the wine’s holiness – something which is considered an essential element of wine in the Jewish tradition – is maintained and intact from harvest right through to bottling.
Harkham have their own bottling station on site, to make this easier, but also because it keeps everything in its right place. They even seal the wines up with wax that’s been melted down on portable stove tops that sit on the winery floor.
The winery looks much like any other of its scale – large stainless steel tanks for white fermentation, a crusher de-stemmer – now left to one side for another year, and a bottling station waiting to be fired up again for the final movement. The oak barrels, all of which are French, are stored in temperature controlled cool rooms, and are segregated from the rest of the winery, in order to comply with kosher rules, and to keep the wine away from idolaters, such as myself (obviously). Richard was able to peek in and take a few photos for me, but I admit, I did regret the chance of not being able to breathe in one of the best smells in all of the world.
(If you haven’t done so, find your nearest winery and go do it… there is nothing like the smell of a room full of oak barrels filled with wine.)
In lieu of smelling the barrel rooms, Richard offered me a taste of this vintage’s Chardonnay ferment, before malolactic fermentation. It had a cloudy yellow colour, and smelt of burnt orange peel and lemon zest. It sparked in my mouth, causing my cheeks to draw in and my mouth to form a less than attractive pout, but suddenly the sensation receded, and left a curious, almost encouraging finish… I could taste the potential.
There was no Aziza Shiraz to taste on my visit – it had all been shipped down to various wine bars in Sydney and Melbourne – but I did manage to taste it while I was at Rootstock, which is where I first discovered Richard and his Hunter Valley natural wines.
The 2012 Aziza Shiraz from Harkham Windarra, is a bright young thing bursting with earnest promise balanced on a solid history of Hunter Valley heritage. Black fruits and streaks of charcoal earthiness define this wine as a Hunter Valley Shiraz. The elegance is there, but it needs time to develop.
The thing that struck me most about Richard was his sheer, unbridled enthusiasm for what he does. There was a constant smile spread across his face, and his eyes lit up every time he spoke about wine, and not just his either. He is a young Hunter Valley winegrower who is passionate about what he does, and wants the world to know that there is a different way to make wine from Australia’s oldest wine growing region.
Through making his wines as natural as possible, using ancient philosophies inherited from his Grandmother, and pairing them with modern techniques, Richard is one of the only winegrowers in the Hunter Valley that is trying to do something truly different.
D// – The Wine Idealist