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mercredi, 28 août 2013

HUNTER VALLEY, AUSTRALIA

THE HUNTER VALLEY:

THE MOST BEWILDERING WINE REGION OF THE WORLD?


Claude Gilois

There are not enough words to describe this wine region located two hours by road north of Sydney.

 

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Bizarre, disconcerting, stunning, unpredictable, unexpected, singular, amazing, surprising, disturbing… and even these words are probably not enough to describe a wine region where theoretically it should be impossible to make wine.

This is, however, one of the oldest wine regions of Australia, which derives its success from its beautiful landscape, its proximity to Sydney, and the determination of one man, James Busby, considered today, as the founder of Australian viticulture.


It is probably during the Universal Exhibition of 1855, which saw the Bordeaux classification being established, that the Hunter Valley experienced its finest moments. In judges’ official reports, the Hunter Valley was described as a region producing wine resembling those of the Rhone Valley, but also wines with less colour not unlike those found in Burgundy without forgetting the sparkling wines that could challenge the best wines made in Champagne or  sweet wines worthy of those made in Montignac or Cape Town. It was indeed a sparkling wine from the Hunter Valley that was chosen to be served at the closing ceremony attended by Napoleon III.

However, the removal of trade barriers between Australian states, as well as the change in the Australians’ taste for fortified wine, precipitated the decline of this wine region which re-emerged after the war with some of the most charismatic characters of the Australian wine industry ever seen. (Len Evans, Maurice O’Shea, Murray Tyrrell).

It is extremely difficult to understand viticulture of the New World with European references, as it is impossible to comprehend all the variables that can have influences on it.  The climate of the Hunter Valley is usually described as Mediterranean, which is untrue as the climate of the Valley is sub-tropical and we know that viticulture in sub-tropical and tropical regions is by no means an easy ride.

The latitude of the Hunter Valley, which is one of the most northern latitudes for Australian viticulture, and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean makes this region one of the wettest and the hottest in the world especially for the production of world class wines.   The mountains located in the west and in the north form a funnel that allows winds from the ocean to penetrate the valley thus ensuring that thermal conditions are adequate for viticulture. Without this topographic situation viticulture would not exist in this region.

 

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The geographical configuration is reminiscent of that of the San Pablo Bay that provides the Napa Valley with a cooling influence without which viticulture would not be possible, but the natural counterpart is that rain sweeps the Hunteer Valley, which can be torrential during maturation of the grapes and invariably during picking.   Yet this region of great beauty, which seems to have too many negative factors to allow viticulture, produces the best Semillons in Australia (which barely reaches 10.5-11.5o of alcohol). It produces some very fine chardonnay, of which the degree of alcohol is dropping every year (in particular at Tyrrell’s).   It also produces some Shiraz which are markedly different from that produced in other regions of Australia. They are earthier, less exuberant with slightly powdery tannins. They have, for a long time, been described as having aromas and flavours of sweaty saddles at a time when journalists did not necessarily know the organoleptic characteristics of contaminations of wine by Brettanomyces.   It fair to say that the likes of  Evans, Tyrrell and O’Shea could tell a story or two even to less gullible people.

So… how can we explain the paradox of this region when temperatures can reach 45oC (the temperature at which the vine ceases to function) and rain comes bucketing down most days at a critical time for grape maturation. The answer is in fact in the question. It is the rain that cools down the vines and the ambient temperature so that photosynthesis can continue.

If you add to this fact that the Semillon is planted on very sandy soil, hence with very good drainage, wines produced from Semillon are extremely fresh, almost Cistercian, difficult to approach in early age, and they are generally kept by the domains for 5 years before being released on the market and have a keeping potential of 30+ years.  The other two major grape varieties also benefit from the rain that dilutes the fruit concentration to some extent allowing them to have far lower degrees of alcohol than wines coming from cooler regions of Australia.

A truly remarkable region.

 

 

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