Show whites and the Hunter

A Hungerford Hill red has topped a field of 780 entries.

A Hunter Vallery shiraz has topped a field of 780 entries to win the title of NSW wine of the year for 2012. The competition was dominated by the Hunter region, in terms of quality, and by the shiraz and semillon grape varieties, underlined by the choice of the 2007 Hungerford Hill Epic Shiraz ($55) as the best.

A classic of the style, it's a superb Hunter red from an excellent vintage. Though starting to show some positive development of character, it is still youthful, with soft tannins, fleshy texture and intense flavour.

The NSW top 40 - the highest-scoring 40 wines of the show, selected for a public tasting - includes 22 from the Hunter. Eight shirazes and 14 dry white semillons feature in the list, plus two botrytis semillons from the Riverina. Traditionally, and deservedly, the public showcase is dominated by these wines but each year there's an encouraging increase in the number of other varietals. This year, they include vermentino, gewurztraminer, barbera, nebbiolo, petit verdot and a durif, as well as a cabernet merlot, two sauvignon blancs, two chardonnays and three rieslings.

In a big change from previous years, the final two top-40 places are taken by sparkling wines. Both are made with Tumbarumba grapes. Again, Hungerford Hill figures, with its 2008 Dalliance Chardonnay Pinot Noir ($30), but the best sparkling is a remarkable aged wine, the 2001 Courabyra 805 Pinot Noir Chardonnay Pinot Meunier ($55). This trophy winner comes from a small, new, family-owned business that is particularly exciting.

It began when Cathy Gairn, a trained horticulturist who worked with roses, fell in love with grapevines and bought an established vineyard at 805 Courabyra Road, six kilometres outside Tumbarumba. Years later, her brother, Stephen Morrison, bought another established vineyard, almost next door, at 157 Courabyra Road. This happens to be the oldest vineyard in the region, established by Ian Cowell in 1981. These vineyards supplied grapes for some famous wines, such as Ed Carr's Hardys Sir James Tumbarumba Cuvee and Seppelt's Salinger labels. The high-altitude region is perfectly suited to sparkling wine. The brother and sister are from a family of 11, so they have plenty of helpers to call on. Together, the two have created Courabyra Wines.

At this stage, the 805 label is for sparkling and 157 for table wines, a chardonnay and a pinot noir. The table wines are made by the talented Alex McKay, of Collector Wines in the Canberra district.

Hungerford Hill, owned by the Kirby family and led by James Kirby, has been sourcing Tumbarumba grapes for its sparkling wines from independent growers for many years. Winemaker Michael Hatcher and his consultant, Philip John, cultivate close relationships with the growers. In John's case, this stretches back to his many years working for Southcorp, which was pivotal in developing the region's reputation for sparkling wines.

Both sparkling wines display the finesse that comes only from cold-climate grapes with high natural acidity. The '08 Hungerford Hill is more youthful and fruit-driven, while the '01 Courabyra is a ''late-disgorged'' wine that has the benefit of long ageing on its yeast lees. It is complex but also shows remarkable freshness for an 11-year-old wine.

Other highlights of the trophies, announced last night, include southern highlands boutique Tertini winning yet another award for its complex and foresty 2009 Reserve Pinot Noir ($58). Its regular-label 2010 ($53) also won a gold medal and top-40 place.


The chardonnay class was somewhat disappointing this year but that takes nothing away from the excellent Pepper Tree Venus Block Reserve from Orange, which took home the trophy. It pipped another interesting wine for the honour: Ascella Pure Wines of the Hunter Valley also won a gold medal and a special award for the best wine made from organically farmed grapes. The wine was its 2011 Premium Chardonnay ($30). A star of the past two years of NSW Wine Awards, Liz Jackson, made the wine at Monarch Winemaking Services, which is not a bad way to go. Ascella is another quite new label, although the vineyard - organic from its beginning in 1999 - has been selling grapes for some years. The owners, the Brown family, are obviously doing a fine job in the vineyard.

NSW top 40 wines tasting, Museum of Contemporary Art, Circular Quay, Thursday 6-8.30pm, $35. Register at


Vine value

There are some great value-for-money wines among the trophy winners, such as Berton Vineyards Vermentino 2012 at $12, Deen De Bortoli Petit Verdot 2009 at $13, Tulloch Vineyard Selection Semillon 2012 at $18, and Deen De Bortoli Botrytis Semillon 2008 at $14 a half-bottle. In all, 15 wines in the top 40 are priced at $25 or less. Great news for wine lovers.