Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Oregon Beer

My trip to Oregon was initially about wine, but segued into a beer journey. That isn't too surprising: Oregon is one of the great states for craft beer, and visitors travel from across the US for the beer alone. The beer scene is extraordinary; spread around the state, it's concentrated in the major city of Portland and the smaller, remote, and very beautiful town of Bend. Beer here is treated with a fanatical fervour, its quality debated heatedly in bars and breweries.

ninkasi, eugene

I'd only tried one beer from Ninkasi before, Total Domination, a widely-available IPA I had found a little too sweetly aggressive. Nevertheless, while in Eugene I wanted to visit the ten-year-old brewery to see what else they had to offer. I'm glad I did. They have a small, intimate, and very friendly tasting bar, with ten beers on tap. Visiting a brewery or its tasting room offers the opportunity to taste beers that aren't distributed, and here I was able to taste two newly released beers. Their winter ale was brown, malty, and nutty, perfect for the rainy weather. The Megalodom was something else. Based on Total Domination (which the barmaid admitted was her least favourite of Ninkasi's beers), it's a whopping 10% ABV and dangerously drinkable. Such a beer encapsulates the trend of West Coast IPAs: extremely well made, highly alcoholic, fruity and hoppy, big but balanced, and not for the faint-hearted.

grain station brew works, mcminnville

Portlandia is a TV comedy which lampoons the touchy-feely habits of those who live in Portland. The first episode features a couple who won't order the chicken in a restaurant until they've visited the farm where the chicken was raised to establish that it was treated properly. I experienced a similar moment in McMinnville, a small town in the heart of Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir country. "Are your fries gluten free?" I heard a young girl behind me ask. The waiter responded, "All of our ingredients are gluten free, but I can't guarantee there isn't gluten in the environment." Thus ensued a half-hour debate, interspersed with the waiter going back and forth from the kitchen to check the gluten status of each product on the menu. "The fries are briefly cooked in sunflower oil, but we can't determine if that results in some gluten in the fries."

This was at Grain Station Brew Works, a brewpub located in an old timber barn and which I stopped off at for lunch to avoid the pouring rain. I had two beers: the Bet the Farm IPA, which was excellent, malty, fruity, and not too hoppy. I then ordered the RyePA, a request which prompted the waiter to ask me if I was sure I wanted it. The Oregonians can be a little too concerned with the customers' happiness, as it was a good, spicy rye IPA.

cascade, portland

A drinker from Florida sat next to me at the bar declared that he was "in heaven." He couldn't believe that a brewery was devoted to making so many sours. These are Belgian-inspired beers that small breweries like Cascade have taken to extremes, merging wine-making techniques with beer-making practices. Cascade have been doing this for so long that they can almost exclusively focus on aged beers. I tried two vintages of their Sang Rouge, a red ale aged in old oak barrels of different sizes. Ageing beer in wine and whisky casks is becoming common across the country, but doing it well is very difficult. The 2013 was fruity, sour, and still a little closed; the 2009 was tannic and leathery, with aromas of dried fruits and mushrooms, and as close to wine as beer will, for better or worse, ever get. Cascade are probably the best producers of sour beers in the States and their beers, although expensive, are well worth seeking out.

deschutes, bend

I drink a lot of Deschutes, mainly their Fresh Squeezed IPA, a green, hoppy, herbaceous summer beer that's now their best seller - overtaking Mirror Pond Pale Ale, another very drinkable beer. They're based in Bend, a town that's next to spectacular forests and far from anywhere. They started in 1988, beginning a trend that's led to Bend becoming one of the most beer-centric towns I've ever visited, with at least fifteen breweries in a town of 80,000 people. The Deschutes bar/restaurant was heaving when I visited, yet the two barmen were able to serve beer tourists like me while entertaining locals. The Bachelors' Bitter was as good an English-style beer as I've tried in the US (the other contender is Blue Bell Bitter by Magnolia in San Francisco).

boneyard, bend

This is quite a different operation, located in a reconstituted garage full of old car and garage parts (hence the name boneyard). It's down to earth, with full-on tattoo-style artwork, and still very low-key. The beers aren't bottled, and the tasting room only pours them by the 28ml (1oz) serving - though you can have as many as you like for $1 a pour. The IPAs are as magnificent and as full-on as the artwork. The RPM IPA is their best-known beer, distributed throughout Oregon, but Incredible Pulp was perhaps the best of those I tried: briefly infused in blood oranges, it's subtle, balanced, yet orange and intense. Boneyard encapsulate the Oregon - and by extension West Coast - beer scene: no frills but an intense concentration on quality and innovation.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Oregon that isn't Pinot Noir

Oregon is a young wine region, dating back to the 1960s. In that short time, it's become defined by Pinot Noir. The grape accounts for over 60% of plantings, mainly in the long, narrow Willamette Valley that stretches south of Portland. Given the high quality of its Pinot Noir, it's no wonder that the association between Oregon and Pinot is so strong. But Oregon is a large state, sharing some of its AVAs with neighbouring Washington and Idaho in desert-like conditions in contrast to the rainy Willamette Valley. And then there's Southern Oregon, just north from California, with a continental climate not dissimilar from the northern Rhône.

I decided to make the drive up from Napa to find out about the wines being made in Southern Oregon, without quite realising the terrain one has to cover. After hours of driving straight along the flat I-5, the highway rises into the Cascades, a mountain range with active volcanoes that stretches all the way to Washington. It's beautiful, but snow was falling heavily with temperatures dropping to -3˚C in the middle of the afternoon.

Once across the border, the highway falls quickly down into valleys where snow was still drifting down on vines planted in obscure corners far away from any major city. The hills are beautiful, covered with trees and snow; the valleys remote, with wineries hidden away. This is the US at its quirkiest and most local.

Rogue Valley

The first thing to be said about Rogue Valley is that it has a great name. The second thing is that it's a dramatically beautiful region, surrounded by snowy hillsides covered in evergreens (logging has been Oregon's main industry since the nineteenth century). It's a popular tourist destination, not so much for its wine as for its Shakespeare festival. Nevertheless, it's quite remote and the wineries are scattered far apart in the countryside, especially in the Applegate Valley sub-region.

Many fruits are grown here, and grape vines are still a recent addition to the landscape and economy. But although few people outside of Oregon know about the wines from the area, the wineries have already established a reputation with tourists as well as locals. Some focus is needed, on how to promote the industry as well as which grape varieties work best.

Despite the snow during my visit, apparently anything can grow here in the dry summers, even Petit Verdot. The best wines are from Rhône varieties, both black and white, where there's a fresh acidity to complement the ripe fruits and full body. But this is a young wine region still learning about what works and what doesn't: there's also good Merlot and the Gewürztraminer I tried from Wooldridge was as good an example of that difficult grape variety as I've had in some time.

Umpqua Valley

A couple of hours further north is Umpqua Valley, another region with a great name. Despite being further north, it's a bit warmer than Rogue Valley (it wasn't snowing for a start, just raining), with a climate more Spanish than French. The main draw for my visit was Abacela, a winery established in 1995 by a dermatologist from Florida. His love for Spanish wine caused him to ask why no one in the US made wine from Tempranillo as good as that found in Spain (a fact which largely still holds true across the US and the rest of the world). With the help of his son, a climatologist, they spent three years looking for the perfect site within the US for Tempranillo.

Tempranillo is a tricky grape: it ripens early so needs a difficult climate to make it ripen more slowly. In Rioja, Tempranillo is grown at altitude with a maritime influence, while in Ribera del Duero it can be grown at 850m elevation to escape the hot temperatures. The choice of a site in Umpqua Valley was an inspired one: a continental climate with varied aspect, elevation, and temperature where Tempranillo gets rich, ripe aromas without ripening too quickly.

Abacela's Barrel Reserve Tempranillo 2013 is an extraordinary wine. It has the concentration and structure of Ribero del Duero, without the aggressive tannins, and is easily the best Tempranillo I have tasted from outside Spain. It makes clear how important site selection is for Tempranillo: you can't just plant it for the sake of it. Abacela also make very good Albariño and Garnacha, making Umpqua Valley a little piece of Spain.

It's hard to imagine the small wineries of Southern Oregon making enough of an impact to dislodge perceptions of Oregon as a Pinot Noir state: to do so will take a long, long time. But there's some really good wine being made there, at very affordable prices. It may not be an easy region to get to, but the beautiful landscape and the wine are worth the effort.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Unending World of Italian White Wine

Italian wine is daunting. I attended Gambero Rosso's Tre Bicchieri event in San Francisco, organised by the prestigious Italian magazine to showcase the top-rated wines from the country. Walking into the old warehouse, I was confronted by over 130 importers pouring several wines from at least one of their highly-rated producers. There were more than 400 wines, white, rosé, red, sparkling, and sweet, from cool to warm climates both inland and near the sea. It's impossible to take in such a diverse range in one tasting, so I took a deep breath and decided to focus on one aspect: white wine made from unusual grape varieties.

I blogged a couple of years ago about how exciting Italian white wine is these days, certainly compared to twenty years ago. The wines are crisp and refreshing, rarely aged in oak, and are very food friendly. Tasting more of the wines confirmed that Italian producers are concentrating on quality white wine, as well as experimenting with old grape varieties to produce wines resonant of Italy's rich history and varied climates.


Wines made from Vermentino were some of the most common whites of the tasting, and it feels that Vermentino is helping to lead the drive to gain greater awareness for Italy's crisp, fresh white wines. Of course, this being Italy, it's not as simple as that. Vermentino is also known as Favorita in Piemonte, Pigato in Liguria (where it's a little heavier and fuller-bodied), and Rolle in the south of France (where it's often used in blends). Vermentino is the most familiar name, with one DOCG and twenty-two DOCs, all in central/north-west Italy and Sardinia. I think it's at its best grown near the coast, when the wines have crisp acidity and salty aromas; there can also be some nuttiness from lees ageing to give the wine weight and texture.

Pala Vermentino di Sardegna Stellato 2015

The warm island of Sardinia produces surprisingly fresh, acidic white wines, especially from Vermentino, of which this is a very good example - like nearby Corsica, which also produces good Vermentino, the coastal influence is all-important. It's made from 45-year-old wines, which gives it a concentrated intensity; the acidity, as one would expect, is crisp and fresh, and there's a creamy texture from three months lees ageing. ✪✪✪✪✪


Bellone is a variety I had never heard of before. One of the fascinating aspects of tasting these wines is that Italian winemakers are returning to obscure quality grape varieties - for red wine too, but I feel particularly for white - that had been neglected throughout the twentieth century. Bellone is now rarely planted, mostly in Lazio around Rome, but, as it is susceptible to noble rot, it once formed the backbone of good sweet wine drunk in the capital city.

Casale del Giglio Antium Bellone 2015

I tasted two wines from Lazio producer Casale del Giglio: the wines were fresh, floral, and aromatic, and noticeably acidic. Their single-vineyard "Antium" was a wine that, on top of that freshness, was weighty, gripping, and nutty. ✪✪✪✪


Carricante is the main grape variety for Etna Bianco, where some of the highest vineyards in Italy are planted. A main advantage of Carricante is that it can grow at that high altitude on rocky soils, where little else survives. It produces consistently high quality wine, with relatively low alcohol and high acidity. Sicily may be a very warm island, but it's capable of producing good white wine, with Etna Bianco among the best.

Cantine Nicosia Etna Bianco Vulkà 2016

This is a blend with another local Sicilian variety, Catarratto, named after Etna's volcanic soils. It's fresh, floral, and aromatic, that cooler altitude evident, though the warm influence of the island gives the wine body and weight. ✪✪✪✪

Manzoni Bianco

This is a grape with an unusual history. It's a crossing of Riesling and either Pinot Bianco or Chardonnay, created in the 1920s and 30s by one Luigi Manzoni. It's now popular with a small number of producers because of its quality despite it being a difficult grape to grow. The representative of Veneto's Italo Cescon said, with a weary yet proud look, that it took ten years to make "Madre," which is made from the variety. It lacks vigour, the berries are small, and the skins are thick but subject to sunburn. Growing such a difficult and obscure grape variety must be a labour of love.

Italo Cescon Madre 2014

Rich, inviting, floral, and aromatic, with a lifting, acidic mouthfeel, although the nose is more interesting and expressive than the palate. For what it's worth, the wine is packaged in a beautiful, long-necked bottle. ✪✪✪✪

Pallagrello Bianco

This grape is so rare that it's barely mentioned in either Ian d'Agata's Wine Grapes of Italy or The Oxford Companion to Wine. Apparently, wines made from the grape were a favourite of the Bourbon king, Ferdinand IV of Napoli, but the variety all but disappeared until it was revived in the 1990s. The grape is indigeneous to Campania and has small berries which get very ripe.

Vini Alois Caiata 2014

I walked away from tasting this wine rather underwhelmed, as it's very acidic and rather neutral at first, but its lingering spicy finish made me rethink. That acidity and the subtle aromas make this a good wine to pair with white fish. ✪✪✪✪✪


Pecorino is a great example of how Italian wines have changed over the last twenty to thirty years. An ancient variety that was largely forgotten about, it was rediscovered in the 1980s and is now thriving, producing popular, aromatic, full-bodied wines. It's mostly grown in Marche and Abruzzo in the east near the coast.

Velenosi Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014 

Offida Pecorino is a DOCG which produces the best Pecorino. This wine has an acidic backbone with a spicy bite to it; that acidity is offset with a rich, creamy, nutty mouthfeel. Rich but refreshing - another example of a wine which would be enhanced by food. ✪✪✪✪✪

Ribolla Gialla

Fruili is an area where outstanding white wines are made from a wide range of varieties, including international well-known grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. The whites are crisp, fresh, and aromatic. Ribolla Gialla is a little bit different, as it can be quite neutral and highly acidic. The best grapes are grown in the Colli Orientali del Friuli and Collio DOCs, in which the Rosazzo and Oslavia vineyards, respectively, stand out. Because of its acidity, many producers make sparkling wine from it; because of its neutral aromas, others experiment with skin contact, its yellow skins (gialla means yellow) giving the wine a rich gold colour. Although experimental and fashionable, these skin-contact wines are quite old-fashioned, a reminder of how Italian white wine must once have tasted: heavy, rich, and grapey.

Primosic Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012

With nearly a month fermenting in contact with its skins and a further two years ageing on its lees, this is a wine with a deep gold colour, weighty and nutty, and definite tannins. The grape's natural acidity lifts the wine, but this is a wine for the sommelier rather than the drinker - and one that is very different from the fresh, crisp whites being made across Italy. ✪✪✪✪


I recognised the name Zibibbo but it had been a long time since I had tasted a wine made from the variety and I couldn't remember too much about it other than it is planted in Sicily. Smelling a dry version from Sicily's excellent Donnafugata, I immediately thought it was just like a wine made from Muscat: aromatic, floral, and very grapey. It turns out, in true Italian style, that Zibibbo is actually Muscat of Alexandria (or Moscato di Alessandria), grown throughout Spain and Portugal as Moscatel - though Zibibbo is probably an older name. It's responsible for one of the great sweet wines of Italy: Passito di Pantelleria. Pantelleria is a small Mediterranean island off the coast of Sicily, while passito refers to the practice of drying the grapes after they are picked to concentrate sugars.

Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé 2014

Donnafugata's Ben Ryé is one of the leading examples and it's a wonderful sweet wine, rich, lush, and aromatic, with plenty of floral and dried fruit aromas, and a refreshing acidity. Its acidity makes it refreshing enough to drink on its own, but drink this with cheese after a meal to soak up the richness of the wine and as a contrast to a cheese's stinky aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

These, of course, are just some of the many, many grape varieties grown across Italy, making increasingly interesting white wine. Traditional areas such as Soave and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi are returning to form, while elsewhere producers are looking at once-forgotten varieties. Italian whites are marked by a refreshing acidity that makes the wines very food-friendly. As confusing as the many names and regions are, the quality of Italian white wine makes them worth investigating.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Central Otago

Central Otago, due to its climate and inland location on the South Island, is different from the rest of New Zealand's wine areas. It's the most southerly wine region in the world, vineyards located beneath dramatic mountains on difficult, rocky soils. The wine is uniformly excellent, the climate and soils producing intense, concentrated wines that are only going to get better as the region matures.

One thing Central Otago does share with the rest of New Zealand's wine regions is that it's still very young, producers striving to learn what works and what doesn't. It's only thirty years old, and it's going to be fascinating to see how Central Otago develops. Its future will clearly be dominated by Pinot Noir, but other varieties, particularly white grapes, will help further understanding of this beautiful region.


New Zealand is surrounded by sea, 2,000km from Australia's east coast. The climate is maritime, rain hitting the islands from the ocean throughout the year. The one exception to this maritime climate is Central Otago, which, sheltered from the ocean by mountain ranges, is cool continental. In the summer, the days are hot, reaching as high as 40˚C, and the nights are cool, dropping below 10˚C, so there is intense ripening during the day slowed by the cool nights. Heat summation is similar to northern Chablis, yet Central Otago successfully ripens Pinot Noir. This is due to the intense UV rays coming from the sun, which intensifies ripening - the sun really does have a burning heat to it.

Central Otago regions

There are different climates within Central Otago, which has led to the informal classification of several sub-regions. Altitude is key, where both days and nights are cooler than lower down on the valley floor. The centre of Central Otago is a large valley surrounded by towering mountains, even topped with snow in the summer; this is the Cromwell Basin, which gradually rises at the southern end to the highest quality sub-region, Bannockburn. Here, the sun hits the north-facing slopes while wind rushes down from the mountains and through the valley to provide ventilation. Current plans to formally classify Central Otago have Bannockburn as the one stand-alone sub-region with its own geographical indication. Further north, Bendigo is warmer and the wines are ripe and rich, while to the east Gibbston Valley is higher up and produces thinner, more acidic wines. Many producers blend from the different sub-regions to make balanced wines that express the region as a whole, but the one area that stands out on its own is Bannockburn.


The first commercial wine released in Central Otago was by Gibbston Valley Winery in 1987. There were vines planted in the 1860s, when the region was subject to a huge gold rush, remnants of which are scattered throughout Central Otago, not least in Bannockburn where barren hillsides stand next to recently planted vineyards. Once the gold rush faded, Central Otago became a quiet region populated by shepherds and orchard farmers. Cherries are still a big industry, but the region has been transformed in the last thirty years by wine. There are now well over a hundred producers and, despite the youth of the industry, quality is consistently high. As vines get older, that quality is only going to increase.

Pinot Noir vines at Peregrine winery
However, like the rest of New Zealand, the rush to make wine from the 1980s onwards led to compromises. New Zealand has a strict quarantine policy, which means that any plant matter must spend three years under quarantine before being allowed into the country. The downside to the strict import conditions is that the rapid expansion of the industry in the last twenty years meant that there weren't enough rootstocks available to graft vines on to and new plantings couldn't keep up. Instead, growers simply planted ungrafted vines. Phylloxera as a result is slowly spreading, which means necessary replanting of those young vines. Although it's under control, this is something that may slow the development of New Zealand wine as a whole, Central Otago included.

pinot noir 

Cornish Point vineyard, owned by Felton Road
75% of plantings in Central Otago are of Pinot Noir, the only black grape variety that will reliably ripen there. The hot days get the grapes ripe, while the cool nights preserve acidity and allow the aromatics to slowly develop. The wines vary from sub-region to sub-region, but there is a deep, rich intensity to them, and a deep colour which comes from the skins building up resistance to the UV rays. In a short time, these have come to be known as some of the finest Pinot Noirs in the world. They're certainly very good, but I feel at the moment that we're tasting potential rather than the definite finished result. As the vines age and producers understand site selection better, the wines will continue to improve: producers will worry less about ripe fruit aromas and concentrate more on making Pinot Noir which are compelling expressions of place. That's Central Otago: the youth of its vines as well as its producers leads to rich, fruity wines that will become more complex and intense as the region ages.

recommended producers: Felton Road, Burn Cottage, Bannock Brae

pinot gris 

The search across New Zealand has been to find a back-up to Sauvignon Blanc, in case worldwide interest in those wines finally comes to a halt. Many producers have focused on Pinot Gris, an aromatic grape that's closely related to Pinot Noir and not planted that widely across the world. Styles have varied in New Zealand, from dry and insipid to rich and bloated, which hasn't helped spread the wines' popularity. Producers have finally settled on a consistent, recognisable style: off-dry (the slight sweetness offsets the tannins of the grape), aromatic, but not too rich. In Central Otago, the grape accounts for 15% of plantings, and is held up as the region's white equivalent to Pinot Noir. The wines are good, food-friendly, with a refreshing acidity not always found with Pinot Gris. But I do feel that Central Otago producers made a mistake when they chose Pinot Gris rather than Chardonnay as the white equivalent to Pinot Noir. Now, many are having to consider whether to replant to Chardonnay or to stick to Pinot Gris.

recommended producers: Misha's Vineyard


Rippon Vineyard, Lake Wanaka
Central Otago has, with a collective purpose among producers, focused on aromatic white grapes to promote the region. Pinot Gris is the accessible wine, while Riesling is grown for quality and small production. Just 3% of plantings are of Riesling, a variety that's always fashionable among wine geeks like me but difficult to sell. Two producers, Felton Road and Misha's Vineyard, convincingly persuaded me that Central Otago has, in its schist soils and cool continental climate, much in common with Mosel in Germany. Like Mosel, the best wines have some sweetness to them to counterbalance the naturally high acidity that comes with the cool climate. Despite being so food friendly, such wines are not universally fashionable so many producers make dry Rieslings whose acidity I found just too tart - Central Otago's climate really is that cool.

recommended producers: Felton Road, Misha's Vineyard


The elephant in the room is Chardonnay. I am loathe to suggest that yet another region concentrate on producing Chardonnay, but this, besides Pinot Noir, is what Central Otago is best at. The wines have a refreshing, crisp acidity, which allows malolactic fermentation, and a steely, stony texture. They taste exactly how the best Chardonnays should. Yet, only 3% of plantings are to Chardonnay. This is because when many of the current plantings were made twenty years ago, Chardonnay was an unfashionable grape and Pinot Gris was planted instead as an alternative. Now, producers have to decide whether to replant to Chardonnay or to stick to the aromatic varieties they already have. Central Otago is a young region: mistakes are likely to be made before figuring out what works best.

recommended producers: Felton Road, Peregrine

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Hunter Valley

Australia is a vast country, its wine regions stretching over 4,000km from Margaret River south of Perth in Western Australia to Hunter Valley north of Sydney in New South Wales. Those regions vary so much, in soils, in grape varieties grown, and, more than I realised, in climate. Despite those differences, there is a huge level of support for and interest in other regions, even when they're hundreds of kilometres apart.

The one exception to this comradeship is Hunter Valley. Two Australian girls we met in Argentina informed us the wine was terrible. When we told people in South Australia that our Australian journey would culminate in Hunter Valley, the reaction was an incredulous yet muted, "Oh." In Victoria the reaction was more impassioned: "You're saving the worst to last!"

At first I didn't understand their dislike, dismissing it as simple jealousy. Hunter Valley is near Sydney, and its wine industry revolves around Australia's biggest city which is so far away from Australia's other wine regions. So I decided to ignore all those reservations, not least because I wanted to taste and discover more about the unique wine of Hunter Valley: Semillon.

We drove eight hours from Rutherglen through endless nothingness, bypassing the capital Canberra and Sydney (which we returned to). I expected Hunter Valley to be like Napa Valley: close to a major city, beautiful, and full of decorous tasting rooms and expensive restaurants. Instead, it's rather ugly, a flat valley with a small, truncated mountain range to the west, and its tasting rooms looked like they hadn't been touched since the 1970s. There were few restaurants, the locals were unfriendly, and it baffled me why people from Sydney - residents and tourists alike - visit the region so much. In short, all those negative opinions others had voiced were right.

Its climate is hot, humid, and windy. Those winds aren't refreshing, but blow the heat and humidity into one's face. The cloud cover smothers the heat further. Hunter Valley really isn't a region made for wine production, yet wine has been made here for two hundred years. James Busby, one of the founding fathers of Australian wine, settled here in the 1820s and the region's proximity to Sydney has sustained its wine industry. I can't imagine a region I'd less want to make wine in.

the one pretty view in Hunter Valley



For all of Hunter Valley's unsuitability for growing grapes, it produces a unique style of wine. Hunter Valley Semillon is one of the world's most ageworthy white wines, and I wanted to learn more about what makes the wine so individual. The answer is a paradox: the high acid, low alcohol wines are a result of the warm climate. The grapes ripen quickly in the heat and are picked early (in part to avoid the heavy rain and hail that falls before the end of the growing season). In the heat, the grapes have developed enough fruit flavour to give the wine body and structure but picking early ensures high acidity and low sugar levels. Once the wine is made, very little happens: it's aged for a couple of months in stainless steel before bottling. Young Hunter Valley Semillon is neutral and quite dull, with at best vaguely fruity, herbaceous aromas. As the wine ages, it changes into something much more interesting: waxy, nutty, and honeyed, rich but retaining the high acidity. Wineries delay releasing their best wines for at least five years, and Hunter Valley Semillon isn't worth drinking before then. This makes it one of the few white wines that genuinely improves with age. Try Brokenwood's ILR Reserve 2009 (A$75; $58 ✪✪✪✪✪ ) for a great example of how Semillon ages - this wine still feels remarkably young, with fresh acidity and grassy aromas, but nutty aromas are beginning to develop and there's a steely, mineral, waxy texture. Such wines are best enjoyed with food, especially with the Asian cuisine so popular throughout Australia.


The other grape variety Hunter Valley is known for is Shiraz. Again paradoxically, the heat produces a restrained style, quite different from the wines of South Australia. The quick ripening and heavy autumn rains lead to an early picking, which means that the Shiraz wines aren't as rich and fruity. Their restraint made them seem quite dull in comparison, though there is an earthy texture which has led to comparisons to the northern Rhône - I felt the wines lack the depth and complexity to justify those comparisons.

Grape growing is so tricky in Hunter Valley that wineries source grapes from elsewhere, even from as far afield as Margaret River. It says a lot about Hunter Valley that the one wine we bought while there was a Shiraz from the cooler climate of Canberra ...