Sunlight shines through the ever-present silver clouds, illuminating the soils of this very special place. The colours, they shift. Transitioning from fire red to chocolate brown to white sand and back again.
The best perspective is from on high. Above, way up in the blue, where menacing shadows originate from cloud cover that get cast onto the foothills of the Brokenback Range, the slow trickle of Mary Ann’s Creek and all of the flourishing new growth below; the leaves of the grapevine, contrasting, deep green and luminous, the heart of the vine, the engine room, where respiration and aspiration meet.
Distinct, yet especially unfamiliar. Anonymous even, but considered by many to be the very best. Short Flat. Hidden in plain sight on Broke Road, right opposite the entrance to the old Ashmans property of Tyrrell’s; Pokolbin’s first winegrowers.
“I’ve got no idea why it’s called Short Flat,” says Bruce Tyrrell. “I’m pretty sure Uncle Dan called it Short Flat because there was Long Flat, which was long and narrow, and then Short Flat over the road, because, well,” he says, grinning, appearing both perplexed and amused, “it was short and flat.”
Despite its prosaic name, Short Flat is one of – if not the – single greatest vineyard sites in the Hunter Valley. Admired by countless winegrowers, winemakers and wine drinkers alike, the consistent quality of wines that originate from the semillon, chardonnay and shiraz vines that grow on this 40-acre patch of hallowed ground is indisputable, unequivocal, patently and demonstrably undeniable.
“It’s an amazing bit of dirt,” says fifth generation winemaker Chris Tyrrell. “The wines that come from it taste like nothing else.”
Vat 9 (shiraz), Vat 6 (pinot noir), Vat 47 (chardonnay) and Tyrrell’s most renowned wine of all time, Vat 1 (semillon) all hail from Short Flat’s spectacular soils.
“Everyone talks about the Vat names and numbers, like Vat 1 and Vat 47, but no one ever talks about Short Flat, the vineyard,” continues Chris. “In an age of named vineyards, single vineyard wines and all that sort of thing, no one really knows just how important Short Flat actually is . . . I guess, because we don’t promote it, which, I kind of like.”
In an age of named vineyards, single vineyard wines, and all that sort of thing, no one really knows just how important Short Flat actually is.Chris Tyrrell
The soils of Short Flat formed some 250 million years ago, during the Permian period, when much of the valley was deep underwater and littered with prehistoric critters called Bryozoans. Over time, these marine-dwelling gastropods and molluscs helped to form the rock and soil composition of many of the Hunter’s most revered vineyards, including Short Flat.
“There’s no doubt about it, Short Flat is a special site,” says Dr Andrew Rawson, Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Agricultural & Wine Science at Charles Sturt University. Rawson studied Tyrrell’s Short Flat vineyard as part of his PhD research through the University of Newcastle in the early 2000s. He was looking into the influence of geology and soil characteristics on grapes and wine quality.
“There is a strip of fossiliferous silt stone that runs right from the base of the Brokenback range all the way underneath the winery and through the vineyard on the other side of (Broke) road,” Rawson explains. “The vineyard itself is situated near a creek that provides a good source of water at depth for the older vines to get their roots into without becoming waterlogged. A strip of calcareous siltstone or marl is found in the red soil parts of the vineyard, while the white soils are of a deep sandy loam with a mostly neutral pH that is naturally high in calcium and magnesium.”
In layman’s terms; good dirt.
“The biggest chunk of plantings was in ’68, but the oldest vines date back to 1923 … Semillon, which would have been planted by Avery and ‘Dan’ Tyrrell,” explains Tyrrell’s viticulturist Andrew Pengilly. “The vines have been planted according to the sites transitional soil profile. The semillon and chardonnay is planted on free draining sandy soils, whereas the shiraz is planted on the heavier, red clays.”
The cornerstone of any great wine is, first and foremost, a great site and a well-managed vineyard. Accordingly, the crux of any well-managed vineyard is a skilful viticulturist. Pengilly has been managing Tyrrell’s vineyards since 1996. In that time, he’s overseen 22 vintages; some good, some bad, and some great.
“You’ve always got a weight on your shoulders, because it all starts in the vineyard,” Pengilly says. “If we don’t make it on ground, the rest of the business won’t make it either. That’s why we’re always striving to make sure we’re doing the best possible job. Particularly with sites like Short Flat. There’s a lot of pride there. A serious amount, because it’s the source of such a vast array of excellent wines.”
It’s not enough to only have a great site and a skilful viticulturist. Another crucial component of any great wine is, of course, a mindful and proficient winemaker. One who can transform a seemingly humble bunch of grapes into an extraordinarily beguiling bottle of wine.
“I think of vineyards like racehorses; there’s the Thoroughbreds that just have that great pedigree and lineage of quality and consistency throughout the years,” remarks Tyrrell’s chief winemaker Andrew Spinaze. “Short Flat is definitely a vineyard with great pedigree … You’ve only got to look at a wine like Vat 1 to know that. It’s iconic.”
In 2016, leading UK wine magazine Decanter named the 1994 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon an “International Wine Legend”. Vat 1 joined the ranks of other great wines including Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace in Australia, alongside Chateau Haut Brion Blanc, Petrus and Chateau Margaux in France. This declaration cemented Vat 1, and more broadly, Hunter Valley Semillon, as what eminent UK wine writer Jancis Robinson once termed “Australia’s unique gift to the wine world”.
“Vat 1 is definitely a unique wine that has prestige all around the world but for me,” says Spinaze, “I still love working with chardonnay. I reckon that bit of dirt down there is one of the best chardonnay sites in Australia.”
In 1973, the first time Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Chardonnay was entered for judging at an Australian wine show it scored six points out of 20. As Bruce Tyrrell recalls, one of the spit buckets scored 8. Since then, rather serendipitously, Vat 47 has gone on to win 47 wine show trophies throughout its 47-year history (up to the 2017 vintage).
“Short Flat’s quirky in that it’s probably one of the least aromatic vineyards around,” says Spinaze. “What I mean is that when the wines are young, they can be intensely layered and quite complex, but not very aromatic… They tend to get lost fairly easily in wine shows,” he explains.
This is one of the reasons why Tyrrell’s tend to release wines like Vat 1 and Vat 47 with at least five year’s bottle age.
“The wines have this weight about them, a delicate strength that you just don’t see in anything else around here,” says Chris Tyrrell. “The wines are never flashy or showy when they’re young. They’re more graceful. Then, after some time, just when you’re not looking they unwind and hit you like a prize fighter, like a 19-year-old Mike Tyson.”
Short Flat wasn’t always a prize fighter, however. Indeed, it wasn’t too long ago that one of Wine Country’s most revered vineyards was, in Bruce Tyrrell’s words, “planted with a lot of shit”.
“The vineyard has doubled in size since I was a kid, and it wasn’t always planted with the grapes it has now,” says Bruce. “A lot of what was there got pulled out in 1990 … I remember, it was during vintage, about half past six in the morning. Dad (Murray) and I were standing on his verandah looking out over the vineyard and I said to him, ‘You and I have actually got to be the dumbest people in the Hunter’. Of course, the old fella didn’t take too kindly to that, he said ‘What do you bloody mean!?’. I said, ‘Well, we’ve got the best bit of white country anywhere in the valley and we’ve got trebbiano, blanquette, table grapes and shiraz planted on it.’ ‘Oh’, he said … So,” Bruce continues, “as soon as vintage was over, we pruned the lot with a D9 and set about replanting the white bits to semillon and chardonnay.”
Tyrrell’s Short Flat vineyard is hallowed Hunter Valley ground. Its impact on Australian wine, not to mention the Tyrrell’s family and staff themselves, is unquestionable. It’s the absolute source of so many consistently high quality wines over many years. Wines that have become an evident inspiration to countless other winemakers, both within in the Hunter Valley and beyond.
“I think, if you have to look up Tyrrell’s in the dictionary, you would see just one thing, that vineyard; Short Flat,” says Chris Tyrrell. “The type of wines that come from it are not just Hunter Valley wines, they’re quintessentially Australian, and we all feel very lucky to be able to work with a site that is that unique.”
In just a few days’ time Short Flat will, once again, hang heavy with the hope of more great wine; born from the shifting soils of this unique parcel of land beneath blue skies and the steep rise of the Brokenback Range. Its provenance inherent. Its quality, all but assured. Mother Nature’s kindness and a practiced consistency from each contributor is all that’s now needed to unlock the promise of great wine held within this patch of good dirt they call Short Flat; a kingmaker, and one of the greatest, most prosaic and celebrated vineyards in all of Hunter Valley Wine Country.