Bruce Tyrrell steps into the 4 Acres Shiraz block, pressing his footprints into the flame-coloured soil. He stops before the gnarled vines and gently examines them.
In this moment, Tyrrell is also touching family history. For his great grandfather, Edward Tyrrell, planted these vines in 1879. They are among the oldest still bearing fruit in the Hunter Valley.
Not that Bruce Tyrrell is thinking too much about the past; he is looking for signs of what the future may hold.
“New buds,” he murmurs, as he holds a small green knot between his fingers. “They’re okay.”
He straightens and adds, “This is probably still the best wine we make.”
The Tyrrell family has made a lot of wine. Their parcels of vines are neatly placed in sun-bleached paddocks on more than 1000 hectares scattered at the feet of the Brokenback Range. Yet it is not just the amount of land stitched with vines but the measure of the years that has made this patch of Pokolbin more than wine country. It is Tyrrell territory.
The Tyrrells have been here since 1858, when Edward purchased the land and called it Ashmans. Bruce Tyrrell is the fourth generation of family winemakers. The tradition flows on; Bruce’s son, Chris, has been involved in winemaking since the 2001 vintage, and his other children, Jane and John, are also part of the business.
“I’ve always looked at it as basically I’m a custodian for a while,” muses Tyrrell, who is the managing director. “My job’s to hand it on to the next generation, and hopefully teach the one after that a few things. [Grandson Henry] is a bit young yet. He’s only 16 months old!”
From his office in an old converted cottage, Bruce Tyrrell can see down the valley and deep into Australian wine legend.
“Vat 1 (Semillon), Vat 47 (Chardonnay) and Vat 9 (Shiraz),” he says, as he gestures to blocks of vines. And over the road, he points out, is the HVD Old Vines Chardonnay block, which was planted in 1908.
“It’s arguably the oldest chardonnay vineyard in the world,” Tyrrell says.
Without even rising from his chair, Bruce Tyrrell can also see what weather may be headed his way. He can look north, towards the Barrington Tops way off in the distance.
“That’s where the rain is,” he explains. But there hasn’t been much of that lately; it’s been a dry winter. Tyrrell says that could mean less grapes, once harvesting begins early next year, but he reckons the results will still be delicious.
In the wine game, Bruce Tyrrell says, it’s wise to take in the past and the future.
“What did [son] Chris say the other day? Both eyes in front of us, with one slightly peeking back over your shoulder,” explains Tyrrell. “Which means, ‘don’t live in the past, but don’t forget the mistakes of the past’.”
When asked if he has made mistakes, Bruce Tyrrell exhales through a grin and says, “There’s a few of them.”
“There have been plenty of times I’ve misread the market. Thankfully I’ve read it the right way more often than I’ve misread it.”
And the most memorable misread?
“A thing called Short Flat Riesling. It was an absolute disaster! . . . Thank God I got it out of the market inside six months. Just didn’t work, it was wrong. We came back 12 months later with Long Flat White, and it went off like a rocket.
“If you’re looking at product and what’s going to happen, you can look into the future all you like, but if you don’t have the benefit of what’s the trend, predicting the future is almost impossible.
“If you’re new, you haven’t got any history to rely on. We’re lucky. Most of ours has been passed down.”
Born in 1951, Bruce Tyrrell learnt on the farm of his forebears, gaining practical guidance from the workers and his father, Murray. Bruce also studied agricultural economics at university. For a time, he dreamed of being a rugby league player and thought about being a journalist, but joined the family company in 1974. However, back then, working with wine wasn’t held in the same esteem as it is today.
“I had a girlfriend in the early 1970s, and her dad was a farmer, and he was not happy, because winemaking was a pretty low profession,” he laughs. “It [wine] was the vision of guys asleep under the CWA hall with an empty flagon beside them.”
Since then, winemakers’ reputations - along with their creations - have developed. Bruce Tyrrell’s is often wrapped around the Vat 1 Semillon. It is a toast to trusting instinct. Around 1989, having been advised not to age semillon in the bottle, he hid some Vat 1 away behind a stack of reds. After a few years, Tyrrell began pulling the Vat 1 out and entered them in wine shows – “and the rest is history”. There’s no hiding away the Vat 1 these days.
“It’s respected as one of the great wines of the world,” Tyrrell says. “In June last year, it made the Decanter Magazine “Wine Legends” list, and there’s only 60-odd wines on there, and only five or six dry whites. I said to Andrew Spinaze, our chief winemaker, I think we’ve made it, I think we’ve done it. It’s only taken 35 years!”
LIKE so much about Tyrrell’s Wines, Andrew Spinaze’s connection to this place goes back a long way. He joined the company in 1980, learning from Murray Tyrrell, the landscape, and Mother Nature herself, with her fickle moods challenging and inspiring a winemaker to create something superb.
And 37 years on, as the company’s chief winemaker, Andrew Spinaze is still learning, applying to his art what he has been taught.
“You get to know these vineyards quite well, you can recall or reflect on how you’ve made wines, so you have that library of information,” Spinaze says.
As a winemaker, Andrew Spinaze can look within, back and forward. But not too far forward, when it comes to the weather. He says he always keeps an eye on the forecasts, but he waits until around Christmas Day, as the harvest looms, to see what the elements may hold. What he doesn’t want is too much summer rain or scorching days. But he’ll work with what he gets from the elements; Spinaze always has.
“I always look forward to the new vintage,” he says.
While it may be too early too early to predict what the next vintage will bring, Spinaze has a wonderful disclaimer: “I always say the 2018 is not as good as the 2019”. In other words, if you view the glass as half-full, the best is yet to come; if the glass is half-empty, better luck next year.
As for his favourite patches of dirt, Andrew Spinaze nominates the Old Vines Chardonnay and Johnno’s Semillon blocks, both holding vines more than a century old. The wines that flow from those small blocks are also among his favourite to create – and to drink.
Spinaze says he has simplified the winemaking techniques for these wines, returning to methods and thinking he learnt from Murray Tyrrell. The older winemaker used to quiz the young guns why they were complicating things. Spinaze wishes Murray Tyrrell were still alive, so he could say to him, “Yes, you were right”.
Andrew Spinaze believes the wines from these smaller, time-seasoned vineyards are not just a joy to drink but also hold a key to the Hunter wine industry’s future. The Hunter can’t conquer the market on volume, he explains, as it accounts for just 0.3 per cent of the national crush, but it has the vines to transport the drinker to a rare and joyous place. They can savour history. Tyrrell’s alone has four blocks with vines more than a century old.
“These wonderful old blocks keep their identity and their personality,” Spinaze says. “To me, that’s the future.”
Bruce Tyrrell agrees, saying the valley has to continue pushing for the top end.
“You’ve got to make wine that is distinctive and high quality,” he says. “Or you end up losing money.”
BACK out among the wizened vines on the 4 Acres Shiraz block, Bruce Tyrrell says this is his favourite patch. For it is not only a part of his family’s history, its roots reach into hallowed viticultural ground on the other side of the globe.
“It is one of those great old vines on its own roots,” Tyrrell says. “It’s history; we’re definite they’re first-generation cuttings from the Hill of Hermitage in France.
“That makes it really special.”
Like these vines, the Tyrrells’ roots are entrenched in this soil, pushing through time, to be simply part of the Hunter. Bruce Tyrrell can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“It’s an area that produces wines that will live,” he says.
“A wine that lives for five years in a bottle is a nice commercial wine. If it’s going to live for 30, 40, 50 years, then it’s a great wine. That’s what we all want to make.”