Hunter Valley

Hunter Valley

"Don’t write us off" | The 2020 vintage in the Hunter Valley

That’s the message coming from a whole lot of passionate and hardworking Hunter Valley winemakers and vignerons about what was, by all accounts, a unique and challenging 2020 vintage.  One characterised by drought, bushfires and smoke taint.

But, as the old saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining and according to the Hunter Valley wine industry, there’re still plenty here to be found. 

We caught up with some of the region’s most well-known producers to discuss the unprecedented 2020 vintage and, most importantly, silver linings.

Christina Tulloch, Tulloch Wines

“There were some really tough decisions we had to make but overall, we’re really happy with what we've produced.”

We were fortunate to be able to pick Verdelho, Semillon and Chardonnay from the Upper Hunter which didn’t get as much exposure to the smoke as some of our vineyards in the lower Hunter.

These styles of wine are crushed, taken off skins and get into the bottle pretty quickly too, so the risk of smoke taint was really low.

During vintage we followed all the advice from the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), sending in samples and testing a lot of micro ferments.

For the reds, we knew we were already low on yields and in the end, we just didn’t feel like we could risk it, so we haven’t made any this year. 

“Incredibly though, a lot of innovative collaborations have come out of the 2020 vintage.”

At Tulloch’s we worked with First Creek Wines and the Archie Rose Distilling Co. to produce a Hunter Valley Shiraz Spirit, which sold out really fast! 

I also know quite a few other winemakers that have been doing some really interesting things with their fruit.  Out of adversity, comes innovation.  It’s great to see.

Since we’ve re-opened at Tulloch’s, it’s been incredibly hectic.  The cellar door has been really busy.  It’s just awesome to see the Hunter come alive again.

Visitors should plan ahead though and book tastings to make sure they can get in.

Mike De Iuliis, De Iuliis Wines 

“We’re surprised by how good the wines actually look.”

The two biggest impacts coming into 2020 were the drought and the bushfires.  We were already looking at a significant drop in crop levels and then having to consider what the smoke was going to do to the quality of the wine. 

We monitored the situation and kept sending samples to the AWRI for testing but the science behind smoke taint is not definitive.  It’s a little bit of an unknown and the feedback from the AWRI was varied. 

So, we made the call to just make the wines off our own vineyards in Pokolbin and Lovedale which were quite a distance from the fires at Broke.  Fortunately, the wines look really good and there’s no issue with smoke affecting them.

To date, we’ve bottled and released a 2020 Semillon and Verdelho and the feedback from consumers has been great. 

The Semillon is bigger, richer and softer than usual and the Verdelho is super aromatic, more so than the last few years.  We’ll also release a Rosé from the 2020 vintage coming into the warmer months.

The red crops have been the most significantly affected by the drought but the quality is great.  On average we’d normally process about 250 tonnes of fruit but this year we only put through 130-140 tonnes.

“At first, we were concerned about not having enough wine to get through and then COVID19 hit and we were worried about not selling enough.”

We’ve had a lot of support from our members though and people are coming back to the Valley. 

Our cellar door was closed for two months but we’ve had a good influx of visitors since the June long weekend which has been great.

Bruce Tyrrell, Tyrrell’s Wines

“The lead into 2020 vintage was a long and difficult one. We were at the end of four years of drought. At Christmas we had to dig a long way to see moisture in the soil.”

And then in October we started to have the arrival of smoke from the various fires in the Valley.  The closest to Tyrrell's was 12kms away but the smoke was here for three months which impacted tourism quite dramatically.

Really, we haven’t seen anything on this scale since the fires in 1969.   They were even more severe than this year and actually burnt out the whole Eastern half of the Valley.  I remember my Mother saying that she would never forget the look on my Father’s face when he had to shoot 40 head of cattle that were severely burnt back then.

“This year though, there was a lot more science available to us which was good. So, when this happens again, which it will, we’ll have much better knowledge.”

We won’t be able to cure it, but we’ll have a better understanding of the impacts.  

At Tyrrell’s this year we didn’t make 80% of our wines because testing showed they had smoke taint.  The fruit from our growers in Dalwood and Belford though was okay as it was far enough away from the fires and wasn’t affected. 

There were also a couple of blocks of white grapes which we’ve been able to utilise.  Testing showed they were close to the acceptable limits for smoke taint but we worked through a lot of trials and different ways of handling the juice and filtrations which bought the numbers right down.

“We’re bottling nothing above the $20 range, so no Single Vineyard or other premium wines. We weren’t willing to take that chance and affect our reputation for quality.”

The fruit we didn’t produce was picked into bins and then dropped over the fence to the cattle so it wasn’t a complete loss. 

We were able to get the fruit off the vines just before the rain came too, so the vines have benefited from all those nutrients.  The vineyards are bouncing back and the Valley is so green. 

2022 could be very good vintage in the Hunter, thanks to nature.

Usher Tinkler, Usher Tinkler Wines 

“I didn’t buy into the media talk around the smoke taint but we had a really low yield in 2020 so while there’s not a lot of wine, what we do have is really good.”

We worked out fairly quickly that the risk for us to produce wine from 2020 was quite low. We’ve had our wines tested by the AWRI and they’re all well below the acceptable threshold for smoke taint. 

At the moment we have four wines on tasting which are our Prosecco, Death by Semillon and Rebirth Shiraz, two natural wines, and The Enneagram which is a blend of nine different varieties – somewhere between a white, red and Rosé. 

With the reds, we only produced tiny amounts but the Shiraz is drinking really well and it’s our best seller. 

“It’s been a disastrous year for many reasons but we’re getting back on our feet. As a winemaker and artisan, it’s my job to demonstrate the characteristics of that particular vintage in the wine, so that’s what I’ve done.”

We’ve had our biggest weekend ever in sales just recently and we’ve been booked out every day for tastings, even during the week.  Obviously, a lot of businesses haven’t reopened yet but it’s been great for us. 

We’ve had the strongest month of sales since we opened 4 ½ years ago. We’re certainly getting a lot of visitors and everyone’s attitudes are great. They’ve been positive and understanding if they haven’t been able to get in for a tasting.

Andrew Thomas, Thomas Wines

“It was certainly a challenging season for everyone in the Hunter.”

We were in our 4th season of drought conditions so crops were down because of that and then of course we had the bush fires out west of us and while we weren’t directly impacted by fire, we did have some smoke blow in so our production for 2020 is down by 60%.

I, like most producers, took a very diligent approach.  We did lots of testing and pre-harvest micro ferments.  The end result of all that was that I made a decision not to harvest any vineyards or blocks that looked like they’d have smoke taint.

“The blocks unaffected by smoke look excellent though.”

The fires were so far away from Pokolbin but the smoke hanging around in the Valley varied daily depending on the wind direction.

A lot of smoke hung around the Brokenback Range so vineyards further away from there were less affected.  Our Belford Vineyard which is 20kms away wasn’t affected.  Even our Braemore Vineyard, which is only 1km away from the Range, was okay.

At harvest, we take a gentle approach to handling the fruit that comes in.  We press off gently and rather quickly so there’s not a lot of tannin extraction which can potentially minimise smoke taint if there’s any present.  

The results taken from the finished wines are even better than the samples sent to the AWRI.  All the Semillons are looking really good.

Gwyn Olsen, Pepper Tree Wines

“The 2020 vintage certainly tested me the most as a winemaker but I’m really proud of how our wines look.”

We were severely impacted by the preceding four years of drought in the Hunter, more so than the smoke taint.  We’d normally take in 50 tonnes of Shiraz for example but this year we only took in five. 

The two Hunter Shiraz wines we produced in 2020 – one from our Mount View vineyard and the other from a vineyard off Hermitage Road in Pokolbin – look surprisingly delicious and vibrant.  Both have been tested by the AWRI and contain zero smoke taint.

Our Verdelho is looking really great too. It’s juicy and a bit more spritzy than usual and has this lovely fruit sweetness which makes it really easy to drink.

Sadly, Orange, where we source fruit for our Semillon Sauvignon Blanc (SSB) was a lot worse-off than the Hunter.  We harvested everything though, but didn't extract as much juice from the fruit as usual.   The SSB is drinking well though.

Andrew Margan, Margan Wines

“It’s been tough, but we’re still here.”

Outside of the smoke, the vintage conditions here in Broke were outstanding – the warm, dry summer reducing yields and providing excellent concentration of flavour in the fruit.  So, the wines made from the vineyards that weren’t affected by the smoke are looking great.

This year at Margan, we produced a Rosé, Chardonnay, Albariño and Verdelho.  They’re all in bottle and drinking really well.  We won’t be producing any of our Reserve wines from 2020 and as yet, we’re still not sure about the reds.  We’re still looking at our options.

I guess the takeaway, certainly the message I got from speaking to the people that know is that yes, the Hunter Valley’s had a rough go of it the last six months.  But just as the Valley is renewing itself, so is the resilient winemaking community. 

And while you may have heard the term ‘smoke taint’ thrown around, it doesn’t mean that the 2020 Hunter vintage is a complete write-off. 

Our winemakers have worked hard for many years to establish the Hunter Valley as a premium wine producing area.  And because of that, they’re hell-bent on upholding the Hunter’s good reputation. 

They don’t want to sell you undrinkable, smoke tainted wines as much as you don’t want to drink them.   Our reputation was hard fought and quite frankly, it means too much.

So why not show this great wine region of ours your support.  Come back to the Hunter Valley soon and buy some wine.

Hunter Valley