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Winemakers in Union: Rugby unites Hunter Valley

A group of rival Hunter Valley winemakers found a shared love of rugby created a real sense of team spirit. Amelia Pinsent meets them

When I asked who the winemaker was behind the label of the just-released ‘2007 First XV Shiraz’, 15 people stuck their hands in the air.

The back label reads like a Who’s Who of winemaking in the Hunter Valley.

Allandale, Meerea Park, Pepper Tree, Tamburlaine, Thomas, Margan Wines, De Iuliis, Pooles Rock, Tempus Two, Tulloch, Tower Estate, Brokenwood, McGuigan, Scarborough and Tyrrell’s… each, without hesitation, donated 20 litres of Shiraz for the inaugural vintage of this wine.

This role call of estates working together on one wine, from one region, is unprecedented.

Winemakers the worldover tend to be fastidious and often perfectionists – treating their wines with more care and attention than their loved ones. Yet this particular wine is a demonstration of unwavering and inspirational team spirit.

The First XV was the brainchild of the charming Damien Stevens, winemaker at Margan Wines, and coach of the local rugby team the Pokolbin Reds, made up of much of the local winemaking talent.

‘The Hospices de Beaune was my inspiration for this wine and we specifically made six double magnums and 50 magnums to be auctioned off for charity,’ Stevens explains.

He was flooded with offers to contribute wine, and in the end, managed to make 300 litres. ‘Most of the wineries involved are gold-medal winners and they source their fruit from some of the most famous and oldest vineyards in the valley,’ Stevens adds.

‘Bearing in mind the calibre of winemaker involved, the project was always going to be a winner.’

The success of the wine is due in part to the competitive nature of the egos involved. I quizzed all of them on the First XV Shiraz, and each of them admitted that they had donated some of their best fruit, realising that they couldn’t let the side down in the blend – the first magnum auctioned made A$1,200 (£500).

The wine is marketed and sold through the Pokolbin Reds, possibly the only rugby team in the world whose post match-celebratory beers are swiftly followed by bottles of old Semillon and mature Shiraz.

Passion and wine knowledge are as important as agility and strength in this team. One member, for whom agility is a distant memory, is Rhys Eather.

He fined, finished and bottled the wine at Meerea Park with other Reds team members. ‘The Hunter Valley was built on wine,’ he points out.

‘Remember, wine came first, before the restaurants and the hotels.’

There was a hint of defensiveness in Eather’s voice.

I had previously heard whispers, while tasting in the Barossa, of the Hunter Valley being a ‘Disneyland’ region. Less than two hours’ drive from Sydney, the region attracts enormous numbers of weekenders and foreign tourists – many wine regions would kill for this footfall.

The finger-pointing merely galvanises the troops, and they stand a great chance to win a much larger audience with their inimitable, unoaked Semillon and European-style Shiraz.

The Hunter has a long history of legends in the wine trade, with the great Maurice O’Shea its founding father. Len Evans fell in love with this region – so much so he created Tower Estate.

James Halliday helped establish Brokenwood in 1970. There is clearly something contagious about this region and passionate people flock to its benchmarkstyles of wines.

Eather enthuses: ‘Len’s understanding of our dry Semillons helped us to celebrate this lower-alcohol style of wine, and our Shirazes rarely cross the 13.5% alcohol threshold.’

At a line up of Hunter Valley Shiraz, the style is the antithesis of what is generally expected from Australia.

There are controlled alcohol levels here, structured tannins, balanced and fresh acidity underpinning complex, earthy arrays of elegant, briary fruit, more reminiscent of Hermitage than Australia – Evans and Halliday, among others, encouraged this because their reference points were France and not the Barossa Valley.

The Pokolbin Reds knits this small farming community together. The superheroes from the Hunter Valley, Bruce Tyrrell and Iain Riggs, both played an integral part in setting up the team.

Under Riggs’ guidance, prior to bottling the Semillons, the younger winemakers gather at Brokenwood to taste each others’ wines and swap ideas.

‘While the “elders” run the tasting lunches, this is the initiative by the younger crew,’ says the burly Mike de Iuliis (a winger): ‘Brokenwood is seen as a fun and social place. We have a barbie and start a bit of a forum.

We all agree that Semillon is the variety that sets up apart from the rest of Australia.

Personally, I don’t see lots of different parcels of fruit, as I only pick from one vineyard, so as a small winery I appreciate these comparisons, and it really helps me improve my wines.

Semillon is a hard sell internationally. It is so expressive of terroir, it sings of the land it’s grown on, but it is these subtleties that create problems with the consumer.

To sell Sem, you have to get behind it and explain its intricate nature. And to be successful in this mission it is imperative we all work together.’

De Iuliis’ nifty fellow back Scott Stephens, winemaker at Tower Estate, also emphasises the team spirit: ‘I’ve worked in Coonawarra, Napa and Burgundy, and I’ve never seen camaraderie like this,’ he says.

Of course, rivalry exists, but it stops at the cellar door.’

Aside from the Pokolbin Reds, there are a number of elite tasting groups offering these winemakers the chance to taste the great wines of the world – all are oversubscribed.

To the outsider, these might seem like multiple excuses for the wine trade to enjoy yet another good lunch, but the Hunter Valley has collectively realised that unless you know what the global pinnacles of wine are, it is difficult to push your own boundaries.

I drank a 1976 Lindemans Semillon during this week of interviews, and it still had fresh, linear acidity balanced against notes of beautifully preserved lemons. It was clear to me that this region has an extraordinary wine heritage.

The Pokolbin Reds are hell-bent on living up to these standards and improving on them if they can.

If you are going to support one region in Australia, this is surely a good team to get behind…

Written by Amelia Pinsent

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