4am – The alarm finally goes off. I wake up instantly because I’ve not really been sleeping. I’ve been drifting in and out of consciousness with faint coloured images of red, white, and green shuffling through my mind for the last five hours, because it doesn’t truly trust my alarm to sound at the correct hour for such an early and important occasion. And besides, this is exciting.
Andrew Margan was quoted in the Newcastle Herald describing Vintage 2014 in the Hunter Valley, saying, “we’ve had perfect weather conditions and the forecast says there won’t be any significant rainfall until February, which is good news for us”. On January 7th, Vintage 2014 officially started, with many wineries around the Hunter beginning to pick chardonnay, to start making their sparkling wines. A week later and it’s the rest of the Hunter’s turn, as Vintage 2014 swings into full gear.
6am – I drive along a dirt road, and my excitement rises in time with the sun as it baths the long rows in fresh sunlight. Most of the pickers had already assembled and were well underway, chatting in unison, chopping and lopping big bunches of semillon… the first grapes to be picked.
“These are some of the best bunches of semillon I’ve seen in the Hunter for a very long time,” says Ross McDonald from Macquariedale Organic Wines.
I walk up to the back of the ute that’s been parked between the vine rows. It’s carrying two huge buckets, called picking bins that can each hold up to approximately 500L. I receive my weapons of choice for the day, an orange handled pair of vine cutters and a black plastic bucket, already decorated with a few grapey remains from it’s previous owner. Heading back toward the vine rows I assume my place amongst the spirited pickers and begin harvesting my first grapes of 2014.
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Pushing aside the broad green leaves of the semillon vine, which provide a little bit of shade for the fruit, I spy a big beautiful bunch of grapes hidden beneath the canopy and try to locate its ‘umbilical cord’.
The grape vine, otherwise known as vitis consists of roots, which anchor the vine to the earth and serve as a conduit for water and nutrients absorbed from the soil. The roots have the ability to store a reserve of carbohydrates that can be used to create and provide structure for the vine as it grows. These stored energy reserves can then be used later by the vine, for example; in winter once the leaves have fallen off and the vine is no longer performing photosynthesis. Photosynthesis in the grapevine produces glucose (sugars) which can be combined with other molecules to form larger carbohydrates that can then be used to create, in the case of fruiting grapevines, grape berries which contain all the necessary (and delicious) ingredients for making wine.
I chop off the cluster of green semillon from the shoot and toss the captured bounty into the black bucket beside my feet. One down, many more to go.
The Hunter region was discovered in 1797 by British Lieutenant John Shortland as he searched for convicts that had escaped the colony, stumbling upon the Hunter River by accident. The local Aborigines knew the river as the Coquon.
No one knows exactly who planted the first vines, but popular opinion suggests it was William Kelman, brother-in-law to the father and founder of the Australian wine industry, James Busby. Busby had been granted 2,000 acres on the Hunter River between Singleton and Branxton in 1824, naming it Kirkton, after his birthplace in Scotland.
“The man who could sit under the shade of his own vine, with his wife and children about him, and the ripe clusters hanging within their reach, in such a climate as this, and not feel the highest enjoyment, is incapable of happiness and does not know what the word means”, wrote Busby of his 19th century notions of grape growing in the Hunter Valley. Busby planted vines at Kirkton with cuttings he’d made from vineyards in France and Spain when he travelled there in 1831.
Another pioneer of the Hunter Valley was James King, who had a property planted near Raymond Terrace (an hours drive north-east of Kirkton) and was instrumental in founding the Hunter River Vineyard Association, in 1847. He was one of the first to export Australian wine to Britain, and one of these wines, thought to be a sparkling semillon, won a medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1855, beating the French Champagnes, which was then served at the table of Emperor Napoleon III during the exhibition’s closing ceremonies (*) .
Bruce Tyrell reckons that the Hunter Valley makes, “the best and longest living Semillon on the globe”, but try telling that the 98% of people making white wine purchases in Australia. In the last issue of Selector magazine (Summer 2013/14), it was noted that Semillon accounts for only 2% of total white wine sales in Australia! Surely, the Hunter Valley’s gift to the wine world is also its most underrated.
Once it was common for Semillon to be mislabeled as Hunter River Reisling, Rhine Gold, White Burgundy, and even Chablis, because of the sharp, mineral style that it exhibits in the early stages of it’s long life. But these lean, lime and green apple features, over some time, morph into a magnificent natural wine wonder of the world to become birght golden yellow in colour, with honeyed toast, and soft sweet melon characters on the nose and palate some ten years after being bottled.
As I stood amongst rows and rows of the Hunter Valley’s gift to the wine world I became enamored with the sheer size, firmness, and sweet taste of these freshly cut fruits being handpicked from their biodynamic birthplace.
Ross McDonald has been growing Semillon at Macquariedale since the late 1990’s, managing the vineyard organically, then eventually biodynamically, from the very beginning. Macquariedale was actually the first Hunter Valley vineyard to become fully certified organic/biodynamic by Australian Certified Organic in 2005.
“This season is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve seen in a long while,” says Ross as we move between the rows, “the high temperatures in the day coupled with the low humidity and relatively cool nights are ensuring that the quality and ripeness of the fruit is just outstanding,” he said.
We pick well into the day, and the heat wave that was forecast doesn’t disappoint, as temperatures soar above 30°C. The promise of a cold beer and swim in Ross’ pool keeps my motivation motoring along.
Vintage 2014 in the Hunter is off to a promising start. Long may it continue…
D// – The Wine Idealist
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(*) This information was gleaned from Australian Wine Regions, Hunter Valley, by Steve Elias, R. Ian Lloyd and Wendy Moore, published by R. Ian Lloyd Productions. 2001.
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