Tasting wine can be a bit intimidating, so we’ve come up with a wine-tasting 101 guide to help you to sip and spit like an expert.
WORDS: Daniel Honan
SEMILLON (pron. ‘semm-ih-ohn’)
Arriving in Australia in the 1800s, the Semillon grape variety is a Hunter Valley classic, the basis for the region’s most distinctive white wine. Semillons are long-lived, typically light- to medium-bodied and bone-dry, with high acidity.
SMELLS LIKE: Fresh citrus fruits, lemons and limes, freshly cut grass. Older examples can acquire aromas of buttered toast, hay, honey and apricots.
TASTES LIKE: Young Semillons are fresh, crisp and high in acid. They can taste bright and citrusy, like crunching into a green apple that’s been splashed with lemon and lime juice. As Hunter Semillons age, the acid fades, leaving a soft, honey-like richness with a touch of nutty, buttered toast.
GREAT WITH: Fish and chips on the beach during summer.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: Mount Pleasant. Gundog Estate. Tyrrell’s Wines.
WINEMAKER’S QUOTE: “Hunter Semillon… delivers an authentic sense of place that is unique in the world of wine.” – Jim Chatto from Mount Pleasant
VERDELHO (pron. ‘ver-del-loh’)
Originating from Portugal, Verdelho grapes grown in the Hunter Valley are usually made into light, dry, fruity and easy-drinking white wines. Some excellent fortified examples exist as well.
SMELLS LIKE: Full-on tropical fruit and floral aromas similar to those of passionfruit, mango and guava.
TASTES LIKE: Light- to medium-bodied with hints of ripe tropical fruit, such as pineapple and passionfruit.
GREAT WITH: Enjoy chilled by the pool with friends, loud music, a platter of fresh cheeses and a big bowl of fruit salad.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: Bimbadgen Estate. Tulloch Wines. Macquariedale Organic Wines.
WINEMAKER’S QUOTE: “Hunter Verdelho is a wine that should compete with Sauvignon Blanc drinkers because of its clean, crisp and refreshingly ripe tropical flavours.” – Rauri Donkin from Bimbadgen Estate.
CHARDONNAY (pron. ‘shar-doh-naye’)
Chardonnay is one of the wine world’s most versatile grape varieties. Hunter Valley Chardonnay is generally full-bodied, soft and lush; great examples are dry, elegant and age-worthy.
SMELLS LIKE: Ripe, yellow tropical fruits – golden pineapples, peaches and melons – usually with a slight scent of honey, oak and sometimes, surprisingly, flint and wet stones.
TASTES LIKE: Anything from bone-dry, crisp and lean to rich, soft and fleshy, and sometimes buttery and oaky. Typically, Hunter Valley Chardys are bursting with the flavours of tropical fruit – soft peaches, crunchy and fleshy pineapples and fresh melons.
GREAT WITH: Serve chilled with a platter of creamy or hard cheeses, fresh seafood or roast chicken breast with steamed veg and a rich white sauce.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: Tyrrell’s Wines. Oakvale Wines. Harkham Wines.
EXPERT QUOTE: “I think the good Hunter Chardonnays have a white peach character with grapefruit-like acidity. With age they even get similar toasty, rich citrus characters to those that Semillons can develop.” – Chris Tyrrell from Tyrrell’s Wines
SHIRAZ (pron. ‘shi-raaz’)
This variety has been grown in the region for more than 200 years, producing some of the Hunter Valley’s greatest red wines. Renowned for their low alcohol and soft tannins, Hunter Valley Shiraz, if cellared carefully, can be kept for a long, long time.
SMELLS LIKE: Ripe red fruit, white pepper and earthiness, sometimes with a touch of worn leather, like the boots of a viticulturist.
TASTES LIKE: Medium-bodied, fine, sometimes with grainy tannins, accompanied by the flavours of ripe red fruits – plums, raspberries – as well as pepper and spice, with a deep undertow of earth and oak.
GREAT WITH: Warm fires, leather-bound books and a chesterfield lounge; or to accompany a weekend barbecue with loads of red meats – steaks, ribs and lamb – and a mate who wears a ‘kiss the cook’ apron while he burns the sausages.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: Brokenwood Wines. Hart & Hunter. Thomas Wines.
EXPERT QUOTE: “Shiraz has been the mainstay of Hunter Valley grape-growing and winemaking since the early 1830s. Because of their medium-bodied nature, they have a great ability to age for many decades.” – Iain Riggs from Brokenwood Wines.
TEMPRANILLO (pron. ‘tem-prah-ni-oh’)
This Spanish grape is well suited to the warm Hunter Valley climate, producing deep ruby-coloured, soft, juicy and easy-to-drink red wines.
SMELLS LIKE: Ripe red berries, cherries, plums and other red fruits, as well as cured and dried meats and sometimes, cola.
TASTES LIKE: Typically medium-bodied, Tempranillo is smooth with lingering flavours of ripe cherries, strawberries, raspberries and plums, leather, meatiness and occasionally, cola; and dry, ‘grippy’ tannins that pinch the insides of your cheeks and sap the moisture out of your mouth for a moment or two.
GREAT WITH: Charcuterie, antipasto and other tapas-like sharing plates.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard. Domaine de Binet. Glandore Estate Wines.
EXPERT QUOTE: “Hunter Tempranillo is still in the typical red profile of medium bodied with savoury spice, but the Hunter adds a layer of dark currant and red fruits.” – Jeff Byrne from Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard.
SANGIOVESE (pron. ‘san-gio-vase-ahy’)
This Italian variety, sometimes known as Chianti, has been grown in the Hunter Valley only in recent years. But there are some tremendous examples trickling out of cellar doors around the region.
SMELLS LIKE: Typically spicy and sweet when young, Sangiovese takes on more savoury aromas – of dark cherries, dried herbs, tomato vine and plums – as it ages.
TASTES LIKE: Celebrated for its high acid content, which lends freshness and structure to typically firm tannins, Sangiovese tastes of red fruits, peppered raspberry, prunes, black olives and damp earth.
GREAT WITH: Any and all classic Italian pasta dishes that feature rich red tomato sauces, olives and a dash of cracked pepper.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: De Iuliis Wines. Tintilla Estate. Little Wine Co.
EXPERT QUOTE: “The Hunter can produce light-bodied Sangiovese that is more down the savoury track than sweet. There are some excellent aged examples from here as well.” – Mike De Iuliis from De Iuliis Wines.
VERMENTINO (pron. ‘ver-men-tinoh’)
Vermentino is an aromatic Italian wine grape and another of the Hunter Valley’s ‘new kids on the block’. A high-quality, lower-alcohol, dry white wine, Vermentino can be created in a savoury style with just a touch of oak or made fresh and vibrant to highlight its natural acidity and citrus fruit characters.
SMELLS LIKE: Typically sweet and lemony with aromas of green tropical and citrus fruits.
TASTES LIKE: Fresh, zesty lemons, grapefruits and other citrus fruits. Clean, crisp and sometimes sharp.
GREAT WITH: On its own as an aperitif, or with fresh seafood or an antipasto platter of cured meats, olives and cheeses.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: Tallavera Grove. Petersons Wines. Bimbadgen Estate.
EXPERT QUOTE: “Vermentino is providing an exciting difference in white wines to the more traditional varieties and styles in the Hunter.” – Gwyn Olsen from Briar Ridge and Tallavera Grove Vineyards.
PINOT NOIR (pron. ‘pee-noh-nuh-wah’)
GRAPE 101: Not as perfumed and ‘pretty’ as Pinot from cool-climate wine regions, those grown in the Hunter Valley do, however, have status, as the Valley is thought to be the genetic home of Pinot Noir in Australia. Legendary winemaker Maurice O’Shea of Mount Pleasant made some of Australia’s best reds by blending Pinot and Shiraz.
SMELLS LIKE: Softly ripened strawberries and raspberries, and stewed plums seasoned with savoury spices, with subtle scents of meat, beetroot and rhubarb.
TASTES LIKE: Soft, rounded textures and dry, dusty tannins, with flavours of ripe red berries, cracked pepper and soft stewed plums, and a touch of strawberry jam.
GREAT WITH: Most often paired with duck, but also good with soft cheeses, slow-roasted lamb and a warm crackling fire.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: Mount Pleasant. Tyrrell’s Wines. Scarborough Wine Co.
EXPERT QUOTE: “With good husbandry and gentle winemaking, coupled with vine age, you can produce varietal Hunter Pinot Noir that is truly regional.” – Jim Chatto from Mount Pleasant.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON (pron. ‘cab-er-nay so-vin-yohn’)
Born in Bordeaux, France, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most popular red wines in the world. In the Hunter Valley, it is used to make powerful, long-lived wines of elegance and force.
SMELLS LIKE: Dark black fruits such as blackcurrant, mulberry and blackberry, with subtle aromas of mint, forest floor, tobacco and cedar.
TASTES LIKE: Full-bodied, rich and sappy. Typically very dense, dark wines with robust tannins and rich flavours of black fruit, olives, leather and earth.
GREAT WITH: Slow-cooked lamb or beef, stews and steaks, blue and mouldy cheese.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: Lakes Folly. Margan Winery. Meerea Park.
EXPERT QUOTE: “These wines have a history and pedigree associated with what is one of the Hunter’s finest viticultural sites, which makes it one of Australia’s most collected Cabernets.” – Rodney Kempe from Lakes Folly.
MOSCATO [Muscat] (pron. ‘mus-scart-oh’)
GRAPE 101: Moscato d’Asti is a wine style made from the Muscat grape, which is thought to be one of the oldest wine grape varieties in existence. Muscat can be made into fortified wines but it’s more fun when winemakers use them to create the low-alcohol, Italian-style sparkling wine Moscato d’Asti. Pink Moscato gets its colour from a little splash of red wine.
SMELLS LIKE: Musk lollies, lychees, cherries and spring florals.
TASTES LIKE: Refreshing, bubbly and sweet!
GREAT WITH: Best served chilled and sipped slowly on a summer afternoon with friends. It’s more than a match for a green or fresh-fruit salad – or, if you’re a sweet tooth, ice-cream and cheesecake.
LABELS TO LOOK FOR: Ballabourneen Wine Co. De Bortoli. Petersons Wines.
EXPERT QUOTE: “It’s a popular wine because it’s easy to drink, sweet and low in alcohol, which are some of Moscato’s greatest assets.” – Daniel de Binet from Ballabourneen Wine Co.
TALK THE TALK
ACIDITY: Picked up by the tastebuds on the sides of your tongue, acidity gives wine its crispness and freshness on the palate.
SWEETNESS & DRYNESS: Most of the tastebuds for sweetness are on the tip and top surface of your tongue but when you taste sweetness in a wine, it’s not always due to residual sugar from the fermentation process. Sometimes, intense fruit flavours can be mistaken for sweetness but the wine will still be dry.
TANNIN: Tannin is felt, rather than tasted, as a dehydrating sensation, causing your mouth to feel dry and your lips to pucker. An acid found in the pigment of grape skins, more noticeable in reds, tannin allows a wine to age gracefully and softens over time.
BALANCE: Winemakers strive to achieve a balance between the various components of a wine: acidity, sweetness, dryness and tannin. Getting the mix of those components just right results in wines that are delicious to drink.