With none of Tyrrell’s Vat series wines produced in 2020 because of smoke taint, the importance of Tyrrell’s 2021 Vat releases has been put into keener focus. Winemaker Bruce Tyrrell was in London to launch the wines, host an intimate press lunch last Friday at Frog, Adam Handling’s Michelin star restaurant, and talk about Semillon, honest winemaking and shooting drones out of the sky.
“We recognised with Semillon what it can do rather than what people thought it could do,” says Bruce Tyrrell.
So was that legal Bruce, we enquire? “Dunno…but it worked.” Bruce Tyrrell is regaling us with a story about being buzzed by a drone over his garden on a Sunday afternoon. Irritated by the unwelcome intrusion he simply blew it out of the sky.
This is just one of a vast number of colourful japes that this 71-year-old fourth generation co-owner and winemaker of Tyrrell’s recalls from his vast Rolodex of a memory, about life growing up in Australia’s Hunter Valley and setting the course for what the winery has become today.
There’s the one about the crazed ex-Vietnam veteran employed to spray the vines at dangerously low altitudes; stealing Penfolds Chardonnay cuttings under the cover of darkness when their requests for them were denied; how he smoked so many cigarettes a day “Benson Hedges had me on their balance books as an asset”; how James Halliday didn’t write about Tyrrell’s for years after he bought “a truckload” of the 1969 vintage that had tasted great on release but were affected by smoke-taint – which reveals itself after three years; and inheriting an 1867 vineyard “which is the oldest Chardonnay vineyard on the planet.” Is that really true Bruce we enquire? “I’m not sure but it’s a bloody good story.”
And, to hit home how tough life was growing up in the Hunter Valley in the 1950s, the six-year-old Bruce Tyrrell used to ride to school on a horse. “There was one teacher, one room, 10 children and we always had to leave exactly on time… so the teacher could get into town to drink.”
Keeping pace with change
Tyrrell has seen a lot of change in his lifetime and it’s easy to forget that the thriving hub of viticulture and tourism that the Hunter Valley is today was a region that didn’t get electricity until as late as 1959. Until then everything was kerosene-powered and, when refrigeration became an option it was blocks of ice that were used to try and maintain tank temperatures before temperature-controlled fermentation tanks became an option. It is one reason why Tyrrell’s father insisted on picking the grapes so early, so the naturally high tartaric acidity in the soil could help protect the wine.
Advances in viticultural technology forms a large part of table talk as we taste the new 2021 Vat wines, paired with the striking Michelin star cuisine of Adam Handling at Covent Garden’s Frog restaurant.
Tyrrell, for example, now has six drones (the ones you don’t shoot at), with a metre wingspan that can be flown simultaneously at night spraying ‘sun screen’ on the grapes (Kaolin clay that washes off in the fermenters); his state of the art undervine cultivator can handle two vine rows at once; the tractors are all run by GPS so the operatives can read a book while they sit in the cabin; and refrigeration can be supplied by compact mobile fridge units. “We just didn’t have the technology then that you have today,” he says.
These days Bruce Tyrrell is recognised as one of the founding fathers of the contemporary Australian wine scene, he is a strong advocate of the new Sustainable Winegrowing Australia initiative, and an active founding member of Australia’s First Families of Wine. He is still an active winemaker – concentrating on the whites while son Chris looks after the reds – and, as a fourth generation member of the family business, Tyrrell is also a tireless ambassador for his estate… which brings him to the UK, his number one export market and the US (second place) on a regular basis.
The day we lunch was the penultimate day of harvest ‘back at the ranch’ with 2023 looking like a good harvest after the challenging 2020 and 2021 seasons.
Tasting the new Tyrrell’s 2021 Vat series it is immediately noticeable how the acidity has been ratcheted back a degree — part of a conscious strategy to make some of the cuvées less austere in youth. Before the new Vat wines we taste Tyrrell’s Semillon 2021 as an aperitif, something you wouldn’t have done a decade ago without an enamel protector. It’s easy going, surprisingly ripe, rounded and fruit-driven in this vintage. Lemon blossom, chamomile flower and ripe apples draw you into a beautifully balanced wine with an attractive fruit profile.
On a number of occasions Tyrrell declares that he doesn’t grow fruit for 12 months to then bury it in oak in the winery, go for gunflint (“reduction is bad winemaking”) or take the wines down the ‘natural’ route. “I don’t want my wine to smell like the contents of a nappy.” But then why would he? Tyrrell owns 85 hectares of pre-phylloxera Semillon (out of a total of 350 hectares at the estate), has 11 blocks of vineyard over 100 years old and, in Vat 1, has one of the most iconic and loved white wines on the planet.
“Semillon runs in my bloodstream,” he says with deep affection, “the reason is, we recognised with Semillon what it can do rather than what people thought it could do.”
So how were the new Tyrrell’s 2021 wines tasting?
Before we sample three vintages of Vat 1 Semillon we kick off the tasting of the Tyrrell’s Vat 2021 release with the 50th vintage of Vat 47 Chardonnay 2021 which first came about from his father’s belief in the 1960s that “If the French can do it then so can we.” Modern agriculture that was ushered in during this period was key to facilitating the growing of a Burgundian style of Chardonnay successfully (the older vines having been planted for spirit production).
The first Vat 47 vintage produced was the 1971 and since then the only year that this wine has missed a beat was in 2020 because of smoke-taint – wines that are made to be consumed within three years were still produced by the estate because the defect only comes into its own with wines that are laid down.
To taste the Vat 47 Chardonnay 2021 is like a 1er cru Chablis in a warm vintage – voluptuous, ripe and rounded with that trademark acidity keeping everything in check. Kind of strangely it has more acidity than the Semillon.
Next up are three Vat 1s: Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2017, the current release, and Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2009, some of which has been kept back for the on-trade, and the 1998, a rare chance to try a fully mature Semillon.
The estate has a policy of always keeping Vat 1 in bottle for five years before release to temper that sometimes aggressive acidity and allow the wine to develop. Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2017 is from a hot dry year and, although it has been receiving great notices, feels shy in the glass compared to the other wines on the table. There are pretty chamomile flowers on the nose, lime, a fresh nut note; in the mouth the wine is elegant, precise and a little lean. Tyrrell confides that he would have liked to have let the fruit hang for two or three more days but they had to pick the grapes as the alcohol was increasing too fast. Great promise but needs time.
Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2009 was the best wine of the tasting, a simply stunning wine from a great vintage which had that X factor in spades. The secondary characteristics of nut and lanolin were starting to appear in the foreground, with citrus and pear, terrific balance and a delicious fruit profile. Amazing that there was no malo in the wines (there never is) – tasted blind you would have sworn there was – as the finish had a creamy orchard fruit dessert note on the long finish. Wow, what a wine.
Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 1998 was golden deliciousness in a glass. The fruit came again from another hot dry year. Medium to deep gold, the wine is in a late secondary phase with the fruit now tropical (papaya) and the lanolin forward in the mix, with nutty and smoky notes that add to the complexity. The mouthfeel had an oleaginous quality, ripe, rich and creamy with that acidity keeping the wine fresh as a daisy. Interesting to see this wine in a Vermouth bottle, and a clear bottle at that, which was down to the fact that those were the only bottles he could source at the time. A real vin de meditation.
The tasting menu from Adam Handling deserves a mention here as the whites and the reds worked effortlessly well with a turbot dish that was cooked alongside pumpkin seed, wild garlic and capers; and Balmoral chicken which was a ballotine, cooked sous vide with haggis served alongside two vegetable quenelles, one a slightly bitter broccoli. Terrific flavours which highlighted the gastronomic qualities of the wines, the whites, in particular.
Tyrrell’s approach to the reds is “fruit and acid not alcohol and tannin” and, as such, Tyrrell’s Vat 8 Shiraz Cabernet 2021 and Tyrrell’s Vat 9 Shiraz 2021 were both surprisingly approachable for young Aussie reds although clearly green around the gills. The Vat 8 Shiraz Cabernet was restrained and elegant, with creamy black fruit, spiced milk chocolate and a sweet, confected note in the aromatics. The acidity and ripe, very fine tannins give the wine a fine-boned structure. All in all the wine had all the right components but felt a bit disjointed, and there was a green-tea note on the finish that needs to integrate more.
The Tyrrell’s Vat 9 Shiraz 2021 is made in a traditional style with open fermenters, plunging, pump overs and air. The wine ages in one-year-old foudres which gives this medium-bodied, fruit-forward wine a lift on the palate. Fresh and spicy, ripe plums, cherries, syrup, intense and concentrated with ripe tannins nicely integrated for such a young wine.
This memorable tasting and lunch was held last Friday and if there is a better way to start a weekend I have yet to discover one. Many thanks Bruce and team!
Tyrrell’s wines are imported and sold in the UK by Fells.