Brokenwood 40th anniversary verticals Part 3: Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1983-2010

Serendipitous timing that, in Brokenwood’s 40th anniversary year, flagship Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz should be elevated from “outstanding” to“exceptional” in Langton’s latest Classification of Australian Wine.    And very fortuitous for me that, one week after said elevation was announced, I joined in Brokenwood’s 40th birthday celebrations in the Hunter.

After a morning focusing on a vertical of flagship Semillon “ILR” Semillon (reportedhere), we returned to the corrugated steel roofed barrel room after a bite of lunch for a vertical of Graveyard Shiraz (pictured).  It started to rain and, with the din of rain on the roof, Nick Bulleid MW drily quipped“it’s like vintage in the Hunter!”

The Hunter’s sub-tropical climate certainly goes some way to explaining why the Graveyard vertical had all the thrills and spills of a rollercoaster ride.  As Andrew Thomas observed at the Landmark Tutorial Semillon masterclass (see here), during vintage in the Hunter Valley, you have to have “one eye on the vineyard and one eye on the sky.”

Chief Winemaker Iain Riggs’ vintage commentary (in italics after each tasting note) vividly lifts off the page the thrills and spills of working vintage in the Hunter and, as James Halliday observed after the tasting, “it’s amazing you can get such beautiful wines with such hell and damnation vintages.”  For Riggs, it’s about “having an intuitive feel and a soft hand to coax the best out of Hunter Shiraz…it all starts in the vineyard, and in last few years, the Shiraz has just been fantastic.” 

Before setting out my tasting notes (with Riggs’ vintage commentary in italics), first an overview about the Graveyard “vineyard,” which I’ve taken from Brokenwood’s website and anniversary booklet.

Vineyards within a vineyard

The vineyard was initially planted with Shiraz vines in 1970. With extremely heavy clay soils, yields are low, but fruit flavour is intense through employment of meticulous vinification techniques. The plans from the original cemetery, dating back to 1882, which occupied the land (and after which the wine is named) are displayed in the Brokenwood tasting room.

The 15 hectare Graveyard Vineyard comprises three distinct sections. Of course it wouldn’t be Brokenwood without the various blocks reflecting a bit of history and fun.

The accompanying map, an aerial photograph from 2009 (see page 13 here), shows the layout of the vineyard: a gentle slope of east-facing vineyard, generally the cooler, made up principally of red clay/loam (with or without iron stone) over grey/white clay. The various blocks and the year of planting are:

A. 1968 – Pa’s. Originally Soper’s and so named because of a never-repeated feat of bogging three tractors in one contour drain in one afternoon. We have photographic proof, too. This was the last block to get irrigation, although the Hunter Valley Gardens nursery provided more than enough subsoil moisture for many years. It is now named after the father of one of our staff who pruned the block for many years.

B. 1968 – Middle. Originally named Albert’s Rest. Whether Tony actually ever pruned his block is unknown. One of the great (true) Tony Albert stories involves Tony having to man cellar door on a weekend. He asked Iain Riggs what the usual taking was, was told ‘about $2000’. He then promptly wrote a cheque for that amount and closed cellar door for the weekend.

C. 1968 – Quail. The original name. Haven’t seen any of late, though.

D. 1968 – 7 Acre. The original name. Of the original block, 5 acres left. Only the top part, 3 acres, is from 1968. The bottom 2 is now State of Origin (J).

E. 1993 – Bush. The first of the replants on rootstock. This vineyard was also reoriented from north/south to east/west.

F. 1994 – Duck’s. Two legged and feathered.

G. 1995 – Road. Along with Duck’s planted to PT23 and 1654 planted on rootstock.

H. 2008/09 – Steel City. Clonal vines and was an experiment with high galvanized posts, now own root Shiraz and timber posts.

I. 2002 – Kat’s and Dog’s. An important block as it was the first to use cuttings from the 1968 vines. It is named after Katrina Barry, the daughter of our Vineyard Manager KB who helped plant the original vineyard in 1968. Kat has been an integral part of the vineyard team and at 12 years of age could outwork anyone at Brokenwood except her father.

J. 2004 – State of Origin. Well what else could we call a block that is one third each New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria? All cuttings from old vineyards, on own roots.

K. 2004 – Trees. Brokenwood has spent in the vicinity of $30,000 in laying underground drains through this area to combat the increasing level of the saline water table. This has been steadily rising due to the development of the area back towards the foothills of the Brokenback range and the increased availability of water in the Valley. This block leads down to the new arboretum designed to utilise some of this excess ground water. Cuttings are from the1968 vines, on own roots. One of our stalwart shareholders, renowned for his love of all things tree-like and which often involved putting an auger through Telstra lines, just happens to be one Tony Rees.

CP. The Cricket Pitch Vineyard seen at the top of the picture is also up for redevelopment over the next few years. This was in fact the first vineyard to be planted on rootstock. It is Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot on SO4 stock, planted in 1990. There is also 0.3 of a hectare of Semillon. Being the same tough red clay as the Graveyard it is not surprising that, 1/ the two red varieties are superfluous and, 2/ the Semillon is on completely the wrong soil.

V. Verona. A mix of 1968 plantings and some redeveloped in 2002/3.

The wines

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1983

Good vigour on the attack and through the mid-palate, which possesses a still generous core of sweet plum and damson sweet fruit laced with cedar and chocolate.  Shame about the curious “lemon twist” (see Iain Riggs’ notes below), which detracts from the finish.

This was the first vintage of the expanded and modernized Brokenwood. A new air-conditioned shed, press and refrigeration all had an immediate impact on wine style. It was the inaugural vintage of winemaker/Manager Iain Riggs. Budburst in September 1982 was helped by 6 inches of rain, but this was to be the last rain for some time. An extremely hot and dry 6 months followed. All varieties were severely stressed with low yield and high sugars the norm. Concentrated, full-bodied reds and rich, high-alcohol whites were produced. One period of 5 days saw the temperature over 40-degrees each day. Obviously such conditions produced a very small crop, the Cabernet Sauvignon resembling currants more than a wine grape variety. The Shiraz produced small berries with concentrated characteristics. The wine when young was deep black and now still displays a vibrant, deep colour with red cherry edges. Muscly, drought year aromas of tar, smoky briar and dry leather. The fruit sweetness is giving way to complex aged characters. The wine shows integrated flavours on a reasonably high alcohol backbone. Not really ‘hot’ but firm structure with licorice/tar and dark chocolate. Slight varnish, tobacco probably from a combination of the hot year and bottle age. May soften with air and decanting. The dry tannins with ‘lemon twist’ American oak carry the flavours to give reasonable balance and length. The first of new-style Brokenwood – picked later and riper than pervious vintages with less extraction and added sweetness of American oak. At 27 years of age time to drink.  Alcohol : 12.6%, T/A : 6.7g/l, pH: 3.21

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1984

Oyster shell and iodine on nose and palate; leathery, bretty and drying out.  Past it.

Recovery from the 1983 summer started post vintage and good rains continued through the year. A very hot (40-degrees) 1983 Christmas and the rain on Boxing Day continued virtually unabated through the 1984 vintage. This resulted in low sugars and difficult working conditions. The conditions weren’t helped by a large amount of fowl manure added to the vineyard the previous spring. Just add a lot of rain and the result was 1-2 metre high weed growth completely swamping the vines. Now a mid-weight Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz that at 26 years has cedar, earthy Hunter Valley characters. Brownish, red rim colour and aged earth/leather aromas. Surprisingly elegant, not unlike a lesser year Bordeaux (could be the background brett).The palate opens up after some air and while ‘lighter’ still has persistent flavours which are best described as savoury, cherry cedar. May hold.  Alc:12.5%, T/A:5.8g/l, pH:3.38

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1985

A little rustic in structure but good vigour on the attack and through the mid-palate with dark treacle and chocolate edged plum, though it finishes a bit short and lean.

Rain continued through 1984 with the resultant budburst and growth being very strong. Hunter Valley soils are not known for their deep root zone and high water retention and a dry December/January saw some vines under stress. A very good red year with good body and tannin. Best described as a robust wine, with the colour still quite dense and no sign of ‘fading’. Rural/Rhone-like characters on the bouquet. Earth spice with some cedar and leather lift. Sold warm year flavours and tannin. The fruit appears to be slipping into the background with the wine finishing slightly dry. However, the savoury, coffee flavours are enjoyable and backed by tobacco oak/tarry edges. Herbal/dry leaf aged flavours. Oxidation showing plus background V.A.  Not a wine of finesse but has generous mouth feel and a good drink. Will be interesting to watch over the next few years to see if further age softens the robust edge. Drink up! Alc:13.1%, T/A:6.24g/l, pH:3.39

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1986

A beautiful mature wine, with good depth and animation to its chocolate edged plum and red cherry chocolate core with oyster shell coming through on the finish.  Lovely line and length.  The next day, a beaming Riggs poured me a glass from a magnum which showed even better – a really seamless palate with interwoven layers of chocolate, cherry, liquorice, star anise, warm earth and leather well supported by savoury ripe tannins.  On song, with gentle acidity to leaven and lift the tail.  Terrific.  For Riggs the 86 “epitomises [so-called] Hunter Valley Burgundy” (though this wine was originally labelled Hermitage).

The excellent but wet spring of 1985 laid a great foundation for the 1986 vintage. This was Iain Riggs’s 4th vintage. He was joined by Roseworthy graduate Wayne Donaldson at the end of 1985, and a welcoming hailstorm prior to the 1985 Christmas (cricket ball size at Wollombi!) did not deter him from staying. The last 3 months saw 415mm (nearly 17 inches) of rain and a further128mm (5 inches) in January 1986. The vine growth and canopy meant that if rain continued a disaster loomed, but dry conditions in February and March meant a perfect vintage.  A good indicator is the ability of the Semillon to ripen (usually picked at 10.5-11.0 Baume). In 1986 Brokenwood had three pickings of the Latara Semillon block with the last dessert style being picked at nearly 18 Baume. By now the handling of the grapes/ferment was gaining consistency using the 2 tonne open fermenters, cap plunging and ferment finished in new American oak. As a young wine the 1986 impressed all who tasted it. Like the 1983 Brokenwood Semillon, a wine style became entrenched. At 24 years of age the wine is holding remarkable colour. While the brick red hues are evident the wine is still quite dense. Classic Hunter Valley aromas are forthcoming with rich ‘old couch’ leather and mocha characters being the feature. These change with air to give more cedar edges. Certainly regional in character but harmoniously so. The powerhouse palate highlights red cherry, earth and polished leather. The initial mouth feel has fruit and oak sweetness and is carried to the finish by developed, textured tannins. The middle palate has spice and clove flavours. Great length. Good bottles, well cellared, will continue to evolve and develop over the next 10-20 years. The lasting impression is of the intense ‘terroir’ stamp the wine carries. Alc:13.5%, T/A: 6.70g/l, pH:3.26

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1987

Corked – a shame because dark chocolate, cherry and cedar suggest this was a good ‘un.

The 1986/1987 vintage debate can get vigorous, with the final result being that Hunter wineries made great wines in both years (and some surprisingly poor wines considering the perfect weather). Brokenwood favours the former across the board. Vintage 1987 produced firmer wines, a bit like 1996 versus 1997. The 1987 Brokenwood Hermitage, Cabernet Sauvignon blend (100% Hunter Valley) is an outstanding wine. The 1987 Graveyard Shiraz has softened due to poor corks. A dry mid-year 1986 leading up to flowering and causing some early stressing dry land vines. An uneven set in Cabernet Sauvignon. Good November rain, 6 inches followed by a further dry spell and then follow-up rain in January (3 inches).Vintage conditions were excellent with long periods of cloud cover. Two wet days towards the end but no disease, no damage caused. Colour has deep reds but starting to show maturity. Lifted developed Shiraz, charcoal, smoky briar aromas with bottle age varnish edge. Rich coffee mocha flavours on a full-bodied palate. Still drinking well with more robust tannins and sweet oak/fruit evident on the finish. The determining factor on longevity will unfortunately be the cork. Drink up! Alc:13.8%, T/A:5.88g/l, pH:3.37

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1988

Dark and meaty, this lacks a bit of life, looking and tasting a bit “brown” with an acetic/balsamic edge.  The tannins are starting to dry out.

Budburst got under way with reasonably hot 1987 September/October weather. A good boost with rain starting in mid November. Over the 2 months to mid-January 125mm (5 inches) had fallen. The weekend of 16-17 January produced an 80mm downpour. Quite heavy but sporadic rain continued until February 14. The dry end of February and all of March meant that Shiraz and Chardonnay were not affected. The first of three Consecutive wet years, but the Graveyard showed instability to withstand the effects of rain. The 1988 has always been a favourite of the Brokenwood team. The colour is reasonably dense with vibrant red hues on the rim. The bouquet shows a concentrated leather/char character typical of Hunter Valley Shiraz, occasionally leading to marmite, licorice aromas. The palate has these plus a fleshy fruit weight. A vanillin oak background backs the hallmark of leather/earth Hunter Valley characteristics, almost ‘ethereal’ in true Hunter Valley burgundy sense. Excellent finish. This wine has plenty of life but at 22 years is a great example of a mature Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz. Alc:13.5%, T/A:5.64g/l, pH:3.51

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1989

Deep aubergine with mahogany notes.  It doesn’t giving much away on the nose, if anything a caramel hint, camphor too, especially on the palate which, like the nose is quite tight.  Though there’s some attractive chocolate cherry truffle flesh, it’s a bit elbowy in terms of tannin and acidity.  Lacks harmony – maybe just sulky?

The middle of three very wet vintages had Winemaker/Manager Iain Riggs in the winery full-time as Wayne Donaldson was not replaced until mid 1989. Kevin Ingle played an integral part and kept our vintage casuals in check. The growing season started in spectacular fashion with 100mm of rain in September. What appeared to be becoming the norm followed with a very hot, dry October including fierce westerly winds. The Cabernet Sauvignon flowering was completely ruined with a resultant low crop picked. 3 inches of rain fell in November and December and then a very wet (nearly 150mm or 6 inches) January 1989. The Hunter Valley dried out enough to ensure clean ripe grapes late in the harvest. This was always an appealing wine when young with the perfect amount of oak backing up the mid-weight fruit palate. A decade on and the wine is distinctly Hunter Valley with lifted leather and briarwood characters like the 1986. It was a museum dry red trophy winner at the Hunter Valley Wine Show, an entry that has to be 8 years of age. Colour is starting to show a slight reddish brown rim but is still dense. Mature leather Shiraz with earth and cedar characters. The palate is mid-weight and has developed flavours of tobacco and bitter chocolate with gamey overtones. Midpalate shows softening tannins and flavours that carry to the end. Will still hold, especially if well cellared, at least 10 years. Alc:14.0%, T/A:6.33g/l, pH:3.44

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1990

It’s a little short and a touch woody with a pronounced camphor edge, but it’s persistent and there’s lots of layers to this, with cherry, iodine and oyster shell.  Still holding a conversation and an interesting one at that!

The low yields from the Graveyard have to reward occasionally and 1990 repaid tenfold. All appeared lost under the volume of rain but the Shiraz hung on to ripen and be disease free resulting in a rich Shiraz dry red. The rain of vintage 1989 continued up till June 1989 with a total of 843mm or 33 inches falling. In a land of contrasts, it probably should have not been a surprise that the next 6 months were virtual drought with only 155mm (6 inches) of rain being recorded. The dry land grapes were showing signs of stress and the dams coped with the very necessary irrigation. Hunter Valley appeared to be heading into a vintage similar to1981 and 1983 until January 8,1990 when the rain started. When it stopped on February 12, a total of 435mm (17.5 inches) had fallen. All Semillon and heavy foliage Shiraz and Chardonnay was picked immediately. The Graveyard Shiraz achieved high sugars in the dry weeks following. The aromas show lifted coffee, with vanillin character probably from the American oak of that year plus a sweet edge similar to the 1986. The colour is surprisingly youthful, with deep red tints. Dark cherry flavours with chocolate/mocha overtones. Flavours are up front, leading to a soft middle palate. The vanillin flavours persist with supple grape and oak tannin mouthfeel. Not a ‘weighty’ or solid wine but a great example of low yields enabling the stamp of the Hunter – lower alcohols supporting distinct earth leather flavours – to be displayed. Will hold for another 5 to 10 years at least. Alc:12.8%, T/A:6.45g/l, pH:3.29

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1991

Plush, fleshy and fresh – a wonderful combination and there’s lots to like about this mellow fellow, with its sensual chocolatey tannins, cedar edged plum and cherry core and lingering oyster shell finish, gentle hum of acidity and round ripe tannins.  Delicious and though in its prime, there’s a good deal more gas in the tank.

The second half of 1990 was the exact opposite to the first. Virtually no rain was recorded from May to September with only 87mm (3.5 inches) in the period October to December. We weren’t to know it but no serious rain was to fall until February 1992. January 1991 remained dry and the harvest was much reduced, but excitement was building in anticipation of high-quality wines. With the vines under stress from lack of water it is not surprising that the alcohol in this Graveyard is only 13%, not super ripe as could be expected. The drought has given a ‘tougher’ wine but one that will continue to reward. The colour is quite dense and still has red hues on the rim. Licorice/iodine leather aromas dominate the nose. This really is a ‘muscly’ Hunter Valley red. The wine has easily handled the new oak, still at this point 100% American. The palate has an earth (savoury) start with cedar/dark cherry flavours on the midpalate. The structure is typical dry-year with firm (not hard) tannins. Polished leather overtones carry throughout the flavour profile with a firm finish to the wine. Not as supple as other Graveyard Shiraz but a wine that will keep on developing for a least another 10 to 15 years. Alc:12.9%, T/A:6.45g/l, pH:3.29

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1992

“No 1992 Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz was produced as the two years of drought leading up to the vintage meant not a grape was picked off the five hectares (12 acres) of old vines.”

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1993

Very spicy, with a burnish of leather to its sweet plum and red cherry fruit with classic earth and chocolate going through, as well as cedar and hints of camp coffee.  Long and beautifully balanced, with an inner glow which suggests it will give pleasure for some years yet.

The 1993 crop hardly bounced back with a plentiful yield. Only 2.5 tonnes was picked – less than a quarter of a tonne per acre! Sub-soil moisture and enough irrigation ensured a good budburst, although growth was slow until a very wet December (178mm or 7 inches). Very much a recovery vintage following 1991 and 1992. February rain did not cause too much trouble. The 1993 is, as expected, fairly concentrated. As a young wine, it caused some debate as to the nature of the aromas. Len Evans always liked the wine, winemaker Iain Riggs expressed reservations. True to form the wine with age has blossomed – Evans 1/Riggs 0. After its museum trophy win in 2001, Riggs wrote the following to Len Evans, “you win”. Mid-density in colour with red/purple edges, which is a good sign at 7 years of age. Ripe, slightly old-fashioned aromas on the nose. This means the typical polished leather with slight tomato bush, but also a ‘barnyard’ rustic edge that is very appealing. The oak is almost non-detectable. At an early 2000 tasting in London the wine as described by Steven Spurrier as “a Chateau Rayas of the Hunter”. Very good palate weight, with ripe berry/mocha flavours to the fore. Mid-range alcohol at 13.5%. The mouthfeel has soft grape and oak tannins. The oak is more evident on the palate with vanillin and slight char characteristics. A very distinctive Graveyard Shiraz that shows Hunter Valley as well as vintage idiosyncrasies. Will continue to age well, developing even greater complexity over the next 10 years at least. Alc:13.6%, T/A:6.1g/l, pH:3.42

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1994

A bit stripped (linear – cork taint?) and high toned.

A welcome return to a good volume of wine after the troublesome two previous vintages. July 1993 was unusual with 4 inches of rain. Spring rain was even over the last 4 months. Christmas and New Year saw extreme heat and bushfires surrounding the Hunter Valley, the closest fires being at Broke. The vines appeared to survive okay, although with little growth after the rain in the back half of January. The rain was on time at the end of the second week of February. Generally regarded as a high-quality vintage, with Semillon and Shiraz being the highlights. Hardly the lead-up to make a great wine, but something worked as the wine went on to clean up in the 1995 Hunter Valley Wine Show, with three trophies including Best Red Wine of Show. The colour is a very appealing deep red, although not dense as in the sense of impenetrable. The aromas are starting to lose the primary fruit overtones. Blackberry/plum fruit characters marry with smoky burnt briarwood. Perhaps a slightly higher char level than previous years. The oak regime included French oak, introduced by new winemaker Matt Harop, which increases over the ensuing vintages. This is not in the blockbuster category, with the body and weight of the wine being rich but not ‘fat’. Intensity of flavour is more a hallmark than opulence. For this wine the flavour profile includes dark chocolate and berries to coffee/tobacco oak influences. It is a complete wine that integrates the stamp of the ‘terroir’ and modern winemaking. Good alcohol (13.4%). At 16 years, developed characters starting to show through the primary fruit. Long,  Rhone-like tannins and medium bodied weight will help this wine to develop over the short term as just starting to show variability. Alc:13.4%, T/A:6.14g/l pH:3.32.

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1995

A bit dusty with sweet ketchup (a brett signifier for me), though there’s good depth on the earthy palate which shows hints of boot polish, cedar and liquorice spice.  The tannins are a touch dry and sinewy, but it’s persistent and characterful.  Shame it’s not 100% on form (attenuated).

This was a remarkable year for our Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz. The previous release was awarded three trophies at the Hunter Valley Wine Show, including Best Dry Red of Show and Best 100% Hunter Valley Dry Red. This was followed with the wine being elevated to “Outstanding” rating in the Langton’s Classification of Distinguished Australian Wine. In writing the climate details for each vintage the rainfall records make for fascinating reading. Everyone remembers the weather on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and vintage, but ask about the rest and the answer is often ‘normal’. If climate change is a reality, should the Hunter Valley, being sub-tropical, be getting wetter or drier? Traditionally winter is dry with warm clear days and cold nights. January/February are the wet months, so should we be seeing more rain in winter? If the winter of 1994 is anything to go by, the Hunter Valley has by no means heard of climate change!!! The last of the summer autumn rain was on April 13, with 304mm from January 1.There was then no significant rain (21mm) until November 17, over 7 months, or 217 days during which time there was only 27mm over 3 rain days. November and December revived the vines with the Hunter having a wet Christmas. January 1995 remained wet and 48mm in the middle of February caused a few problems.  The 1995 Shiraz is an excellent follow-up to the 1994, although perhaps more typically Hunter Valley. Of our previous releases it compares with the 1987 – rich and solid. The colour is deep hue and quite dense. The aromas are earthy, leather Shiraz with a subdued oak background. Excellent flavours abound on the palate. Initially sweet chocolate fruit and char spice oak. This leads to a dry, slightly firm earthy sweet/char finish. The tannins are evident now but the wine will age and the fruit will fill out the palate, giving an excellent mature Hunter Valley Shiraz. At 15 years of age there is now developed characters starting on the aroma and palate. Shouldn’t have any problem reaching 20 years, although start to drink. Alc:13.2%, T/A:6.47g/l, pH:3.35

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1996

A lovely floral, Pinot Noir-like nose with forest floor to boot.  In the mouth it’s medium- bodied with delicious chocolate cherry truffle attractively “washed” by gentle acidity.  Linseed and cedar spice bring complexity and lift to the finish.  A delicious, mellow wine, perfectly balanced and with the intensity to offer several more years’ pleasure.

Another dry/cold winter in 1995, but early irrigation saw a good budburst, with follow-up spring rain. Fruit set was excellent, enabling a good yield. No down pours at harvest, although some rain meant the usual early picking. For the Graveyard Shiraz there were at least 10 separate treatments including run-off trials for an honours thesis by Caroline Dunn, a 4th-year Adelaide University student and now well known for winning the Jimmy Watson Trophy. Post-vintage tasting leant heavily in favour of the run-off wines and extended maceration.  A slightly higher crop than usual at 5 tonne/hectare (2 tonne/acre), with the resultant alcohol at 12.8%. A youthful-looking wine with crimson red hues.French and American oak was used (still favouring the latter in percentage), giving a briar wood/vanillin lift. It is important to avoid the overt American oak ‘coconut’ characters. Ripe fruit aromas and flavours abound as plum/dark berry and dried fruit nuances. A mid-weight palate that shows the trademark earth/licorice flavours built on dry savoury tannins. The palate structure is often referred to as Rhone/Italian-like because of the intense flavours, lower alcohol and dry finish. A wine destined to be a great Hunter Valley dry red as the primary fruit characters are transformed to polished leather and earthy Hunter Shiraz flavours. Has at least 20 years in front of it! Alc:12.8%, T/A:6.19g/l, pH:3.39

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1997

Sadly this wine had succumbed to brett spoilage.

“A new winemaker was in charge of operations, with Dan Dineen joining Brokenwood from McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant.  Excellent spring rain got the 1996/1997 growing season off to a great start. The last 4 months’ rainfall was 300mm (12 inches) which meant a tempering of the summer heat. Only four wet days in January 1997 – the last four with a total of 100mm and then another 90mm 10 days later. The Graveyard Shiraz was picked in drizzle and cold conditions in early March. Lower sugars and careful barrel selection was essential. Good deep colour. The wet-year versus dry-year characters are quite different and the aromas for this wine are briar, polished leather/varnish. These are quite lifted and combine with wood char to give a tighter’chunkier’ edge as opposed to sweet and round. The palate continues this theme with a dryness/tight tannin structure. Flavours are earth, bramble wood, and ‘pizza biscuit’ savoury with underlying brett. Good tannins carrying the fruit, slightly grippy, but enough alcohol and oak sweetness to cope. Different in style to the ripe soft years but close to the 1991,1995 and 1987. Will age into a more leathery Hunter Shiraz, not for the long haul. Alc:12.7%, T/A:6.56g/l, pH:3.36

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1998

A dark nose and palate with warm earth, tar/black treacle with red fruits and carraway spice, supported by solid, chunky tannins.  A soily finish foreshortens the wine and spoils it for me.

The start of vintage 1998 saw a rush back to the records to see how many vintages had started in January. They revealed a few more than first thought, with the drought years of 1992 and 1983 and the wet vintage of 1989 starting in January.The hot, dry conditions that the Hunter Valley experienced (in 1998) meant low crops and in some vineyards early ripening. For Brokenwood most of the Semillon and Chardonnay was in before we had even got under way in 1997. A vintage without rain has to put us ahead in quality. Probably an all-round, high-quality vintage similar to 1986, 1994 and 1996. 75mm (3 inches) of rain in September 1997 ensured a good budburst, although we commenced irrigation much earlier. Sporadic rain in January 1998 and then excellent weather through harvest. Rain in May totalling 4 inches led us into winter. A moderate yield off the old vine sat approximately 1.5 tonnes/acre (3.7 tonnes/ha) or, as the Europeans record it, about 23 hectolitres/ha. This wine was awarded the Len Evans Trophy for the ‘Best Individual Vineyard Wine’ at the 1999 Hunter Valley Wine Show. Youthful colour and reasonably dense with purple hues. The terroir characters of the Graveyard for both aromas and palate are quite distinctive. Fruit descriptives for the nose are dark chocolate/dark cherry with some earthy edges. Oak maturation now features about 25% French oak and the balance French-made American oak barriques. As usual the oak is integrated even as a young wine; bramble, char and savoury flavours are part-oak and part-fruit derived. The mid palate has, surprisingly, a rich plum cake fullness. Slightly higher in alcohol than usual and this (plus glycerol) gives the softness. Excellent tannin structure with long ‘polished leather’ flavours to the back palate. One of the most impressive of our Graveyards, that will age extremely well. No sign of development, still closed and primary in nature. Will see another 20 years from 2010. Alc:14.2%, T/A:6.38g/l, pH:3.41

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1999

A lingering, multi-layered, intense wine with smoky clove, boot polish, burnished leather, cassia, caraway and anise to its mid-weight palate of fleshy plum.  A long finish resonates with dried spice and incense notes.  A beauty with plenty of years ahead of it.

With only 9.2 acres of the 1968 plantings left, Brokenwood often pushes its luck in terms of the timing of picking. This can mean getting caught if the rain arrives later in the vintage. Such was the case in 1999, with 32mm of rain at the end of February. A straw poll of local winemakers has 1999 wines on par with or ahead of 2000. The 1999 Graveyard Shiraz has the frame of the 1988 and 1995 briar and savoury tannin. There was very good rain just before budburst (120mm in August) and follow-up through the spring of 1998. One of the certainties of Hunter Valley weather is rain around January 18-24. In fact, of the past 9 years, 7 have had heavy rain in that period. In 1999 there was 25mm on the 21st and 25mm on the 23rd!  Excellent good colour, dense and youthful purple hues the feature. Aromas include dusty earth, clove and red cherry fruit character with spicy and some vanillin oak. The initial mouthfeel is of drying tannins, but this gives way to plums/cherry fruit. The oak is integrated with some obvious char, briar and toasted almonds. Long, almost elegant palate and great carry of after palate. Distinctive Hunter characters and will develop to a classic dry leather, cedar Shiraz. Needs 10 years. Alc:12.9%, T/A:6.49g/l, pH:3.36

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2000

Deep aubergine and dark and quite closed on the nose with clove and menthol notes. In the mouth it’s powerful and brooding with dark chocolate, linseed, caraway and a long and deep, spicy finish with ripe but firm supporting tannins.  A baby. Needs time.

The rotation of winemakers continues, with Dan Dineen leaving to head up the new enterprise of Len Evans – Tower Wines and Peter-James Charteris stepping in to run the winery. PJ, a Kiwi, was previously at Southcorp in Nuriootpa. The 1999 year was the wettest in the Hunter Valley since the torrential early start to 1990. It just beat 1992 by 40mm. An unusually wet winter led to excellent spring growth, and continued rain. The new Millennium(?) favoured the Hunter Valley with one of the best vintages on record, with excellent yields, sugars and fruit flavours. The previous high-quality years of 1998, 1996, 1994, 1991 and 1987,1986 will be hard pressed to challenge 2000. A very good crop of Graveyard Shiraz at nearly 4.5t/ha (1.75t/ac). Sugars were high, giving 14 to 14.7% alcohol. Very dense, purple colour. The aromas are an amalgam of fruit, region and oak. Black fruit aromas – blackberry, dark cherry and plum – combine with briar, earth characters. A solid oak level (to match the unusually robust structure/alcohol) that shows dark chocolate and mocha. Long, excellent finish to the palate with firm but balanced tannins. Still quite closed at 10 years. Alc:14.7%, T/A:6.31g/l, pH:3.55

 Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2001

This looks and smells quite developed/bretty, with an open textured leathery, earthy palate with sweet herbal notes and a bloody tang as well as chocolate.  Too rustic for me already!

One of the great Hunter Valley vintages, 2000 finished and led into a typical dry winter. No heavy rain until November, 130mm (5inches). Excellent vine growth and fruit set. No rain between mid-December and late January 2001(38 days) enabled timely spraying and vine training. Ominous clouds built up over the last days of January and by February 10, 135mm (5.5 inches) had fallen. Semillons were harvested over that time and the wait was on for the Shiraz. More rain through February with another 91mm and into early March, with 82mm falling over 7 rain days in the first 2 weeks. Careful bunch selection in picking the Graveyard Shiraz was the order of the day. We had to go back to 1992 to find a wetter February. Then 257mm of rain was recorded, but as it came after 2 years of drought it didn’t really matter. No doubt a wine that will create much discussion due to the obvious (to some) regional/wet year characters on the nose. In some years the brettanomyces character is part of the overall Hunter terroir; briar/earth and leather. Mid-density colour with young wine edges still evident. Mention has been made of the Hunter aromas, which come through as earthy, farmyard; but there are also red fruits – red cherry and red currant. Surprisingly subdued oak as we used nearly 90% new barriques and majority French. Herbal, polished leather characters on the palate along with sweet vanillin oak. The tannins aren’t too obvious and not out of balance. Earthy, red cherry flavours through to the end. An interesting wine to watch over the next 5 to 10 years as developed flavours take over from the primary fruit may be too rustic for some. Alc:13.5%, T/A:6.2g/l, pH:3.55

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2002

The first wine to be bottled under screwcap and it sports and expressive nose, with savoury but lifted dried herb/herb sausage as well as sweet earth and smoky peat.  In the mouth it’s a compelling wine, with terrific structure – a chassis of firm but ripe textured charry tannins and fresh acdity – underlying its savoury boot polish licked sour plum.  Long, lingering and spicy this is a virile wine with lots yet to give.

The 2001 calendar year was one of the Hunter Valley’s driest (although not quite 1991), with a total of only 21 rain days in the latter 7 months, for a total of 230mm. As usual, winter irrigation was essential and the vines got away to a great budburst. Spring was dry and mild to hot. The summer really kicked in during December,with several 40C-plus days and fierce winds. Bushfires surrounded the valley but there was no damage in the vineyard area. J anuary continued hot and dry with some rain at the end of the month. The vines were coping well and good quality appeared certain, with a return to normal-ripening picking in the first week of February. Of course this is the Hunter Valley and by February10, 135mm (5.5 inches) had fallen. The Graveyard produced some great Shiraz for such a year, backed up with hand sorting at the winery. Excellent colour, not overly deep but with youthful tints. Hunter Valley aromas!! Charry briar wood, clove and red cherry. Background oak -some vanillin evident. Good weight to the palate, initially soft-to-mid tannins but then red berry and spice flavours. Excellent structure that has earthy, briary, savoury characters and grape/ oak tannins. Tastings of previous similar vintages 1995, 1997 and 1999 have shown classic Hunter Valley characters developing at 5 to 6 years. The first to be 100% sealed by screwcap. No doubting that it is ageing appropriately. Needs 15 years. Alc:13.3%, T/A:6.8g/l, pH:3.56

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2003

An intensely fruity, powerfully structured wine with expressive and earthy fenugreek spice, savoury boot polish, leather and smoked meat to its dark cherry, sweet mulberry and blueberry palate.  Very firm charry tannins lend supportl.  Lots in reserve here – impressive.

Winter of 2002 mirrored that of 2001 with only 18 days of rain,bringing a miserly 121mm of rain (compared to 230mm in 2001). It is some what of a contradiction that our main irrigation period is in winter to build up the subsoil moisture before budburst. The spring and early summer stayed hot and dry, with extensive bushfires through early December. At onestage the entire Brokenback Range was alight, forming an impressive, if eerie, backdrop. January and February continued dry, resulting in one of the smallest Hunter Valley yields in a long time. With further barrel selection, there was a very small 2003 production of the Graveyard Shiraz, but it was a wine of great concentration. Excellent colour with youthful tints. First impression is of a muscly/brawny Hunter Shiraz. For those who follow the Graveyards, 1991springs immediately to mind, the difference being that wine was predominantly American oak to the 2003’s French.  Charry briar wood, clove and red cherry. Background oak – some vanillin evident. Good weight to the palate, initially firm tannins but then red berry and spice flavours. Excellent structure that has earthy, briary, savoury characters and grape/oak tannins. Developed characters should start to appear around the 7 to10 year mark. Alc:13.7%, T/A:6.7g/l, pH:3.47

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2004

A touch bloody on the nose with warm earth and sweet red fruits.  In the mouth it’s soft and sweet with plum jam, red cherry and chocolate cherry truffle character, like a ripe Pinot Noir.  Smoky clove, cassia and sweet earth notes lend complexity while ripe but textured tannins and ripe round acidity brings balance.  Moreish, mid-weight wine – very broachable now, though will perhaps benefit from a few years to shift into a more savoury gear.

In the Hunter Valley a glorious but dry winter followed the excellent 2003 vintage. With only 5 days of rain from June to September, irrigation was essential during this time. A very good budburst and fruit set with a bit much fruit on some blocks. Spring was mainly fine, with one heavy down pour in late November. Christmas Day was a scorcher at 40C-plus, and plenty more followed over the next few weeks. Some blocks of Shiraz were fruit thinned in early January to help the vines cope with the heat and lack of rain.  Mid January rain (22mm) on time on the 17th, followed by 40C, then 54mm a few days later, followed by 40C then another 19mm!!! If the vines weren’t baffled and knocked around, the staff certainly were.  The waiting game for the reds didn’t go our way, with 123mm of rain following on February 25 and 26. Further rain in early March meant lower than desired sugars, but at least no mould problems. The Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz was all picked by March 9. Medium-bodied reds are certainly not out of the norm for the Hunter Valley. Excellent medium depth of colour with youthful tints. A very fragrant Graveyard Shiraz with red cherry, black pepper/nutmeg fruit aromas. These are complemented by the pristine cedar/mocha oak characters. The early youthful tannins give the initial impression of a full-bodied red but the 12.7% alcohol comes into play across the palate with soft earthy, bramble flavours and sweet oak. The tannins are ripe and dry, carrying the spicy medium-bodied weight with ease. A long and even finish, very much in the mould of the 1996 (12.8% alc). A wine regarded as one of our top Graveyards, as is this one. Alc:12.7%, T/A:6.9g/l, pH:3.32

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2005

Fuller-bodied, tight and concentrated with cassis, black and blue berry fruits as well as red cherry to the fore, edged with a savoury undertow of linseed, smoked meat and spicy star anise. The tannins are firm and a touch drying on the finish, waiting for the fruit to unfurl and flesh them out.  A keeper.

Another miserly winter in terms of rainfall for 2004 with the middle 6 months recording 126mm over 16 days. This of course coming off a set start with 247mm in the first 3 months. Rainfall didn’t reach double figures between 25th May and 18th August and some would say that 3mm in one shower is hardly worth noting. A better spring with 110mm in October kept the vines in good vigour. “Character building’ is a term we use a lot in the Hunter Valley. Our vineyard guys estimate four separate hail storms across the Graveyard plus 4 days over 40C and 50mm of rain in January 2005 plus 4 days over 40C and then 50mm of rain in January 2005 plus another 132mm up to 20th February. Tough fruit grapes!! All the old vine Shiraz picked between 20th February and 3rd March in very good condition and ripeness. Comparisons to the 2004 are inevitable and while similar in texture and fruit weight, the alcohol weight gives the wine a much ‘rounder’ feel. Medium density colour with crimson hues as opposed to violet/purple. These almost iridescent young colours are rarely seen in Hunter reds. Lifted aromas of dark cherry, clove and ‘sweet’ earth. These are complimented by soft mocha oak. Initial flavours of dark chocolate and plums supported by the ripe tannins. Some spice/pepper characters on the finish. Perfect weight of fruit, alcohol and tannin. A wine with great ‘line’ structre, balance and length. A comparison to other Graveyard Shiraz is difficult as it is quite the complete wine but the alcohol and style is close to 1993/1994. Alc:13.4%, T/A:6.5g/l, pH:3.45

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2006

A bright and tight nose – Italianate with sour red cherry and plum as well as spicy plum compote with cinnamon, clove and cassia, a lick of boot polish too which follow through on a medium weight palate.  Firm, sinewy tannins give length and line.  Very good, lots of promise.

Looking back at the previous vintages, the lead up to 2006 mirrored that of 2003, except for a mere 60mm of rain in one down pour right in the middle of winter. The actual vintage conditions were very similar from the heat through to the low crops. If the Hunter didn’t get that 60mm the rain would have matched winter 2002, with 120mm over 6 months. For July and August 2005 there was only 2 rain days, both in July for 7mm. Again the district pipeline scheme paid its way with extensive winter irrigation. Spring/summer saw good rain to lead into what was to be one of the hottest summers on record. Christmas Day 2005 and then New Years Day 2006 were both 45C. By late January the Hunter had had another 7 to 10 days of plus 40C weather. What was looking like a normal start, after Australia Day, became a 14th January start for many. The Shiraz was certainly early by at least 2 to 3 weeks. Again low yields, some down as much as 30%. The last of the old vine Shiraz was picked on the 20th February. In some years we have’t started till the 1st March and a week earlier than 2005. The middle year of three dry vintages and very similar to the 2005. Medium density colour with purple tints. Lifted aromas of dark cherry, clove and ‘sweet’ earth. The tannins for the 2006 are ripe with a dry, cedar edge. Some spice/pepper characters on the finish. Perfect weight of fruit, alcohol and tannin. A wine with great ‘line’ – a Len Evan’s expression used to convey structure, balance and length. A comparison to other Graveyard Shiraz is difficult as it is quite the complete wine but the alcohol and style is close to 1994/2005. Alc:13.5%, T/A:6.35g/l, pH:3.33

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2007

A deep aubergine hue with leather, boot polish, warm earth and liquorice on the nose and savoury palate, with good depth of ripe plum and black cherry fruit behind supported by ripe, powerful tannins here.  A brawny, youthful wine.

The rainfall record for the Lower Hunter Valley shows an average rainfall of 800mm calculated between 1919 and 2006. However since 1992 there has not been 1 year at that average – 14 years all up. A similar period occurred between 1932 and 1948. The year 2006 was one of the driest on record with a miserly 416mm. A dry 2006 vintage contiued until rain (133mm) in September. Brokenwood as usual commenced irrigation well before budburst. A further 30mm in early November kept the vines going as water restictions became a reality. Cooler weather over Christmas gave short-lived respite. High temperatures and low ground water meant an early start to picking with Brokenwood kicking off on the 17th January, a week later than others in the Valley. The harvest was one of our shortest with the first reds in on the 8th February. The first of the old vines was a week later and vintage all wrapped up by the 18th. The low yields made it all very quick. The last year of three dry vintages and very similar to the 1998. Medium density colour with purple tints. Excellent deep colour and youthful tints. Drought years often bring a different set of challenges especially in maintaining finesse. Strong lifted aroma’s of sweet earth and dark cherry. The oak (nearly all French) is obvious in this as a young wine but will soften and integrate. Initial flavours of dark chocolate and ripe plums. These are supported by beautifully ripe tannins giving a slight cedar edge. There is mocha/vanillin from the oak but this is in balance with the fruit characters. Perhaps a ‘solid’ Graveyard Shiraz as opposed to a ‘big’ wine but a skilfully made Hunter from a hot, dry year. Alc:13.5%, T/A:6.20g/l, pH:3.38

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2008

None produced (see 2009 vintage report below).

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2009

Dark and savoury with a liquorice and bay leaf edge to its tight knit berry fruit and hints of earth, leather and boot polish on the finish. Ripe but firm medium bodied classic style.  Very youthful.

Mid January in the Hunter Valley always brings with it a slight nervousness in the wine industry. Having been battered in both previous years – drought in 2007 and pouring rain in 2008, it is no wonder. Black cats certainly not wanted and ladders given wide berth. Vintage 2009? The rain that plagued the 2008 vintage finally eased up at the end of April and then no rain days in May. The middle three winter months normally dry for us saw another 250mm (10 inches) and then odd rain days through to the year end. Fruit set was not as complete but resulted in long loose bunches especially in the Shiraz. A good result.A dry January created some excitement and the Semillon all picked in perfect conditons. Alas the reds got to within a whisker but 162mm between 11 to 17 February meant the sorting table was rolled out again. As can be seen by the finished alcohol the Graveyard was ripe before the rain, so no real loss of quality. Not too long in bottle, hence medium colour in density and hue. Lifted red cherry and earthy aromas and the oak also noticable at this stage. Very good savoury Hunter Shiraz flavours – briar wood and ripe tannin but somehow still medium bodied. Alc:14.0%, T/A:6.80g/l, pH:3.41

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 2010 (barrel sample)

Sill gilded with youth, with its bright purple, pink rim and oaky smoky bacon nose, with tight sweet briar and crushed small berry and currant behind, red and black.  Good freshness, glycerol roundness kept in check by ripe but firm tannins.  Lots of promise and, as Riggs pointed out “you could drink it tomorrow.”

The Hunter Valley finished the calendar year with 680mm of rain and the majority of that in the winter months. Then followed a very warm to hot spring but bud burst and flowering was unaffected. Friday 20th November saw the temperature hit 46C and gave way to one of our more spectacular summer storms. The hail that swept across the lower Hunter Valley, came around the foothills of the Brokenback Range then swung north east taking in the Graveyard and Verona vines. A bit of fruit thinning, even if random, didn’t do too much harm and the continued 40C weather helped dry out the damaged fruit. Rain at the end of December and then again on the 3rd January had the vines in great shape. Vintage started on the 20th January and all whites picked by the 28th , one of the most compressed pickings at Brokenwood. A number of hail affected blocks were fruit thinned through December. In terms of weather vagaries, 2010 did not ease up. Brokenwood managed to get most of the red grapes in after the 180mm of rain in late January (with another 34mm on 6th February). This timing would not normally present a problem but the early ripening meant the grapes were at their best. Some dilution of sugar levels, say 13.5 down 12.5 baume but the colour was already well established. For the third year in a row all red grapes went over the sorting table. Of the four 1968 blocks, not all will be used for the 2010 wine. It is likely a small blend will be bottled from 2010 and for this tasting a representative blend has been assembled.

Reflections

Irrespective of vintage conditions, the vertical nonetheless reflected a marvellous sense of place and continuity even though at times I felt I could have been in the Rhone, Burgundy or Tuscany.  How does that work?   Well I guess the Rhone is shorthand for more rustic, savoury, leathery wines with acceptable or not levels of brett depending on individual taste.  Burgundy (which term was once used to describe Hunter Shiraz) featured in my notes for earthy but more cleanly fruity, suppler older vintages, much my preferred style.

As for Italianate, it appeared in my notes for the most recent vintages and also cropped up the previous day, when I’d visited Tyrrells, McWilliams and Andrew Thomas tasting largely younger wines.  There’s a clear shift in the Hunter towards cleaner, brighter Shiraz, still medium-bodied, but brimming with the kind of sour plum and cherry fruit that puts me in mind of Italy.  More rigorous fruit selection over the sorting table, less new oak, bigger format oak and more French oak (as opposed to US) tell a story, to which PJ Charteris, Riggs’ right hand man added, “the evolution has been the understanding that goes with not interfering too much and letting the vineyard and grapes do their thing.”  The rewards?  “A finer expression of fruit and tannin/acid balance.”

I reckon Hunter Shiraz is entering an exciting new era, which will lay to rest its“sweaty saddle” tag while seeing a return to a “Burgundian” medium bodied style.



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