Air-conditioned coaches come and go, kicking up the gravel. Signs advertise celebrated wines and best-value lunch deals. Tourists beam as the contents of their bags revealingly clink together. Cartons of what can’t be carried is ready to be shipped via international carriers. All around, people are laughing and chatting, slightly merrier than when they started out the morning. Then they pile back on to the bus and head home to Sydney, Australia.
This is the Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest winemaking region: award-winning, world-renowned and full of visitors. Vines were first planted here back in the 1820s by James Busby, a doctor returning home from his travels around Europe and South Africa. It is now host to over 125 wineries and 6,000 hectares of grapes.
A Somewhat New Area
Outside of the main tourist centres of Pokolbin and Maitland, there’s a sleepier feel. The scent of sun-baking grass sweeps through the straw-coloured fields toward the hazy mountains of the Brokenback range floating off in the distance. Squares of neatly arranged vibrant green vines patchwork the landscape. There’s the faint tinkle of a cowbell.
This is Broke Fordwich, where the winemaking community has an altogether more local and natural feel, but the wine is no less delicious because of it.
Home to 35 vineyards, 20 wineries and 10 cellar doors, Broke Fordwich, once the “produce bowl” for nearby Pokolbin, is a small part of this famous region, but local winemakers are making a name for the village and its viticulture by making wine because of and with the land in which the vines grow.
Listening to Nature
If ever proof was needed that the natural environment has an effect upon flavour, wine tasting is one surefire source of evidence. As Wendy at the small 10-acre vineyard called Catherine Vale tells me: “Great fruit makes great wine.” It’s a sentiment echoed by many throughout my time in the area. While there’s no question of the complicated balance of inputs and outputs that go into making great wine – and the question as to whether the vineyard, terroir or winemaker is most important is met consistently with the answer that all three are essential – one thing is clear: no amount of processing and production will alter a bad crop. Knowing how to work with and respect the intricacies of nature are therefore crucial.
I am told that the grapes in the top corner of a small patch of vines will create far better wine than those down at the bottom. I’m not sure, but over the course of a day I sample more than eight different Semillons, the varietal, along with Shiraz, for which the Hunter is famous. Each tastes wonderfully different. Soil (the sandy loam in the area is the reason why white Semillon thrives), heat, light and harvest timing all impact aroma and flavour. My hosts are keen to impress this upon me. A Semillon picked early in the year by nearby Stomping Ground hits you with its passionfruit notes, compared to the peachy tones of a later harvest by another brand.
Whatever the case, there is a huge focus on honouring the local area and the fruit that it provides. For example, many of the wineries I visited have a premium range, but it is only bottled when the fruit is good enough. This practice is about truly listening to the environment and the produce, not the market and its demands. So it is that at Margan, a family-owned but multi-award-winning vineyard and winery, I am treated by manager Simon to the very first batch of their White Label Semillion and its intense citrusy blossom, pale straw hues and light acidity, all evidence of the premium conditions that created this premium experience. “When the fruit is good enough we will make it. When it’s not, we won’t,” says Simon, very matter-of-factly.
At Stomping Ground, I sample the most striking Shiraz, grown in a pocket of terra rossa, a rich, red, volcanic soil. The wine’s black pepper, elegant berry and licks of chocolate are all at a more enhanced level than the standard range of wines. “Michael was tasting grapes,” Meredith says of her husband, “and just kept saying how this one tiny patch just could not be blended. There was only enough for 60 crates, but we had to listen to the fruit.” This respect and responsibility for working within the limitations of the surroundings abundance, and the knowledge of the effect that it will have upon a finished product, is striking.
Tradition and Evolution
Without the pressures of history and branding, small wineries in the area can challenge the established ways of working used by their bigger international neighbours. More nimble, the former can add their own personality. This is how Meredith’s Stomp! brand was formed, as recognition that wine does not have to pretentious. Instead, it is there to be enjoyed.
Fittingly, it can also be very personal. Stomping Ground doesn’t make sweet wine as the owners don’t enjoy it themselves. While this has raised the eyebrows of wine connoisseurs (who urged them to work with the brand name Pssst ‘n’ Broke), it is fitting. The owners of Stomping Ground were drawn to winemaking through a love of good food, engineering and nutritional science, but not the corporate cultures that had previously been benefitting from their knowledge and education. When they first visited Pokolbin a few years earlier, they similarly tired of many wineries’ corporate veneer, one that often lacked a personal touch and was sometimes pretentious. “There are two words that you need to know when tasting – yum or yuck,” says Meredith.
Personality also shines through at Margan Family Wines, where, although a larger entity, a personal feel and influence is still evident. Owners Lisa and Andrew Margan possess between them multiple science degrees, including nutrition, so all the wines, not to mention the majority of the produce served in their on-site restaurant, are “estate grown, estate produced,” fresh from their vegetable garden.
Just up the road, this can also be found in the production of prosciutto, pancetta and panna cotta by Krinklewood, a biodynamic winery. On the outside, it may not seem authentic, but Lisa’s Italian heritage is reflected in her choices, which also make Margan more unique. It’s a practice that has paid off; Margan has won numerous coveted awards from the likes of James Halliday, Gourmet Traveller Guide and the Sydney Morning Herald, and its green and sustainable credentials have been recognised by Entwine and Green Table.
Honouring Thy Hunter
Whatever happens, there’s an overriding sense that the Hunter Valley is a relaxed place, and that the Broke Fordwich community is down to earth, which allows for a deeper connection to the production process and end product. As I later learn at the local pub-cum-shop-cum-petrol station, there are over 40 members of the Broke Fordwich Tourist Association. Its secretary, Mike, who also runs Mount Broke wines tells me that they all meet for drinks on a regular basis to share advice, swap tips (not too many!) and sample local wines and food. I’m pleased to be offered by the pub a chance to taste many of the wines I had sampled the day before.
Later, Meredith from Stomping Ground meets me, fresh from “crushing a couple of tons.” Wendy, from Catherine Vale, located at the far end of town, is smeared with juice. Mike, who wasn’t able to get together earlier, had been out picking. And, as Simon, the manager at manager puts it of the Margans, “They’re just farmers.”
That is the magic of Broke Fordwich and one of the reasons why it will thrive as a hub for winemaking, as long as the inevitable growth in marketing and visitors affords the same respect to the village and the soils as those who work here do. A locally focused culture, grounded in respect and responsibility for the environment, prove that when we listen to nature and work with it rather than against it, the flavours of our foods are greatly enhanced.
Sipping my Frizzante, I’ll toast to that.