Much of the Australian wine industry owes its existence to the medical fraternity – doctors Penfold, Lindeman, Lake, almost the entire collection of the Margaret River pioneers and many others – but one of our most highly respected wineries, Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley, has much more of a legal bent.
Go back almost half a century and a trio of wine-obsessed Sydney solicitors were keen – having seen Max Lake establish Australia’s first boutique winery, Lake’s Folly, and Len Evans set up Rothbury Estate, both in the Hunter – to expand their involvement in wine beyond writing and extensive consumption of fine bottles from around the globe. They paid, “over the odds for a supposedly questionable piece of dirt”, not far from Lake’s Folly. Brokenwood was born.
The three were James Halliday, John Beeston and Tony Albert. Sadly, Albert is no longer with us, while the others have forged careers away from the Law in the field of wine writing. Halliday (who also established the iconic Yarra Valley winery Coldstream Hills) and his late great friend, Len Evans have done more to advance Australian wine around the globe than any others. Moving to the Yarra meant cutting ties as a partner in the venture, but it obviously still means a great deal to him. But for a toe in need of amputation, he would have had the honour of cutting the ribbon last year to open their fabulous new cellar door, premises worthy of the superb array of wines Brokenwood has been making for a long time.
Brokenwood has always been a bit different, though one thing has never changed – an emphasis on friendship, fun and great wine (‘wanton hedonism’ was one description), and it has proved a recipe for success. A great deal of that success can be laid upon a decision made almost forty years ago. The partners discovered that they were not bad at making red wines but utter rubbish at whites (which may not be quite the way they would put it). And so, after the 1982 vintage, they employed a promising young winemaker, at the time the current Bushing King from his work with chardonnay at Hazelmere, Iain Riggs.
Riggsy, as he is known to many, is still there, running the show. It might all seem casual and relaxed to an outsider, but you don’t produce fabulous wines for decades without talent, determination, attention to detail and a work ethic second to none. During this time, Riggs, the ultimate mother hen, has mentored literally dozens of budding winemakers from Australia, New Zealand and overseas, many of whom are now dazzling with their abilities. Wayne Donaldson, Matt Harrop, Dan and Sarah-Kate Dineen, Samantha Connew, Caroline Dunn, Matt Donaldson, Sarah Crowe and PJ Charteris are just a few of the names.
Riggs was an inaugural board member of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, a founding trustee of the Len Evans Tutorial, one of our hardest working and most respected show judges, a winner of Gourmet Traveller WINE’s Len Evans Award for Leadership, a NSW-Rugby tragic (he is not perfect), a recipient of the Order of Australia and even the Women in Wine Award (Workplace Champion of Change Award). He has collected pretty much every wine honour imaginable.
It didn’t take long before people were talking about Brokenwood and their wines. Granted, they were not quite pushing Lindeman’s, Tyrrell’s, McWilliam’s and Rothbury from the pedestal, but they’d been noticed. These days, it seems that they share the pedestal with Tyrrell’s, with a host of others now following along. Wines like the still spectacular 1986 Graveyard (a wine which sits comfortably alongside the legendary 1959 and 1965 from Lindeman’s) made them impossible to ignore in the early days, while a plethora of their fine wines, from the Hunter and many other Australian regions, has cemented the legend these days. The brilliant new facilities, a long time coming but worth the wait, ensure that Brokenwood must now be seen as one of the absolute must-visit wineries in this country.
Needless to say, there have been many hiccups along the way, not least at the very beginning when the neighbouring Hungerford Hill tried very hard to outbid them for the ten-acre Cricket Pitch block (it was originally destined to be a cricket field for locals). Our heroes carried the day – it cost them a then record $970 per acre – and clearing and planting soon followed, though talking to anyone around in those early days, it seemed more like a non-stop party than a serious enterprise.
Most of the stories are unprintable, though the vision of Len Evans turning up in his Bentley to cart grapes from the vineyard to the winery is one image that remains. Another concerns Tony Albert, not known for his affinity with manual labour. On one occasion, it was his turn to work the cellar door for the weekend. He grabbed hold of newly arrived Iain Riggs and asked what the cellar door usually took over a weekend. In those days, as Riggs advised him, it was around the not inconsiderable sum of $2,000. Albert immediately pulled out his chequebook, signed a cheque for that amount, shut the doors and took off, not to be seen again.
The first wine emerged in 1973, thanks to the efforts of family and friends. Five years later, the Graveyard Vineyard, which had been planted in 1968, joined the fold. The first wine was made in 1983. It was, and remains, a single vineyard wine.
Since then, the net has been cast far and wide, across the nation, in the search for quality sources of grapes.
Brokenwood’s early reputation was built on reds, but their semillon has also been spectacularly successful. Their first ILR Semillon was the 1992, released in 1997 and is a deserved tribute to Iain Leslie Riggs.
Graveyard has always been the flagship. It is one of Australia’s greatest reds. Notwithstanding some wonderful wines from Tyrrell’s and producers like Andrew Thomas, it is not unfair to declare Graveyard as the Hunter’s finest red. Despite that, there is an occasional wine in the Brokenwood stable which exceeds it in price – the HBA Shiraz (named after the initials of the founders, it is Brokenwood’s take on the old Hardy’s reds, blended from vineyards across the land) is around $300 (Graveyard is closer to $250), but it does have ten years in the cellar before release. And yes, the Graveyard Vine-yard was destined to be a cemetery before the partners got hold of it.
According to Langton’s, the Vineyard, gently sloping and east-facing, is 6 hectares and consists of several discrete blocks. The vines are “descendants of colonial stock, including the James Busby collection”. The soil is heavy red clay over loam and there are isolated pockets of ironstone throughout. The topsoil is described as “mean and shallow”. The yield is typically two and a half tonnes per hectare, with a high skin-to-juice ratio. Most years, the wine is matured in a mix of new (usually 30-40%) and seasoned French oak barriques and puncheons for a period up to 14 months. Graveyard has been bottled under screwcap since the 2002 vintage.
Riggs’ first vintage, the 1983, did see a bottling which was 100% from the Graveyard Vineyard, but not named as such. 1984 was the first to wear that moniker. Since those early wines, six vintages have been declassified – 1992, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2016.
Riggs has said that the decision to declassify 2015 was an easy one, but he did believe, for a long time, there would be a small quantity of 2016. After serious consideration, he decided “the superb lineage we’ve built since 1983 would be compromised if we released it”. The good news is that he expects 2017 to “stand comfortably” alongside the brilliant 2014, one of the very best of all Graveyards. Meanwhile, one of those discrete blocks is called ‘7 Acre’, which has produced a 2016 7 Acre Shiraz. They are also offering a 2016 Tallawanta Vineyard Shiraz, a vineyard that is soon to celebrate its centenary in 2020, and which has been under Brokenwood control since 2014.
To celebrate the opening of the new cellar door, Riggs and his team opened a number of Graveyards (as ghoulish as that sounds, a marvellous experience). Those more familiar with big blockbuster shiraz from the Barossa and McLaren Vale are sometimes a little underwhelmed when they meet a top red from the Hunter. These are not monster, high-alcohol, oak-embalmed reds made to enjoy with dinosaur steaks. They can be beautifully subtle and elegant, refined with finesse. More often red-fruited than big bold dark berries. This does not mean they are not destined for many years ageing. Great Hunter reds are unique wines, one of Australia’s vinous gems, and none do it better than Brokenwood with Graveyard.
➼ 1986 – From a magnum, their last. It has long been one of my all-time favourite wines and, I believe, one of the greatest reds ever made in this country. Wonderfully complex and fragrant, supple and seamless, still vibrant. Sadly, there seems to be so little of it around. 99 points
➼ 1990 – A savoury style, with tobacco leaf and light chocolate notes and a slight sour cherry finish. 93 points
➼ 1991 – Opened with rustic characters, truffle and game. Very fine tannins, red fruit notes still evident on the palate, which was fresher than expected from the nose. 95 points
➼ 1996 – Needed a second bottle due to the issues which plague wines from pre-screwcap days. A complete and complex wine with spice, leather, tobacco leaf and red fruit notes. Excellent length. From the savoury end of the spectrum. 94 points
➼ 1998 – Again, we went to the second bottle. Both had hints of soy but here, more warm earth and spices with red fruits. Plenty of grip, though not as long as some. 92 points
➼ 1999 – Really impressive, with time ahead of it. Seamless, with satiny tannins and serious length. Dry herbs, beef stock, old cigars. This is a really good Graveyard. 95 points
➼ 2000 – Earth and mushroom notes. One man’s forest floor is another’s rotting vegetation. A mature, mid-length wine, though the balance seems questionable. 89 points
➼ 2002 – The first under screwcap. Red fruits, leather, animal skins, coffee grounds. Mid-length style where the weight and intensity was not all one would wish. 89 points
➼ 2003 – A warm, burly, concentrated, powerful Graveyard with dark fruits and a mix of truffle/mushroom notes. Plenty of grip, still with an eye to the future. For those who like a bigger and more powerful style. 93 points
➼ 2004 – A beautiful Graveyard, still fresh, with a creamy texture. 94 points
➼ 2005 – Dry herbs, forest floor, mulberry. Hint of sour plum on the finish, which is a little shorter than expected. 90 points
➼ 2007 – Some choc-cherry notes, perhaps a little broader than some. More for instant gratification, but opened up in the glass. 92 points
➼ 2009 – Good intensity, tending to black fruits and coffee grounds. Excellent length and silky tannins. Surprisingly, it didn’t continue to hold up well in the glass. 93 points
➼ 2011 – A great vintage in the Hunter, fully reflected here. Beef stock, new leather, red and black cherry. Alluring, balanced, elegant, intense and very fine. Still too young. A great future beckons. 97 points
➼ 2013 – Spice, cherry and strong notes of bergamot and cold tea. Still tight, with serious grip. Needs time. 92 points
➼ 2014 – If 1986 has a successor, this is it. Brilliant wine, perfect balance, complex, array of flavours. Laser-like focus and decades of pleasure ahead. Gossamer-like tannins. 99 points
➼ 2017 – is well off release, but an early look revealed a wine that will rank with the best – closer to ’11 than ’14 in quality terms, perhaps.