A bottle full of vineyard tales

TRADE: Grahame Vernon and his gift from Penfolds. –  Picture by Peter Stoop
TRADE: Grahame Vernon and his gift from Penfolds. – Picture by Peter Stoop

I GET lots of queries from people asking me about the drinkability and value of old wines they have discovered, but the email I got last May from Mount Thorley mine mechanical engineer Grahame Vernon was something special.

Grahame said he had found a bottle of Penfolds Dalwood 1973 Pinot Riesling at his Cessnock home and wanted to know if it was of any value.

It had originally been given to him by his sister and the label declared that the wine had won a gold medal at the 1974 Sydney Easter Show.

I replied that I believed the old wine would be well past it and probably not worth opening or putting up for sale.

Despite that, I reckoned the bottle was an important part of Hunter Valley winemaking, with Dalwood pinot riesling being one of the great marques to come out of the once-extensive Penfolds Hunter Valley operations.

These were centred on what is now Wyndham Estate at Branxton, then managed for Penfolds by Perc McGuigan, father of Brian and Neil McGuigan.

The Dalwood pinot rieslings were in fact a blend of Hunter chardonnay and semillon, and the chardonnay vines that produced them had a pivotal, if covert, role in the Australian chardonnay boom.

The chardonnay was grown on the HVD vineyard at Pokolbin, planted more than 100 years ago by the great-grandfather of Climate Change Minister Greg Combet and owned by Penfolds from the 1930s.

Murray Tyrrell wanted to make a chardonnay white, but Tyrrell’s didn’t have any chardonnay vines. So, one moonlit Pokolbin night in 1967, Murray climbed over a fence into HVD vineyard to filch some discarded vine cuttings.

These cuttings grew into the vines that in 1971 produced the initial Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay, Australia’s first commercially bottled and labelled chardonnay, launching a wine industry revolution. Tyrrell’s bought HVD and the Penfolds Vale vineyard from Penfolds in 1983.

So, against this backdrop, I believed Grahame Vernon’s Dalwood 1973 Pinot Riesling to be of special interest.

I contacted some Penfolds wine folk who told me most collectors would correctly assume the wine was well over the hill and of negligible auction value.

However, they established Grahame’s 1973 Pinot Riesling was actually a special show blend of HVD vineyard chardonnay and semillon from a great year for Hunter Valley whites. It was deemed a superior wine to the regular Penfolds Bin 365 pinot rieslings and was only made in exceptional years.

And the 1973 Pinot Riesling was made at Penfolds’ massive Wybong winery, located near Denman, which was opened with much pomp and ceremony by the then-prime minister, Harold Holt, on February 17, 1967.

All these factors persuaded Penfolds that the old wine would be a good addition to its small collection of old curio bottles at the historic Magill Estate winery on the outskirts of Adelaide.

Grahame was offered a $90 bottle of Penfolds 2007 St Henri Shiraz in exchange for his 1973 Pinot Riesling – an offer he accepted with alacrity.

So now the wine stands at Magill as a tangible symbol of a great chapter in Australian wine history and Penfolds’s now-departed presence in the Hunter Valley.

THE 1967 sale of the Dalwood property at Branxton and the move to Wybong proved to be one of Penfolds’ greatest follies.

The Dalwood vineyards and winery, but not the name, were sold to Perc McGuigan, for $24,000.

Perc’s son Brian was then working for Penfolds as a winemaker at Wybong, but soon left to form a partnership with Sydney stockbroker Tim Allen and Sydney businessman Digby Matheson. The three established Wyndham Estate Pty Ltd and bought the old Dalwood property from Perc McGuigan, igniting the rocket-like rise of Wyndham.

At Wybong during the 1960s, Penfolds planted 400 hectares of vineyard containing an exotic mix of grape varieties – riesling, crouchen, semillon, clairette (then called blanquette), chardonnay, chasselas, traminer, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, pinot noir and mourvedre (then called mataro).

Some of the shiraz came from cuttings taken from Penfolds’ Magill vineyard in Adelaide, the original source of Grange Hermitage.

The new vines were not irrigated, red varieties were planted on soils suitable for whites and visa-versa and drought, disease and pests took a heavy toll.

The sorry saga finally ended in 1977 with Penfolds severing its 73-year-old association with Hunter winemaking by selling the Wybong property to its Upper Hunter neighbour, Rosemount Estate.

In 1975 the property was bought by businessman Gary Blom and renamed Barrington Estate.