Hunter Valley winemaker Andrew ‘Thommo’ Thomas faced a conundrum when he became the custodian of the respected Braemore semillon vineyard located in the famed sands of an ancient watercourse along Hermitage Road. The half-century-old vines produce sensational, age-worthy semillon and for two decades they have been made into a stunning single vineyard wine. However, with a view to the vineyard passing through the generations, Thomas, father of four, saw its renewal as essential to the vineyard’s long-term viability.
So when he made the heart-wrenching decision to remove a portion of the old vines so they could be replanted with cuttings from the best part of the vineyard, he saw it as a “conscience-easing” decision. Rather than discarding them, he used a mini excavator to carefully transplant 250 vines to the main vineyard, filling in any gaps and replacing the odd, rogue, chardonnay vine. All but one vine survived this colossal task. The process was lengthy and difficult, and it is testament to Thomas’ dedication to this sacred site.
An application to purchase Lots 163, 165 and 166, located in the County of Northumberland, Parish Rothbury, Shire of Patrick Plains, was made in 1927 under the Closer Settlement Act by Clarence William Matthews, a somewhat flawed character who was known as a farmer and vigneron. In 1947, the majority of the latter two plots were transferred to Dalwood Vineyards; it became known as the Penfold Vale Vineyard and was later purchased by Tyrrell’s in 1983. In December 1968, four partners eventually purchased the remaining sections, connected by an ‘unnamed watercourse’. The larger than life John ‘Jock’ Hamilton McPherson was among them.
McPherson and his son Andrew wasted little time and planted the land to semillon during a period that saw substantial corporate investment in the Hunter Valley – fuelled no doubt by the rising popularity of table wines. The source of the vine material is unconfirmed, though it’s possible it came from a nursery in Mildura. The land changed hands over the years and was further subdivided. Then, in the early 1990s, owner Orlando Wyndham sold a section to Ken Bray and his wife Christine (née Moore), who named it Braemore, an appropriated mix of their surnames. Bray had worked in the Hunter since the 1970s, including the long-term management of the Wyndham Estate vineyards, and was aware of the site’s potential. After buying the block, he was contractually obliged to sell most of the grapes to Orlando Wyndham, though small portions were sold to local winemakers.
In 2000, Thomas, a Tyrrell’s winemaker for 13 years, officially launched his own label and approached Bray to buy some fruit. The timing was perfect as Bray’s agreement with Orlando Wyndham was soon ending.
“At one stage, we had six different winemakers all making semillon from the vineyard, competing with each other at the local show,” recalls Bray.
Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon was successful from the start. The synergy between the unique site, Bray’s intuitive management and Thomas’ uncompromising winemaking saw the wine rapidly grow in popularity and acclaim, with Thomas eventually taking 75% of the crop.
When the Brays decided to sell the vineyard, Thomas purchased it in late 2017. Despite the change in ownership, Ken Bray continues his link with the land by managing the vineyard.
The Braemore vineyard has 6ha under vine. There are five main sections, each with its own character, which gives a range of blending options. The entire block is handpicked, and the harvest takes around six days, resulting in six to seven individual ferments. Each part of the block has a vital role in the final blend.
“The earlier picked grapes, we call the spine,” says Thomas. “It’s a little leaner, slightly higher in acidity, pure and precise. The heart, which is the majority, comes from harvesting fruit with beautifully balanced ripeness, sweetness, flavour and acidity. It’s spot on”.
The last pick is “slightly riper and more generous in structure”. This is called the tail.
When asked about the signature of Braemore, Thomas talks about generosity. “The wines are like a beautiful each-way bet. Deliciously approachable as youngsters yet with the structural integrity, concentration, tension, and beauty to give them cellaring potential”.
Stepping foot into the vineyard reveals a healthy, tranquil environment. The deep, sandy loam, alluvial soils are consistent across the block. Their pale, powdery, reflective nature directs light into the canopy, which aids ripening, and the free-draining properties are perfect for semillon as the variety “doesn’t like to have wet feet”, says Thomas. Supplementary irrigation is only used in times of need.
The traditional single wire Pokolbin trellis was originally spur-pruned though it’s being reworked to allow cane-pruning for greater yield control and more even fruit distribution. It also ensures every vine is treated as an individual. Thomas is investing heavily in the site, including new trellis infrastructure, to maximise the vineyard’s potential. This is in line with Bray’s management strategy.
“You have to keep nurturing them,” says Bray, “and you can’t penny-pinch.”
The central ethos of the winemaking is to treat the fruit gently. The winery’s proximity to the vineyard ensures the grapes are processed immediately after harvest. While gentle whole bunch pressing is preferred, a portion of the fruit may be crushed and chilled if logistics require it. However, only the finest, free-run juice is used.
Settled, bright juice is fermented in stainless steel using an even-tempered neutral yeast to fully express the citrus characters of the vineyard. The cooler seasons see slightly longer post ferment lees contact than the warmer ones, and early bottling preserves freshness.
As a serious producer of age-worthy Hunter semillon, Thomas feels ‘morally obliged’ to keep a sizeable amount of Braemore back to release as a six-year-old ‘cellar reserve’ wine. This allows his customers the chance to experience the immense beauty of aged Braemore.
After 22 consecutive vintages, the impeccably crafted Thomas Braemore Semillon is one of the iconic wines of the Hunter Valley. Although delicious in its youth, age reveals the true magic of the Braemore site. It is one of Australia’s best value ‘fine wines’ and an absolute bargain in the broader wine world.
2021 Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon, A$35 (Current Release)
Exceptional purity and brightness with gorgeous mid-palate softness and long, lemony flavours. Inviting now yet bursting with potential. Drink or hold.
2017 Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon
All the hallmarks of Braemore – pure citrus flavours, excellent palate weight and a soft, cleansing nature. Spirited, though it needs a tad more bottle age to unfurl and bloom. Hold.
2015 Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon, A$65 (Cellar Reserve Release)
Round and generous and with alluring palate softness. It is just starting to emerge and has a hint of toast on the finish. Drink or hold.
2013 Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon
This is an outstanding wine, full-flavoured and expressive with a long, soft, bright palate. Exceptional purity with alluring toastiness late on the finish. Incredible length of flavour and a cleansing finish. Drink or hold.
2009 Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon
A sublime wine with a little more heart than tail. Gorgeous and intense with subtle gunflint notes. Drink or hold.
2008 Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon
A delicious, fuller style reflective of the challenging vintage. Expressive aromas of lime zest plus citrus-butter flavours. The wine comes alive with food. Drink now.
2006 Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon
Utterly stunning with exceptional citrusy freshness, richness, and lingering gunflint nuances. Drink or hold.