To still be running a winery as a family business after 125 years – and with a fourth-generation woman firmly at the helm – is some kind of achievement. CEO Christina Tulloch isn’t taking any of this lightly; she has her mind focused on preserving the legacy while continuing to evolve Tulloch Wines, based in the Hunter Valley.
“The wine industry is a business that needs family and passion, it’s not a short-term win,” Tulloch says.
“There aren’t that many companies around that can say they are this old and have this really long history.”
The Tulloch story harks back to the mid-1800s, when James and Helen Tulloch arrived from Scotland and settled in the Hunter region. By 1895, grandson John Tulloch was running the Branxton General Store. He was owed a substantial debt from a local landholder who couldn’t pay up, so instead offered John 43ha of land, which included a 5ha lot of shiraz plantings. And as they say the rest is history, one full of twists and turns and great tales (too many for these pages).
John’s son Roy Tulloch went to World War I at the age of 22, shipped off to France to fight on the Western Front as part of the 5th Machine Gun Battalion. Testament to the tough character of the family, despite losing his right arm in combat, Roy continued to work in the vineyard after returning from the war.
While early on they sold wine to the likes of Lindemans, Hardys and Maurice O’Shea, by the 1950s, wines under the Tulloch brand were being sold on the market. The well-known Pokolbin Dry Red and Hunter River White labels were first produced under the guidance of Hector Tulloch in 1952.
“When the 1954 Pokolbin Dry Red Private Bin won all the classes at the Royal Sydney Wine Show in 1956, this was a pivotal moment for Tulloch as a brand,” Tulloch reflects. “And this also helped to put the Hunter Valley on the map for producing really amazing wines.”
There was a period in the wilderness for the family from 1969 to the end of last century when the winery changed hands multiple times, including ownership under a UK publishing company, Tooheys and Penfolds. In 2003, seeing a serious opportunity to once again own the business, Christina’s father Jay made the play to recapture the enterprise.
“We got another chance,” Tulloch says. “It was when Rosemount merged with Southcorp and they put the Tulloch brand up for sale. Dad thought he’d love to see the name back in the Tulloch family … it’s a real Australian story of the underdog buying its name back from a big corporate and starting again.
“It was an opportunity to reinvigorate and reinvent the brand and there were no better people to do that than those whose surname was on the bottle.”
Tulloch has a communications degree and background in public relations and magazines, which comes in mighty handy when managing and promoting a wine business. But it hasn’t been an easy ride: she started as a lab assistant at Tulloch straight after school, before working in the corporate world and returning to run the cellar door and operations.
Jay Tulloch sits on the management board and is still active in the winemaking, while another sister, Justina, is involved in marketing.
Under the family’s watchful stewardship of recent years, the wines and the cellar door experience have been transformed into something special.
They have moved away from the traditional cellar door stand-up tasting – where else can you take your children to a “junior” tasting experience, which includes a sensory pairing of soft drinks and snacks?
“I got sick of not being able to take my kids somewhere when I wanted to go wine tasting,” says Tulloch with a chuckle. “It’s about making the whole experience more accessible.
“There is a whole new consumer demographic who values experience and authenticity.
“We have tried to create a wine experience that is different, a little bit of education, a little bit of fun, a little bit of wine and food and how it all comes together.
“Our philosophy is ‘wine your way’ and however you want to discover it, we will help you.”
Experiences on offer include wine and chocolate pairings; wine, cheese and charcuterie matching; a premium aged wine tasting. There are also non-alcoholic kombucha tastings for non-drinkers or designated drivers. I suspect we’ll be seeing similar alcohol-free experiences offered at other wineries both here and abroad in the near future.
If you only have limited time, take the Pokolbin Dry Red vertical tasting, which allows you to try six vintages from a 10-year period, and see the evolution of winemaking and bottle ageing.
You get the sense Tulloch truly has wine running through her veins. She relishes her wine heritage, recalling stories from her childhood and the community fabric that is tightly woven through the Hunter Valley.
“I have fond memories of being in the vineyard and in the winery playing with the Scarboroughs, the Tyrrells and the McGuigans, it was a really small community, very social,” she says.
“The sense of community is still here, it’s agriculture and she can be such a harsh mistress as we found out in 2020 - you really need to have each other’s backs and work together.”
Tulloch’s dedication to the region is demonstrated through her volunteer role as managing director of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association.
“My father has been the president so it feels like a rite of passage to do my time with this organisation,” she says. “It’s about advocating on behalf of the community with all levels of government, ensuring you can fund marketing of the Hunter Valley brand, and it’s also about advocacy around development, coal mining and biosecurity.
“The beauty of a successful region is its rich tapestry of big, small, natural, organic, commercial, you need to have room for everyone and together create something really incredible.”
The variety of wine produced by Tulloch Wines is expansive and in the past few years they have started to experiment with alternate varieties from other regions. Apart from the Hunter classics semillon, chardonnay, verdelho and shiraz, expect to see wines made with grapes sourced from Hilltops and Orange, including vermentino, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, sangiovese and barbera.
While expanding into other regions and grapes has its inherent risks, the gamble is working a treat with the latest releases of these new varietals drinking incredibly well.
Another wine worth seeking out, especially if you like Madeira-style dessert wines, is the delightful Crème de Vin, a fortified verdelho from a solera system started in 1973.
Despite losing all of the 2020 red wine vintage due to fire and smoke taint (the whites are still in good shape across the region), Tulloch is looking to the future with optimism and a deep sense of her place in family history.
“We take the responsibility of being the custodians of Tulloch wines very seriously,” she says.
“We have to continue to grow because we can’t just keep doing the same thing but at the same we’ll continue to refine and hone the things we are really well known for, like the bins and the Hunter River whites.
“We look at wine from a very long-term point of view. As the different generations of Tullochs come into the business, we want the business to continue to evolve with those generations.”
While during the past 125 years Tulloch Wines may have passed through trials and tribulations, highs and lows, the brand is securely under family tutelage, and in safe hands for the next generation to come.
2020 Hunter River Semillon – a beautiful example of Hunter semillon, pale quartz in colour, the nose reveals white peach, nectarine, pineapple and talc. On the palate, mineral, lemon, lime and cumquat all at play. Delightful.
2018 Vermentino – a tropical nose with tangelos, lemon and hints of white spice. In the mouth, pear, lemon pith and lime notes. Summer days and seafood call.
2019 EM Limited Release Chardonnay – a beautiful nose of spicy oak, vanilla bean and green pea. The mouth is creamy with white stone fruit, mushrooms and white truffle. One for old school chardonnay lovers.
2017 Hector Shiraz – only made in exceptional years, classic Hunter style, medium bodied, plums, cranberry, dried herbs, leather and oak. Fruit, tannin and acid still balancing, a long life ahead.
2018 Dry Red Private Bin Shiraz – black plums, aniseed, cut celery, liquorice and spicy cedar underscored by some richer umami notes. A dry and persistent finish.
NV Crème de Vin – a glorious dessert wine made from fortified verdelho features a bouquet of figs, white toffee, peel and smoky spiced pear. The mouth has orange marmalade, coffee, roasted nuts, brown toffee and brandied banana pudding.