The sky blazes blue above Belford, scattered with fluffy silver-white clouds and the warming rays of the winter sun. The vineyard at the end of Pothana Lane is dormant and still, almost silent, were it not for the gentle breeze through the trees, and the warbling sound of brooding magpies readying themselves for spring.
“This old vineyard was a grazing property that would extend all the way to North Rothbury,” David Hook says. “As the crow flies, we’re only about three to four kilometres from Pokolbin.”
David is a Hunter Valley vigneron, meaning that he both grows the grapes and makes the wine, on his family’s property at Belford, a tiny sub-region of the Hunter Valley that’s hidden just off the Hunter expressway as you drive north-west towards Singleton. On the other side of this road is where one of the region’s first vineyards was planted, by James Busby, godfather of Australian wine.
“This is an old part of the Hunter wine region,” Hook says. “Some of the old materials for Busby’s home at Kirkton are still there, but the vineyard was pulled out around the 1950s and since then the place has been overrun with couch grass.”
It’s a perpetual shame that such an old and historically important winegrowing site has been abandoned and all but forgotten. But that’s almost par for the course in the Hunter Valley, especially, when you consider places like Dalwood (renamed Wyndham Estate) near Branxton, a property that was planted by George Wyndham in the late 1820s, who was a contemporary of James Busby.
Dalwood was once managed by Penfolds, and then the McGuigan family, but was closed suddenly in 2014 by the property’s French owners, Pernod-Ricard. Even today, the historically significant Lindeman’s winery has been shut for nearly a year, despite its prominent location on McDonald’s Road. Apparently, history and the inherent sense of meaning it provides a community isn’t viewed as valuable as the bottom line. Indeed, in these modern times, it seems that there is not much value to be found in old things. Unless, you happen to be a grapevine.
“Our vines are about 35 years old, which, relatively speaking, means they’re getting on a bit,” Hook says.
There is a persistent myth told throughout the mystifying world of wine that older vines make more complex wines. The idea is literally rooted in the ground, where it is assumed that older vines are more balanced and more in harmony with their environment, having had greater time to develop a more exploitative root system and a larger mass of permanent wood.
However, for now, the science is inconclusive and so it remains up to the individual taster to decide for themselves.
“My father, William, and I first planted vines here in the early ’80s: semillon, chardonnay, and shiraz, plus a little bit of pinot,” Hook says. “Every winemaker has about an acre of pinot noir to play with.
“The vines crop pretty low these days and have a much lower vigour, compared to a decade or so ago. Younger vines tend to make more fruit-driven styles of wine and express better varietal characteristics, while older vines tend to produce wines that have more flavour concentration and will often display more regional characteristics. We see that fairly prominently in our shiraz, which has savoury tannins and that classic Hunter earthiness beneath a signature aroma of red berry fruit perfume and ripe cherries.”
Under his label, David Hook Wines, David makes an Old Vines range of wines from grapes grown off his 35-year-old Pothana vineyard at Belford. They include an old vine semillon, chardonnay, and shiraz. To my mind, they really are wonderful wines.
Despite the rain over vintage, the 2016 Old Vines semillon is a vital, lime green and lemongrass affair that races around the palate with all the firm acid freshness and delicious bright citrus fruit flavours that wine lovers have come to know and admire of world-class Hunter semillon.
Likewise, the 2014 Old Vines chardonnay captivates the senses with its elegant meld of melted butter running over fleshy tropical and stone fruit flavours lifted by fresh, morning bright acidity.
The aged-release 2011 Old Vines shiraz is a haunting expression of this classic red wine grape variety. Powerful, yet delicate, scents of red ripe blood plums and glossy cherries, crushed violets and sweet blackberries swirl above an earthy, savoury, forest floor framed by fine and silky tannins.
For now, science be damned, these Old Vine wines are a work of art.
“I’m not necessarily an advocate for older vines making better wines,” Hook says.
“Younger vines can also produce excellent quality fruit, provided they’ve been planted in the right spot and are carefully managed. But there is something special about older vines and the types of wines they can produce,” he adds, with a knowing sort of grin.