When driving through the picturesque Hunter Valley, you’ll notice rows and rows of trellised grapevines. Some of the oldest in the world! Do you ever wonder what type of vines they are? They look similar for most of the year and then just before harvest you can easily distinguish the difference between white and red grapevines. This article is about the typical grape varieties found in the Hunter Valley. They are Semillon, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Verdelho. These four grape varieties make up approximately 85% of plantings in the Hunter Valley.
Hunter Valley Semillon is world-famous. A unique style to the region that can age for decades. Due to soil and climatic factors, Semillon grapes in the Hunter Valley achieve flavour ripeness with low sugars and high acids. These grapes make a light-bodied wine that’s all about citrus and only 10-11% alcohol. Over time the acidity will soften, the colour will deepen, more abundant flavours develop becoming a medium and eventually full-bodied wine.
Young Hunter Valley Semillon is excellent on a hot day, so refreshing. It’s also great to enjoy with just about anything that you’d squeeze lemon juice over. Take some freshly shucked Port Stephens oysters and drizzle with Semillon instead of the lemon. Aged Semillon still retains citrus characters and picks up fuller flavours like buttered toast and honey. I like to drink aged Semillon a little warmer (10-12°C), to avoid suppressing those rich flavours. Heavier seafood dishes like lobster, scallops or ocean trout can pair well with aged Hunter Valley Semillon.
Semillon grapes make other styles of wine too; blended with other grapes, made into sparkling wines, dessert wines and fortified wines.
Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape variety in the Hunter Valley, and Tyrrell’s HVD vineyard has some of the oldest Chardonnay vines in the world, planted in 1908. The wine styles produced vary a lot due to the creative influence of the winemaker. The big, buttery, oaked wines of the ’80s and ’90s are rare to find today. The current trend for Chardonnay is more fruit-driven styles with refreshing acidity.
Because Chardonnay comes in many different styles, there are many food and wine pairing possibilities. The full-bodied styles tend to go well with white meat dishes, especially those with a creamy or buttery sauce. Lighter-bodied Chardonnay can sit well with prawns, fish or chicken dishes severed with lemon or vinaigrette dressing.
The Verdelho grape has a long history with the Hunter Valley. From the early 1900s to 1970s winemakers made fortified wines, a wine that has a spirit like brandy added to strengthen and preserve it. Today Verdelho is mostly used to make table wine, often described as ‘fruit salad in a glass’.
Enjoy your Verdelho when young and fresh. It’s easy to drink on its own, dubbed the ‘verandah wine’. Verdelho is a perfect match with most Asian style dishes, especially those with a little chilli.
The Hunter Valley’s iconic red wine is Shiraz. This hardy grapevine grows well in wine regions all over Australia but Hunter Valley Shiraz is unique. The warm days and warm nights speed up the ripening process leading to an earlier harvest (January/February). Because the grapes haven’t spent as much time in the sun, they don’t have as much intensity. The result is a medium-bodied wine, with plenty of complexity. The varietal characters of plum, blackberry and pepper shine through, but with lower alcohol, tannin and oak. The early winemakers in the Hunter Valley called their Shiraz, ‘Burgundy’. They felt it was closer to Pinot Noir than Shiraz.
Hunter Valley Shiraz is excellent to enjoy with a barbecued steak or rack of lamb. It also pairs well with spicy curries and harder cheeses.