The wines of Tyrrells, Hunter Valley   
A visit to one of Australia's great producers

The Hunter Valley is a strange wine region. If you looked at the climate data, you’d never plant grapes here. It’s too hot, and far too humid. Paradoxically, though, the Hunter makes some of Australia’s most interesting, mid-bodied, elegant, ageworthy expressions of Shiraz, and it also makes incredible Semillon: crisp and fresh, with low alcohol and high acidity, but capable of gaining real complexity with years of bottle age.

I visited back in 2000, as a tourist. Now I was back for a quick visit as a professional. First stop was at Tyrrells, one of the best known Hunter wineries. I was hosted by the larger-than-life Bruce Tyrrell (above), who is thoroughly entertaining. If I printed everything Bruce said, I’d be in deep trouble, and he’d be in even deeper!

The winery has a lot of large oak. ‘Hunter Shiraz is medium bodied, and if you put it into barriques you end up with oak and no fruit,’ says Bruce. He’s been chucking out old barrels and replacing them with large  barrels from France, at $1800 a shot. ‘We’ve had our share of Brettanomyces problems,’ he says. ‘There are only six big old barrels left here.’

All the top red wines are sent to the Australian Wine Research Institute for checking for Brett. ‘We go to bottle with high sulfur dioxide, and we add acid in the bins to get the pH down as quickly as possible,’ explains Bruce. ‘It keeps colours brighter and the wine is more stable.’ He works with low pH for reds: 3.4.

Old vine Hunter Shiraz

The 2008 vintage was a disaster for reds. It was a cold summer and it rained a lot during harvest. Very little red wine will be made from this vintage in the Hunter. ‘I’ve seen two vintages like this in my life,’ says Bruce. ‘1971 and 2008. I don’t want to see that again. In 1971 we picked the grapes and tried to make red wine: we shouldn’t have.’

For Semillon, Tyrrells crush 1300 tons. Most is centrifuged to clear the juice before fermentation; some is cold settled. They are fermented at 14/15 °C. ‘There are six great Semillon vineyards in the Hunter Valley,’ says Bruce, ‘and we have five of them.’ He says that for one vineyard he has at the top of the valley, he’s doubled the yields and doubled the quality in the process.

Bruce tends not to acidify his Semillon. ‘We get flavours early so we can pick early.’ All the Semillons are picked on flavour. For Chardonnay, there is no malolactic fermentation: the grapes tend to have low levels of malic acid naturally and they get ripeness early. ‘We’ve tried it in the past and the wines fell over at 7–8 years: they didn’t live.’

Tyrrells have 80 000 cases of Semillon ageing in bottle, much of it under cork. Cork has been a problem, and Bruce says that he recently completed a seven-figure claim with a cork company who redelivered, 10 months later, a batch that had already been rejected. He reckons that he’s chucking out one-third of the library wines based on colour alone. Now he’s using screwcap, and has backed off free sulfur dioxide levels by 10 ppm for the screwcapped wines.

I really like the high-end Tyrrells wines. The five top Semillons are simply superb, and they also do Shiraz really well. And then there are the wonderfully rich, almost (but not quite) over-the-top Vat 47 and Belford Chardonnays, which I love, even though I shouldn’t!

Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon 2002 Hunter Valley
Green/gold colour. Really taut, herbal and intense with lovely lemony freshness and massive weight. Quite lemony with high acidity, and really fresh. Beautiful stuff with real focus and intensity. 93/100 (cork sealed)

Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon 2005 Hunter Valley
Lime, lemon oil and herb nose, with a hint of turpentine. The palate is vivid and intense with lovely density. Very crisp and intense with mouth-filling flavours. Taut and mineralic with real power. 94/100

Tyrrells HVD Semillon 2005 Hunter Valley
From a block of vines planted in 1908. Amazing intensity on the nose, which shows lemon oil, lime and herb notes. The palate is massively concentrated with lovely richness and massive acidity. A super-concentrated wine for earlier drinking because of the boldness of the flavours. But still, give it 10–20 years! 93/100

Tyrrells Belford Semillon 2005 Hunter Valley
Attractibe aromatics: subtle but intense with lemon, hints of toast and firm fruit. The palate is tight and lemony with lovely focus and intensity. Concentrated and taut with nice density of fruit. A lovely wine. 92/100

Tyrrells Stevens Semillon 2005 Hunter Valley
Great concentration here: massive intensity of pure, focused fruit with lovely purity and minerality. A bit backward with high acidity. Very pure and potentially long-lived, this is a beautiful wine. 93/100

Tyrrells Belford Chardonnay 2007 Hunter Valley
Fermented and matured in new oak. Lovely nose: rich, toasty, creamy and bold yet still fresh. The palate has lovely creamy depth to the rich, toasty, figgy fruit. Finishes with good acidity. A fantastic expression of Chardonnay. 94/100

Tyrrells Vat 47 Chardonnay 2006 Hunter Valley
Rounded, smooth, toasty and intense with notes of figs and herbs, and lovely depth. Intense yet fresh, with well integrated oak and real depth of flavour. 93/100

Tyrrells 4 Acres Shiraz 2006
12.5% alcohol, aged in big wood. This is from an old block that’s actually just 1.6 acres, with an older clone that has nice open bunches. Creamy, smooth, ripe nose is attractive, fresh and berryish. Medium bodied palate has cherries, spice and herbs. Attractive stuff with lovely fruit. Sweet but fresh, with lovely potential for development. 92/100

Tyrrells Single Vineyard Stevens Shiraz 2006 Hunter Valley
Deep colour. Intense dark cherry, berry and herb nose. Lovely fruit expression. The palate is dark, spicy and intense with good acidity and density. Taut with lovely weight. Youthful and intense with potential for ageing. 92/100

Tyrrells Vat 9 Shiraz 2006 Hunter Valley
This is from a heavier soil that’s almost purple in colour. Intense, juicy dark cherry and herb nose with hints of tar. Amazingly vivid and intense, yet still midweight on the palate with great acidity and freshness under the dark cherry and berry fruit. Remarkable wine showing great potential. 94/100

Tyrrells Vat 8 Shiraz 2006 Hunter Valley
Sweet, creamy, vivid chocolatey edge to the dark fruits nose. The palate has sophisticated new oak, but also lovely pure, rich dark cherry fruit. Bold and intense with a blackcurrant edge. 91/100


Part 1, Tyrrells
Part 2, Brokenwood
Part 3, McGuigan

See also:

Landmark Australia Tutorial: an immersion in Australia's fine wine dimension

Wines tasted 07/09  
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