When Hunter Valley vigneron Bob Elliott, a young gun in his day, planted vines on a sandy block just south of the railway at Belford, NSW in the 1930s, I’m sure he never imagined that near 90 years on, the grapes would be producing one of Australia’s most distinctive and individual wines.
Tyrrell’s Single Vineyard Belford Semillon is a wine with extraordinary flavour intensity and aromatic complexity. It is lemony and tight in its youth, blooming into a rich, weighty, layered wine with a unique profile.
The Belford Vineyard has 4.86 hectares of semillon and 1.62 hectares of chardonnay. Tyrrell’s Wines purchased fruit off the block as far back as 1982 and then went on to lease the vineyard from the Elliott family. Custodian and Tyrrell’s general manager Bruce Tyrrell AM recalls that there were also shiraz vines planted. But the quality was so poor, that in 1991, the vines were grafted over to chardonnay, with cuttings supplied by Tyrrell’s from the old HVD Vineyard. In the 1980s and ’90s, the semillon grapes, with their high quality, made their way into the iconic Tyrrell’s Vat 1.
Occasionally the wine was kept aside as a separate parcel where it was released to wine club members as Vat 18. Today the vineyard is showcased each year as part of Tyrrell’s Single Vineyard series. It’s the synergy between this somewhat unassuming plot of vines and the talents of Australia’s premier semillon producer that creates such a spectacular wine.
“To choose this sandy dust for a vineyard was a stroke of genius itself, because of the unbelievable quality of the whites which have come from the vineyard since”, wrote Max Lake in his book ‘Hunter Winemakers’, published half a century ago.
That’s the mystical thing about terroir. You can never quite predict where the truly great wines will hail from.
The Elliott family have a long history in the Hunter Valley. Bob Elliott’s father William established the original family property, Oakvale, in the late 1800s, at the foot of the Broken Back Range. After William Elliott died in 1920, Bob took over the reins and established the Belford Vineyard; he also acquired a property at Fordwich and the famed Tallawanta Vineyard at Pokolbin. The winemaking lineage continued with his son Doug and grandson John. Oakvale is no longer owned by the Elliott family. They retained the Belford vineyard for many years, though it has since been sold.
In books by Max Lake and Len Evans in the late 1960s and early ’70s, respectively, their glowing prose indicates that the charms of this vineyard have been long recognised. Lake writes about the “fabulous, almost fluorescent, beetle green, nectar-perfumed wine, fresh at even 20 years of age”. And Evans speaks of the whites from the vineyard as being “famed” and “hard to get”. He adds that the Belford Vineyard produces “one of the most interesting whites in the Hunter Valley”.
These words are as true today as when they were first written.
In recent years, in the hands of Tyrrell’s, the Belford Semillon continues to shine. The top vintages sell out swiftly and it is listed on some of the country’s best restaurant wine lists. The wine has had impressive show success, along with its counterpart the Tyrrell’s Single Vineyard Belford Chardonnay, where it shines as both a young and aged wine.
In 2016, the semillon was awarded two provenance trophies: the National Wine Show for the 2016, 2009 and 2005 vintages, and the Hunter Wine Show for the 2016, 2013 and 2015. This demonstrates the wine’s consistency of style and quality over time.
The isolation of the Belford Vineyard, a tiny flat site situated around 15km north-northwest of the Tyrrell’s winery, is one of its main charms. It is also a key to its success, as it reduces the disease pressure, which is pertinent given the warm and humid climate of the Hunter Valley, particularly around harvest time.
The seclusion of this ‘hidden garden’ gives the vineyard a unique microclimate. The soil is particularly distinctive; it is a very fine, deep sand, almost talcum powder-like in its nature and incredibly free draining.
The old dry-grown vineyard needs particular care and attention. Hand-pruning and picking are essential, and yields are low.
Andrew Spinaze is the winemaker behind the wine, and Andrew Pengilly oversees the viticulture.
Fifth-generation Chris Tyrrell explains that fruit sorting occurs in the vineyard during harvest. At the winery, the grapes are crushed and gently pressed before undergoing a relatively cool fermentation in stainless steel. The wine sees no oak and is bottled early to preserve freshness. The alcohol level sits around 11-11.5% ,and the grapes have a natural balance with low pH and moderate acid levels.
Tyrrell’s Belford Single Vineyard Semillon is a wine with a sense of place made from a resilient vineyard by people who respect the history of this special plot. Production is limited, but it is worth the hunt as the wine deserves a place in every fine cellar.
Belford is known for its full, flavoursome palate. But the richness is balanced by clean, integrated acidity. There is often an attractive honeysuckle note to the wine, especially after it has seen some age. Chris Tyrrell speaks of the similarities between 2005, 2013 and 2017; they are all from great vintages and are all under screwcap. Good bottles of the 98 and 99, under cork, can also be found. As with all great vineyards, its character is reflective of the season in which it was grown.
2017 – A stunning example from a brilliant vintage. The wine is fine and lemony with exceptional acid balance and has power, length, lightness and brightness. Not yet released.
2016 – The Belford vineyard held its own in what was a challenging season. The wine is clean and bright, with good generosity. Not yet released.
2015 – Faint toast aromas followed by a bright lemony palate. Not as long as some of the other wines though still utterly delicious. Release: 1 February 2021.
2014 – A near-perfect growing season has produced a juicy and generous wine with rich, concentrated flavours. An excellent example of the robust characters often seen in this wine. A wine with immediate appeal. Current release: $40
2013 – A fabulous semillon with impressive energy. Hints of smoke and flint with subtle nuttiness and ripe lemon notes. Presence, life and vibrancy with excellent acid balance.
2009 – Delicious fruit-sweetness on the palate with rich citrus flavours and excellent brightness. It will continue to develop with time in the cellar.
2006 – A highly awarded wine from a top vintage. Gorgeous rich butter tones. Similar in quality to the highly awarded 2005.