The Lower Hunter Valley
If you were born and bred in Sydney, the Lower Hunter Valley is not only the greatest and the most important wine region in Australia, it is tantamount to the only region. If you come from overseas, and have an interest in wine, it is a fair bet it is one of the two wine districts (the Barossa Valley being the other) you will have heard of prior to your arrival and which you propose to visit.
For South Australians, it is an object of derision (with a generous dash of jealousy); for Victorians it is an area which arouses a mixture of curiosity and respect.
To a disinterested observer (if there is such a person) the most obvious characteristic is the peculiarly Australian beauty of the Valley. In no small measure this comes from the smoky blue of the Brokenback Range, rising threateningly above the nearest vineyards along Broke Road, and distantly though clearly etched as you look back from Allandale and Wilderness Roads - but wherever you are, a significant part of the landscape.
Apart from the Brokenback Range, the Valley has only the most gentle undulations; the vineyards are concentrated on the southern side, and the Barrington Tops, on the northern side, are out of sight.
So there is that feeling of open, endless, timeless space so special to Australia. Under the pale blue summer sky, the dark, glistening green of the vines is a stark contrast to the patterns of straw, yellow and golden grass and the more olive tones of the gum trees. Attesting to the modest rainfall, which in any event tends to come in erratic heavy bursts, the grass is brown through much of the year, tenuously greening in autumn and spring.
The brown landscape hints at what the statistics say loud and clear: the Hunter Valley is an unlikely place in which to grow grapes. But when vineyards were trialled across the State in the nineteenth century the situation was different.
The coastal fringe (around Sydney) was too wet and too humid, and if one moved too far west, spring frosts could pose threats, even though some distinguished wines were made at Rooty Hill and Smithfield until the 1950s and 1960s.
More importantly, overall soil fertility on the previously unfarmed Hunter Valley was high, and the modern diseases of downy and powdery mildew were unknown. Also, the European experience suggested the more heat, the better: it did not occur to anyone that there might be too much warmth.
Finally, there has been speculation that rainfall patterns then were different from those of today.
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So it was that the Hunter Valley came to dominate viticulture in New South Wales extremely rapidly, although once again there are curious historical quirks.
All the early vineyards were established well to the northeast of where they are located nowadays; it was not until the 1860s that the first vignerons came into the Rothbury and Pokolbin subregions, where many of the Lower Hunter vineyards of today are to be found.
History also reveals that at the Paris Exhibition of 1855 (which led to the 1855 classification of the great Bordeaux wines that stands to this day) James King of Irrawang Vineyard had his sparkling wine - said by the judges to have 'a bouquet, body and flavour equal to the finest champagnes' - served at the table of Napoleon III during the closing ceremony.
Another fascinating snippet is that although most of the wines were named by variety and vintage, H J Lindeman (the founder of Lindemans) produced what I can but guess to be Australia's only Lachryma Christi, far from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.
The Hunter Valley has long since been supplanted by the Rivernina as the largest producer in New South Wales, but it remains in quality by far the most important region. Nonetheless, it has been an area of cyclical prosperity and depression. One would be brave, indeed foolish, to deny the possibility of a future recession, but it is improbable.
The Hunter Valley wine industry of today is inextricably bound up with tourism. It was the wineries that brought the tourists in the first place - starting in the mid-1960s - but today more dollars are spent on tourism (meals, accommodation and so on) than on wine: the Lower Hunter Valley has no equal in Australia for the abundance of first class accommodation, restaurants, golf courses and general tourist facilities.
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It is this ready-made market that sees the cellar-door sales outlets of the wineries full from daybreak to dusk, and which provides that all-important cash flow for the small winery in particular.
From the outside looking in, it is an ideal lifestyle (the reality is a little less perfect), and we will see more, rather than fewer, wineries in the future. So there is a mix of the big and the small, the new and the old, the professional and the amateur; all are geared to make the visitor welcome, and almost all succeed.
For all that, it has to be said that from a viticultural viewpoint the Hunter Valley is a difficult and often capricious place in which to grow grapes. There are larger areas of unsuitable soil (hard, acidic clay) than there are good soils, and the climate can only be described as perverse.
Winter droughts are common, as is the propensity for such rain as there is to fall shortly prior to or during vintage. All things considered, it is truly remarkable that so many excellent wines (notably Semillon) are produced in the Hunter Valley with such regularity.
Finally a word on the Geographic Indications registration as it stands in March 2000. The Zone is called Hunter Valley; the region is called Hunter and the subregions, actual or proposed, are Allandale, Belford, Broke Fordwich, Dalwood, Pokolbin and Rothbury.
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The Upper Hunter Valley
When in 1960 Penfolds decided to sell its Dalwood vineyard and winery at Branxton in the Lower Hunter Valley and establish a new operation at Wybong in the Upper Hunter, it was seen as a bold and adventurous move.
The disappointment of the following 17 years, culminating in the sale of a by-then sharply reduced vineyard and under-utilised winery to Rosemount Estate, suggested the decision was not only brave but foolish - particularly when one takes into account the spectacular success that the McGuigan family made with Dalwood, for this became the starting point of the Wyndham juggernaut.
With the wisdom of longer hindsight, the rationale behind the move can be seen as correct, even if some of the particular decisions were not. Notwithstanding that a young German settler named Carl Brecht had planted vines in 1860 at the junction of Wybong Creek and the Goulburn River, and had gone on to make wines that won gold medals at international shows throughout the 1870s, viticulture ceased in the region around 1900 to 1910, so there was effectively no viticultural experience for Penfolds to draw on.
It took much trial and error, not only by Penfolds but also by Arrowfield, which did not come on the scene until 1969, to establish that this was white wine country first and foremost, and more particularly that the staple red variety of the Lower Hunter - shiraz - is basically unsuited to the area. It also became apparent that irrigation was absolutely essential, and that site (and soil) selection was as critical as it is in the Lower Hunter.
With appropriate management, site and varietal selection, grape growing in the Upper Hunter is economically viable - more so, indeed, than in many Lower Hunter locations.
Nonetheless, the growth in the region has gone down a markedly different track from that of the Lower Hunter. Rosemount Estate has gone from success to success, but these days is a truly national company, utilising grapes grown across the length and breadth of the country. (Arrowfield has followed suit, but on a much smaller scale.)
On the other side of the coin, Lower Hunter wineries have become important shareholders, either owning vineyards or as grape purchasers. But neither approach has given the Upper Hunter much focus or personality, something underlined by the continued dearth of small wineries and also by the decision not to seek recognition as a Region under the Geographical Indications legislation.
I have taken leave to regard it as a separate region to the Lower Hunter, and hardly imagine I will have to justify that decision. It seems to lie at the end of a vinous road that heads nowhere, and is thus rarely travelled. Arguably, this pretty area deserves better.