I have a soft spot for Tamburlaine Wines. One beautiful summer’s day back in the early 1990s when my fiancé and I were planning our wedding, we took a chilled bottle of the winery’s Hunter Valley verdelho with us on a picnic and drank the wine as we wrote our vows together.
With my Green Gauge hat on, I also admire the way Tamburlaine has quietly gone about converting its more than 300 hectares of vineyards in the Hunter Valley and Orange to certified organic farming over the past 15 years, making it one of the biggest players in Australian organic wine.
The scale of Tamburlaine may come as a surprise to you; it has built most of its business by selling direct to consumer rather than in retail or restaurants. Some of the wine goes through independent bottle shops on the east coast of Australia, but the vast majority is sold through the winery’s cellar door at Pokolbin in the Hunter or to wine club and mailing list customers, some of whom have been buying Tamburlaine for three or four decades.
“Because we’re not in the big retailers, it means we’re still flying under the radar for a lot of people,” says Aaron Mercer, who has been winemaker at Tamburlaine for the past four years. “Even though we’ve been here since 1966.”
And the wines keep winning medals and trophies at competition after competition: Tamburlaine has long been a good performer on the wine show circuit, but since Mercer’s arrival, the success rate has ratcheted up a notch, with a 2019 riesling from the company’s Orange vineyards picking up a particularly impressive swag of trophies last year.
When I catch up with him at the Hunter cellar door, Mercer’s keen to show me some other new wines he’s pretty proud of. His first crack at the arneis grape, from 2019 and released under Tamburlaine’s new Point 65 label (designed to help the winery sell more through the restaurant trade), is typically varietal, with crunchy pear and almond flavours; his 2019 preservative-free shiraz is beautifully juicy and vividly spicy; a pair of 2018 reserve regional syrahs express their origins beautifully – the Hunter wine all earthy red plums and roundness, the Orange wine more focused, darker, grippy.
But Mercer is even more keen to take me out to visit the vineyards, particularly a couple of neighbouring old blocks that Tamburlaine started leasing – and converting to certified organics – a couple of years ago.
The 16-hectare Somerset vineyard has long been a source of grapes for some of the Hunter’s finest wines: the Howard family has been farming the property for generations, and although they’ve never produced wine under their own label, they have sold their fruit to some of the region’s top producers.
Tamburlaine has leased a third of the vineyard, including some good parcels of chardonnay and verdelho, and as we drive through the property, Mercer shows me how the organic viticulture – particularly replacing herbicide with under-vine cultivation – has helped revive the soil.
Tamburlaine has also leased Hillside vineyard, next door, an old vineyard first planted in the 1960s by the Drayton family. As we walk down one of the rows, Mercer picks up a chunk of the limestone underlying the red soil here: it’s full of fossilised shells. As much as he’s excited by the terroir here, though, he’s also quick to point out the original gewürztraminer vines that he’s looking forward to working with.
“For me, gewürz is one of the traditional Hunter varieties,” says Mercer. “It’s been here as long as semillon and verdelho, and has played a really important role in lots of Hunter wines in the past. I’m a Pokolbin boy, son of a coal miner, and I’m worried about how many of the old vineyards are disappearing. I see what we’re doing here as helping to preserve the tradition: I think we’re obliged to keep the old vines in the ground. I’m really excited about being able to make an old-vine Hunter gewürz.”
As I say, it’s hard not to feel sentimental about Tamburlaine.