Article written by David Kermode - The Buyer
“Sampling new, 2019 Hunter Valley Semillon feels like a form of vinous infanticide,” writes David Kermode, after tasting through the latest vintages of white and red with Iain Riggs, chief winemaker at Brokenwood. Having just completed his 48th vintage, Riggs can rightly be called one of the forefathers of Hunter Valley, taking a small scale winery in 1982 and turning it into one of the most highly regarded estates in Australia today. Riggs discusses Semillon, screw cap, Graveyard Shiraz (the 2017 has just been awarded a Best in Show at the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards), climate and Dolly Parton styles of Chardonnay.
“Vintages matter a lot in the Hunter Valley. The vintage variation is really important and you need to know whether you’re drinking a Semillon from a wet year, or a dry year,” Riggs says
For something so criminally underrated elsewhere in the world, it is little surprise that Semillon arrived in Australia going by the inauspicious name “green grape”. It went on to live a ‘Walter Mitty’ life, under various identities including Hock, Mosel, Chablis and White Burgundy before finally achieving status in its own right, with the correct name, in the early 1980s.
For all the indignity over what to call it, Semillon has – at least – never been short of love in Australia, thanks chiefly to the pioneers of the Hunter Valley. Iain Riggs could fairly be described as one of those founding fathers. Claiming, with a knowing wink, to have started winemaking when he was five, he has just finished his 37th vintage at the Hunter Valley’s Brokenwood Wines, the 48th of his long and illustrious career.
Celebrated for its Semillon and Shiraz, it’s hard to believe that when Riggs arrived in 1982, Brokenwood was a small scale hobby winery, producing only red wines: “I was the first employee and back then we were producing a few thousand cases.”
Now chief winemaker, managing director and a part owner, Riggs has a groaning trophy cabinet that includes one of Australia’s ultimate honours, as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM), in recognition of his work in the Hunter Valley and his broader role in the development of the country’s wine industry.
With an international reputation as Sydney’s wine region, the Hunter Valley is actually around two hours north, but metaphorically much closer to the hearts of Sydneysiders. It is Australia’s oldest commercial wine region, with around 11 hectares that were planted before 1900.
It gets very hot and it also rains a lot, meaning humidity is a challenge. “We get a shitload of rain – that’s a technical term – in January and February,” Riggs tells me, “so vintages matter a lot in the Hunter Valley. The vintage variation is really important and you need to know whether you’re drinking a Semillon from a wet year, or a dry year.”
Brokenwood takes its name from the trees that were cleared when vines were first planted. Its prime vineyard, the Graveyard, thankfully has a less literal title: a reference to the original plans for the site – 16 hectares used for its flagship 300 bucks-a-bottle Shiraz. The icon white, a Semillon, is called ILR, after Riggs’s own initials. It is always bottle-aged for six years before release.
Perhaps surprisingly, all the Brokenwood wines have been under screw cap since 2002. “Semillon under cork is wonderful,” Riggs confesses, “but we were losing 50 per cent to oxidation at five years, so we had to change.” Brokenwood has also adopted much larger oak formats – 500 litre puncheons – for the maturation of Chardonnay. Riggs believes Australian Chardonnay is at “the top of its game at the moment.” Gone are what he describes as “the Dolly Parton styles,” replaced by subtle oak, less skin contact, lower alcohol and far greater individuality.
The latest innovation is to switch all Brokenwood’s wines to vegan certification, with an alternative fining agent to the current skimmed milk for next year’s vintage.
It still feels odd to be tasting wines from the new 2019 vintage, even when they come from the other side of the world, and, given its great potential for ageing, sampling new Hunter Valley Semillon feels like a form of vinous infanticide. That said, the first of the wines on offer from Riggs, for a tasting and lunch at Marcus Wareing’s Gilbert Scott, was already offering teasing hints of where it might lead – all the more remarkable given its ‘entry-level’ range status and relatively low price.
SO HOW DID THEY TASTE?
Hunter Valley Semillon 2019: with wafts of gentle citrus blossom and lemongrass, a robust acidic core of lime pith and Asian pear leads into a long, clean finish that underlines its ageing potential. An inexpensive wine to tuck away for future pleasure, that’s precisely what I shall be doing.
Hunter Valley Semillon 2018: with the same bright blossom notes, pithy citrus, crisp mineral core and a slightly more balanced feel, thanks to its additional year in bottle.
ILR Reserve Semillon 2013: newly-released after six years of bottle ageing, the Icon Series white has no oak, no skin contact and no malolactic fermentation. The result is pure, yet powerful, with fresh lime zest opening into gentle aromas of bees wax. With its powerful acidity and low alcohol, the journey is just beginning for this elegant wine.
ILR Reserve Semillon 2011: powerful citrus aromas, with bees wax polish, wild honey and chicory, intense, yet precise, with broader shoulders and plenty of future ageing potential.
Indigo Chardonnay 2018: no Dolly Parton here, with aromas of struck match and grapefruit, Riggs says “it’s all about acidity” in this wine, which is lean but not mean, with its juicy citrus core and subtle smoky notes.
Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz 2017: with a 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards ‘Best In Show’ trophy under its belt, vibrant red fruits, cherry and plum, lead into a medium bodied wine that elegantly holds its punches to deliver an experience that’s smooth, silky and long.
Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz 2013: demonstrating its evolution in bottle, this offers graphite notes, perfumed cherry, foraged blackberry, a twist of spice and black pepper. The tannins are smooth and there’s impressive complexity and concentration.
What a year it has been for Brokenwood Wines as they approach the one year mark of the opening of their new Cellar Door on Friday 6th December 2018. The team envisioned a space that was as special as their wine, and they have certainly achieved this, providing their dedicated members and guests with an all-encompassing, unforgettable food and wine experience in the Hunter Valley - a new ‘Home in the Hunter’.
Chief Winemaker and Managing Director, Iain Riggs says, ‘Our new Cellar Door not only marks a significant moment in Brokenwood’s history, but allows for a higher level of customer experience, transforming Brokenwood from a small Cellar Door into a must-visit tourism drawcard in the Hunter Valley.’
The Brokenwood team have celebrated a number of exciting wins over the last 6 months, receiving 2019 Cellar Door of the Year at the Hunter Valley Legends Awards in May and listed as the twelfth Top Winery of Australia by The Real Review, receiving a Certificate of Excellence.
Their success has recently continued, named finalist in their category (Tourism Wineries, Distilleries and Breweries) in the 2019 NSW Tourism Awards last Friday. The awards acknowledge leaders in tourism excellence, attracting 146 entrants across 26 categories. Brokenwood Wines sit beside five other successful Hunter Valley businesses who were also nominated for awards: Beyond Ballooning; Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley; Hunter Valley Gardens Christmas Lights Spectacular; Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism and Margan Wines and Restaurant.
“The NSW Tourism Awards are the most prestigious awards in the tourism industry, with a long history of celebrating and recognising business excellence, innovation and outstanding customer service by tourism operations,” NSW Business Chamber CEO, Stephen Cartwright said.
The winners of the 2019 NSW Tourism Awards will be announced at a gala dinner on 14th November at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney. Select Gold Medal winners will go on to represent NSW at the Qantas Australian Tourism Awards in Canberra in March 2020.
Photography: David Griffen
What a month it has been for Brokenwood Wines with a number of successes worth celebrating!
Our 2017 Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz has not only received a Platinum Medal at the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards, but is also 1 of 50 wines (judged from 16,500 entries worldwide) to be awarded a Best in Show. Brokenwood's 2013 ILR Reserve Semillon and 2018 Indigo Vineyard Chardonnay received Silver Medals.
McGuigan Wines was also awarded a Best in Show Trophy for its 2013 McGuigan Bin 9000 Semillon. The results make the Hunter Valley Australia’s only region to win two Best in Show wines, a significant achievement for the region’s international reputation.
Brokenwood's Managing Director and Chief Winemaker, Iain Riggs AM with McGuigan's Chief Winemaker, Neil McGuigan. Photography: Chris Elfes
“As the oldest grape growing region in Australia it is rewarding to see our two major varieties, Semillon and Shiraz flying the flag for premium Australian wine on the world stage. These are unique wine styles and give due recognition to our tireless grape growers and winemakers.” - Managing Director and Chief Winemaker, Iain Riggs AM.
“What a wonderful result for the Hunter Valley wine industry with two of the best grape varieties from this region being recognised on the world stage. Brokenwood and McGuigan run adjoining properties in the Hunter. As neighbours, we share a healthy rivalry and an immense admiration for each other’s wines, plus Riggsy and I are good mates – we couldn’t be happier for each other” - McGuigan Wines Chief Winemaker, Neil McGuigan
We celebrated the release of our 2017 Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz at our annual Graveyard Launch on Saturday, with 330 members attending a long lunch in our Barrel Hall.
Brokenwood’s success also continued this week with our 2018 Hunter Valley Semillon placed in Matthew Jukes’ list of Australia’s Top 100 wines, compiled annually by the UK-based journalist, as well as winning Cellar Door of the Year at the Hunter Valley Legends & Wine Industry Awards last Thursday night.
We are excited to see what the year ahead has in store for Brokenwood Wines.
See below for an update from our Chief Winemaker and Managing Director, Iain Leslie Riggs on this years' vintage.
The big question leading into vintage was: Could the Hunter Valley score three consecutive great vintages? At the time of writing it looks like the answer is yes! With the 2017 Brokenwood Hunter Valley Shiraz line up about to be released and a couple of 2018 HV Shiraz already in bottle, the thought of a repeat of the 2005, 2006 and 2007 is very exciting indeed. And not just Shiraz - as the Semillons from the trio of years, 2005 to 2007, were outstanding.
Post vintage 2018 rain in February and March of over 200mm allowed some last minute growth ready for winter. Just as well - as the next 5 months saw a miserly 72mm of rain. Early irrigation was essential and rain in the early summer months was needed. January 2019 saw a further 47mm but also extreme heat, with 27 days over 30C and 7 of those over 40C. The western edge of some of the vineyards were slightly scorched.
One of our weather charts shows rainfall from 1919 to 2006, with the average right on 800mm per year. If it is brought up to the century, 1919 to 2018, the average is 798mm. It is interesting to note that the last two decades back to 1999 are responsible for the ever so slight drop. The decade 1999 to 2008 and then 2009 to 1018 shows 693mm and 757mm respectively.
The only certainty that we have in the Hunter Valley is the total unpredictability of our weather.
All our Hunter Valley Semillon will be in the winery this week and because of the dry winter, juice yield is down but juice colour and sugar levels are just fine. Oakey Creek, Trevena and Tallawanta are the pick so far. Brokenwood may pick some Shiraz by week’s end, but seed and skin tannins could ripen a bit more. And if the rain holds off then the week starting 11th February will be all systems go!
The Vineyard team of Katrina and Lucy have done a great job with all the vineyards.
Of our other regions, Cowra is in recovery mode from last year’s devastating hail storm; Orange looks terrific as does the Canberra District. The Indigo Vineyard at Beechworth had a bit of ‘Hunter’ this year with a big rain event before Christmas that dumped 175mm and took out bridges and roads - then back to 40C weather. The Chardonnay is getting very close. McLaren Vale has been hot and dry.
A terrific vintage crew in 2019 and we’ve become somewhat of a Wine Kindergarten rather than a Wine University, with a few ‘sons of’ this year. Jai Harrop (Matt Harrop was our winemaker 1996-98), Ben Dolan (Rob Sticks Dolan of Yarra Valley fame) and Remy Thomas (son of local legend Andrew Thomas) all pitching in for the vintage. Plus Internationals from New Zealand and Canada.
We have kicked off with yet another great vintage this year, all the fruit has been picked in the Hunter Valley and we’re now getting fruit in from our other regions such as McLaren Vale, Beechworth, Margaret River, Orange, Cowra, and Canberra.
See below for an update from our Chief Winemaker and Managing Director, Iain Leslie Riggs on this years' vintage.
- 25th January 2018
At the time of writing, all our Hunter Valley whites, (all but 2 tonne being Semillon) has been picked. In terms of weather, Hunter Valley vignerons are happy when it doesn’t rain and we certainly haven’t had much in the past 10 months.
The Hunter Valley had 41mm on the 31st March 2017 and then 45mm on the 23rd October and the middle 6 months April – September saw only 124mm of rain and only just better than the dry winter of 2002 where we had 120mm in the lead up to the hot dry 2003 vintage.
Picking got underway on the 15th January compared to our earliest vintage in 2014, which was the 9th January. Brokenwood will start picking reds on Monday 29th January. Comparing other hot, dry years, we started processing our red fruit on 31st January in 2007.
Therefore we had a dry lead up and while we have irrigation to keep the vines alive, nothing beats nature’s own. The canopies have not been affected by the constant run of 30C+ days but it is easy to see the vines are sick of the heat and dry. Sugars have stayed low, meaning typical vibrant Semillon with maybe just a lick more colour. Certainly 2003 springs to mind as a very similar vintage and style of wine. The reds wines will be generous but well balanced as there has been a slow rise in sugar.
We could see the red harvest extend past the 9th February, which will still be an early finish. The last Shiraz in 2003 was picked on the 28th February, the 5th March in 2005 and the 17th February in 2017.
Our other regions are in great shape, especially Beechworth, although not without loss of grapes to sunburn on the west facing slopes and McLaren Vale yet again is having a burst of 40C+.
- 12th February 2018
The last big pick of our Shiraz was completed on the 10th February being the last of our Hunter Valley fruit sources to come in. Semillon ferments smell and taste terrific and the red wines are truly impressive. Comparisons to the 2014 vintage will be plentiful as they have at this early stage intense colours and beautifully ripe tannins. A run of 30C-35C days and cooler nights allowed the grape sugar to ease up to 14 baumé unlike 2017 where temperatures of 45C were common. Exciting times ahead.
Beechworth has come on with a rush with Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir all being harvested this week. Umpires Vineyard at Cowra had a significant hailstorm in late November 2017, so a much-reduced crop. We’ll be closely monitoring the Forest Edge Vineyard following the Mount Canobolas bush fire over the past few days. Other regions are in good shape.
- Iain Riggs, Managing Director & Chief Winemaker
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