Into the heart of the Hunter with Tyrrells – sublime Semillons & sensual single vineyard Shiraz
This is where it all started at Tyrrells. The ironbark slab hut in Pokolbin, the Hunter Valley.
Hand built in 1858 by Edward Tyrrell, it stands sentry over the earth-floored cellar and aged vineyards from which the first vintage was picked and pressed in 1864. The basket press he installed back then is still used for the Vat 47 and Belford Chardonnays.
Apparently when Tyrrell acquired his 320 acres abutting the edge of the Brokenback Range (pictured below), he was disappointed to miss out on more fertile block closer to the Hunter River. But the original dry-farmed vineyards, some 35km from the sea as the crow flies, are among the region’s very best.
As Mark Richardson (pictured), who heads up red wine production, simply puts it“you can’t make decent red wines in the Hunter if yields exceed 2t/acre (around 35hl/ha).” For great reds, planted on volcanic red clays over limestone, yields are likely to be nearer to 1-1.5t/acre because, as he explains, the season breaks early so you need to advance the ripening period.
Today, with a laboratory bolted onto the cellar, Tyrrells is the perfect synthesis between old and new, science and art. As for the wines, they’re as individual as they’re impressive. Here are my notes:
Tyrrells Johnno’s Semillon Basket Pressed 2010
The name and flute-shaped bottle give away the retro concept. These days, because Semillon has such slippery skins, enzymes are added at the press to swiften the process. Not so for this basket pressed wine and this, together with a warmer ferment of slightly cloudy juice makes for an attractively textured Semillon with more palate weight and a touch more development in terms of flavour spectrum than a conventionally fermented wine. It performed brilliantly across a range of dishes at a Hakkasan Semillon tasting challenge (see here for details). It has a tight but subtly textured, silky even, limey/lemon grass nose and palate with hints of toast and talc. Long, intense and mouthwatering. Though very approachable it surely has a long life ahead of it. 11.5% abv
Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon 2010
Though Vat 1 is not released for several years, this sneak preview gave me an insight into the sheer intensity of wines which make the cut for Vat 1. It’s typically a blend of old blocks, including Tyrrell’s oldest Semillon from the Short Flat Vineyard. Mark tells me from a line up of 60-70 wines on the blending bench, this vineyard always stands out. The Vat 1 is much tighter and purer than the Johnno’s with a beautifully intensity all the way through though, as Semillon does, it builds on the back palate –as Mark puts it “it’s a big powerhouse from the mid to back palate”. A seamless crescendo of power, with a finish that seemingly goes on forever. Great underlying minerality to its waxed lemon fruits. 12% abv
Tyrrells HVD Semillon 2010
Ripe concentrated lemon with bath salts/sweet talc and lots of weight and intensity to nose and stony palate. Though precise, you really fall into this wine – there’s a generosity too. Mark says this vineyard, which has the sandiest of soils –“like talc over coarse but fine sand” – typically has softer acid.
Tyrrells Single Vineyard HVD 2005
At 6 years old, it’s starting to develop classic limes on toast on the nose though, in this excellent vintage, there’s still a waft of lemon grass. In the mouth, it’s pithier –more lemon peel than flesh – but more open textured too. Less assertive than the Vat 1. 11.5%
Tyrrells Single Vineyard Belford 2005
Pronounced floral, powder puff notes on nose and palate – a prettier wine with waxy, pithy honeyed lime and grapefruit. Apparently honey is very typical of this deep sandy vineyard which, though located furthest away from the mountain range and at lower altitude, is cooler because cold air lies there for longer. It’s always picked last.
Tyrrells Single Vineyard Stevens 2005
Intense and stony, this is a relatively delicate, restrained wine with lifted powder puff notes. Finishing long, limpid and mineral it’s beautifully subtle and stony from 50 year old vines. Unusually for a Semillon it comes from red soils – ”red wine country” (most Semillon comes from sandy creek beds).
Tyrrells Vat 1 2005
Plenty of richness already with some tertiary tufa/white porcini notes honey and pithy citrus notes balanced by an exotic lemongrass lift. And plenty more to come. Muscular.
Tyrrells Vat 1 1997
A beautifully complex nose and palate with lemongrass, lime, honey and spicy, pithy citrus fruit. With a few more years under its belt, there’s a waxy, oilskin note too. Delicious , with oodles of concentration.
Tyrrells HVD 1999
Tyrrells introduced screwcaps in 2004 but this wine was kept in tank until 2005 when it was bottled under screwcap. That softer acid quality makes for a slow burn palate which subtley saturates the mouth with a wash of honeyed lemon and lemongrass notes –fabulous purity still. Mark reckons that, under screwcap (or a good cork), wines are more likely to develop mineral and honey rather than toast notes.
Tyrrells Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay 2010
Slow burn crops up in my tasting notes for Tyrrells Chardonnay and, no doubt, it’s what enables Vat 47 to age so well, like the 1998 we had at a Landmark dinner when Bruce Tyrrell observed, like Hunter Semillon, it benefits from naturally high tartaric acid levels. For Mark though the Hunter doesn’t have the aromatics or initial wow factor of cooler regions, it makes up for it in structure and power, to which end the Chardonnay sees no malo and is lees aged. This has a smoky/flinty nose, a hint of oilskin too which gives way to a ripe, muscular mid-palate of peach and rock melon. Quite dense, but its balanced with a tightly coiled character to the finish.
Tyrrells Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay 2007
Rich and ripe but well balanced, with a nutty, savoury, textured palate which builds to a long finish, again, slightly smoky.
Tyrrells Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay 2004
This looks significantly more evolved and, in the mouth, is much peachier, with sweeter tinned peach notes as well as savoury cashew. My least favourite.
Moving on to the reds, Mark tells me there’ve been “big changes” since 2004 to eradicate brettanomyces’ spoilage, including the introduction of new big format French wood (“for the freshness of big wood”) and a change of sulphur regime.
Acknowledging “in the past, brett was confused with regional character” he adds “you’d still expect Shiraz to get that leathery character, it’s a regional thing, but when the wines are young they shouldn’t have any of those characters.”
And as he points out, given Hunter Shiraz doesn’t have the fruitcake sweetness or anthocyans of its peers “so there’s nowhere to hide;” instead of being, “light and long,”brett shortens the palate and introduces a metallic note.
Another exciting recent development is the introduction of single vineyard red cuvees 4 acres and 1867, which join Stevens, which was first released in 1993. Mark says, even though vinified separately in small batches, fruit used to be blended into the Vat series and – “got lost”- “it didn’t twig we should do as we do with Semillon…” I’m glad it did, because 4 Acres from a vineyard (pictured below) planted next door to the cellar in 1879 is right up there on my list of top Shiraz! Apparently, it was the source of the famous Maurice O’Shea Mt Plesant Richard Hermitage made by Dan Tyrrell.
It’s also part of a general reverse away from the trend of the last 20 years when Hunter Valley producers tried to follow the market and make a bigger, woodier style. He says acquiring vineyards in McLaren Vale and Heathcote better suited to that style has seen Tyrrells focus on a more old school Hunter Burgundy model.
Tyrrells Single Vineyard 4 Acres Shiraz 2006
Fruit from this 4 acre vineyard (so-called because every second row was pulled out in 1964 for tractor access, leaving 2.2 acres of vines) used to go into Vat 9. It’s aged in French oak foudres and on 100% lees because, according to Mark, “we’ve got all the ‘mud’ and we leave it there as long as possible to create volume for the Hunter.” Quite pale, it’s very much in Hunter Burgundy mode with its subtly creamy (leesy) but pure and bright red cherry and succulent, blackberry and cherry fruit. A sensual, seductive wine, with gloriously supple, seductive tannins. To quote Mark’s comment earlier, it finishes “long and light” but don’t be fooled, this elegant Shiraz has the intensity and structure to age. Outstanding. 12.4% abv.
Tyrrells Single Vineyard 4 Acres Shiraz 2007
The vintage of low yields and drought concentrated fruit (less than 1t/acre, though the pH was very low at 3.31). While it’s possessed of a darker spectrum of flavours and an extra degree of alcohol (13.5%), a vivid crimson hue and youthful, narrow pink rim gives the game away. It’s bright and tight with fresh blackcurrant and sweet, wild raspberries on the palate though, in this vintage, the creaminess has a glycerol edge too. Very good.
Tyrrells Single Vineyard Stevens Shiraz 2007
This wine is made from a small amount of fruit from 1867 vines, the rest from 80 year old vines. It and Vat 8 are aged in small French oak barrels, making for a more savoury Shiraz with a smoky bacon edge to its bright core of black berry and cherry fruit. Long and lithely elegant, with black pepper nuances to the finish. Very good.
Tyrrells Single Vineyard Old Patch 1867 2007
A deep colour with a great intensity of silky, glycerol edged fruit – unfolding layers of wild berries and cherries, black and red. Indeed, so intense that my notes make no reference to the tannins! Fresh balancing acidity again leavens the palate and lends high definition – clarity – to the fruit. Extremely youthful. Terrific.
Tyrrells Vat 9 Shiraz 2007
With sweet bilberry, lifted juniper and a core of cassis, subtly shored up by ripe but present tannins this has lovely intensity, balance and poise. Very good indeed.
Tyrrells Vat 9 Shiraz 1996
A garnet hue with developed linseed, boot polish and leather on the nose. In the mouth, these tertiary notes take a back seat to ripe red cherry and sour cherry fruit wed to ripe but present tannins. Still plenty of oomph, characterful oomph at that!
Tyrrells Vat 8 Shiraz 2007
Aged in French and American oak, this has a sweet vanilla edge and correspondingly ramped up, riper cassis and blackcurrant fruit gum with a tarry undertow and menthol hints. Rippling with fruit and ripe tannins, it’s well made but I have to admit I’m definitely in the Hunter Burgundy camp.