Sometimes we forget about adventure, exploration and excitement. To me the thrill of discovering a new style of wine is immense. At Tindals we try to encourage our customers to think outside the box. Hence if you’re wondering what new wines to try this month, we have 15% off all Tyrrell’s wines till 1st December to help open up those avenues of discovery.
Fourth-generation producer Bruce Tyrrell runs Tyrrell’s Wines in the Hunter Valley. In 1989, he provoked a family feud by holding back 1,000 cases of Vat 1 Semillon. Released seven years later, it went on to become one of Australia’s most celebrated white wines.
The following is an extract of a recent insightful interview with Bruce Tyrrell by Adam Lechmere
What’s your earliest memory of wine?
At about three years old I walked past the receival pit just as my father dumped a bucket of juice and water over the side, and I copped the lot. It nearly put me off wine forever.
How have things changed in the wine industry in Australia over the last 20 or 30 years?
If you go back 20 years, the winemaker was king. Now it all happens in the vineyard. My vineyard manager and I reckon the most dangerous thing in the wine industry is that two weeks before vintage, the winemakers suddenly become viticultural experts and they want to be all over the vineyard. To which we have to say, ‘Get back in the laboratory and we’ll tell you when we’re going to pick.’
Seriously, understanding the vineyard is incredibly important – it has to be. During vintage at our place, every day at 4 p.m. two winemakers, the vineyard manager and I are in the testing laboratory. We go through the tests of all the juice from the day and then we taste it all. There will be discussions on the quality of the fruit, and all the decisions will be based on that.
Tell me about Vat 1 Semillon. It was pretty revolutionary at the time, making semillon for laying down.
We made the first one in 1962, but the first that we put away to age was the 1989. I put 1,000 cases away; I wasn’t supposed to, there were lots of family fights about it, so I hid it. Then five or six years later we were going, ‘Wow! where did this wine come from?’
We had a few single vineyards we hadn’t done much with, then the Stevens family [renowned Pokolbin grape growers] came in ’93 and we made an agreement to take their fruit over a cup of tea and a handshake. The first vintage of their semillon was so different to anything else that when my winemakers asked what they should do with it, I told them to just keep it separate. I said, ‘If you blend it away, I’ll kill you.’
What was its effect on the wine industry?
I think it’s probably brought back the idea of aging semillon. Aging whites had its peak with McWilliams and Lindeman Riesling, and I suppose we took the idea to semillon and we got it out in the broader international market. It took a bloody long time, mind you – we were banging our heads against the wall for a while. Then I remember being in a conference in Spain in 2010 and this tall, gorgeous Asian woman walked up to me and asked was I Bruce Tyrrell? Then she said she was Jeannie Cho Lee, and told me: ‘Your semillons are the best white wines in the world.’ So there have been a lot of hard years, but we’ve sort of got there.
What sort of state is the Australian wine industry in at the moment?
Well, the last seven years have been pretty tough. I’ve been through three recessions and this has been by far the worst. The unemployment rate’s going up; the GDP’s OK, but if you take the mining out of it, it’s not so healthy. In our area [the Hunter Valley], they’ve finished building the roads and now they’re going to start digging the coal, but that doesn’t employ nearly as many people as the construction phase. So yes, it’s a pretty tough market.
I’ve been struck by the amount of experimentation with new varietals like fiano and verdelho we’re seeing. Is there a danger the pendulum is going to swing too far towards the lighter style, and Australian wine is going to lose its character?
There is a real move to find a new style, to make the wines more delicate, a bit lower in alcohol. It’s a tough market and everyone’s trying to find a new angle. As far as we’re concerned, our area is nearly 190 years old and there are 400 different varieties and clones which arrived with James Busby [who brought the first vine cuttings in from France andSpain in 1835]. The ones we’re growing now are the ones that survived, the ones that worked.
We used to have a fair bit of trebbiano and blanquette. [With blanquette], you can spray botrytis on it and it won’t go wrong – so if your semillon was a little bit thin you would add blanquette to boost it up a bit. Similarly, if your reds were too big you’d blend a bit of trebbiano juice back into them, which we still do today.
What do you think about wineries like McGuigan using spinning-cone technology to reduce alcohol?
Look, as long as the wines are not thin and hard – one of the problems of lower alcohol is you lose power and weight – for a dozen girls sitting round a table on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a great idea. If there’s a demand for lower alcohol then keep it coming.
There is always innovation: it came about with things like blackberry nip and strawberry nip. In 1975, we had a laboratory full of different fragrances and flavors; the single best thing we produced was a tiny bit of lemonade essence in young semillon. We probably shouldn’t have done it, but it was sensational. The fortified market was beginning to stumble a bit, and things like blackberry nip and strawberry nip, which were basically port with fruit essence in them – they just sold out.
Would you say Australia is brilliant at marketing at the entry level but not at the top level?
Possibly. The marketing effort has to be at premium level. Look at China, and the job Treasury Wine Estates have done: that is marketing brilliance. Australian wine is up there with the best of the French. That’s what our biggest winemaker has done and it’s going to drag the rest of us up with them. The Chinese will see that if Grange, Bin 60A and all the rest of them are so good, then there must be other great wines like them out there as well.
What are your long-term plans at Tyrrell’s?
At a conference three years ago, I said, without thinking very much, that in 10 years’ time our industry could look like the beer and spirits industry. There will be a dozen main players who will create a beverage product for the supermarkets and the multiple retailers, and the rest of us will supply a fine-wine product direct to consumer and to on-premise.
I think the Hugel example [in Alsace] is a good one: they don’t sell anything retail in Europe, it’s all sold direct to consumer. As for Tyrrell’s, there’s always that big question: do you remain at the commercial end of the market or do you concentrate on the top? We’ve been moving towards the premium end for the last 10 years, and I think we’ve now got to take that final step and make the decision. We are a small winery.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Winning the Tucker Seabrook Trophy [Australia’s top wine award] for Vat 1 Semillon.
And the low point?
Losing our export licence in November 1988 when sorbitol was discovered in our wines. This is a perfectly safe and stable sweetener, used in things like mints and commercial fruit cakes. It was not on the list of things we were allowed to use, and not on the list of things we were not allowed to use. We lost our licence for about six months. Then all of a sudden it was returned to us.
What brings you the greatest happiness?
Beating New Zealand at anything. And a great bottle of old white.