Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Australia’s Bruce Tyrrell is back to revive his B.C. market

Photo: Bruce Tyrrell

There is this notion that the eastern half of Australia was settled by convicts sent there from British.

Well, not every settler had such roots. Australian winemaker Bruce Tyrrell’s ancestor was an Anglican clergyman who sent to Australia in 1848 as the bishop in the Hunter Valley city of Newcastle. Three of his nephews followed and one of them, Edward Tyrrell, began developing a vineyard in 1858 and made his first wine in 1864.

Of course, one can dig back much further in the Tyrrell lineage and, sooner or later, come up with a contentious individual. An ancestor in 1100 fled to Normandy after killing the son of William the Conqueror with an arrow! That detail is actually on the winery’s web site, along with the fact that that ancestor was subsequently pardoned and returned to England.

During the next several centuries, the family became more respectable and more successful (one member was a professor of anatomy and surgery) until young Edward was sent off to be a bishop in the colonies.

That led, ultimately, to Tyrrell’s Wines which celebrated its 150th anniversary in  20008. That is a remarkable longevity in the turbulent Australian wine industry, which has experienced explosive growth and also contraction in the past two decades.

For its first 100 years, Tyrrell’s sold its wine in bulk and it was bottled by other producers and sold under their name. There is a charming story in one of wine writer James Halliday’s books that a few customers bought wines from the winery in the 1950s. On those occasions, bottles were filled from the tanks and someone typed up a few labels.

The business was taken over in 1959 by Murray Tyrrell, Bruce Tyrrell’s father, and the man who established Tyrrell’s as an independent brand.

Murray Tyrrell, who had been making his living in the cattle business, got a rude welcome to wine growing when hailstorms wiped out the 1959 and 1961 vintages and left him with a 1960 production of 600 gallons. But then he went on to win a gold medal at the Sydney wine show with a 1962 wine. Customers started to show up at the winery. By the early 1970s, Tyrrell’s had an establishing following for its brand.

Murray died in 2000 at the age of 79, having turned the company over to son, Bruce, who was born in 1951, and who had been brought into the business in 1974 after getting a degree in agricultural economics.

Murray began exporting wine to the United States in 1972. Under Bruce, the brand has come to be sold internationally. Tyrrell’s continues as a family-owned and operated winery, now with 500 acres of vineyards. Murray’s son, Chris, who had his first vintage in 2001 when he was 18, is one of the company’s three winemakers. His older brother, John, and his sister, Jane, also are actively involved.

Currently, the winery’s biggest market is China. Tyrrell’s made a conscious decision several years ago to cultivate the rising demand for wine throughout Asia. Now, two-thirds of the winery’s exports – and the winery makes 400,000 cases a year – are sold in Asia.

That has offset the slowdown in some other markets, including the once crucial European market for Australian wine but now a collection to troubled economies. “I reckon Europe is the next Third World,” Bruce says.

Bruce has been at the Vancouver International Wine Festival at least a dozen times over the past 25 years. Given the attention he has paid to this market, I was stunned to find only one Tyrrell wine listed by the Liquor Distribution Branch: Steven’s Vineyard Shiraz at $31.99. However, a half a dozen other Tyrrell wines are about to become available in this market, following the tastings that Bruce has been doing here.

Several private stores also list Tyrrells wines. For example, Everything Wine has Tyrrells Lost Block Shiraz Viognier for $21.

The winery made its reputation initially with wines made from the Semillon grape.  For years, Tyrrell’s and other wineries in the Hunter Valley released this as Vat 1 Hunter Valley Riesling.  It was many years before the industry began applying the correct varietal name.

There is nothing in the world like an old Hunter Valley Semillon, which take on complex toasty and nutty flavours as they age. They can age to well over 10 years. One usually has to go to Australia to taste such marvellous whites.

At one of his Vancouver tastings, Bruce showed off the 2004 vintage of Vat 1 Sémillon (approximately $65), a dry white in which toasted almonds mingle with subdued citrus flavours. 91 points.

The winery has several wines under its “Vat” trademark. The trademark was born simply to identify which vat a wine had been matured in when the winery was small. Today, Vat wines are made only with estate-grown grapes.

Here are notes on other wines that Bruce showed.

Tyrrell’s 2008 Stevens Semillon ($28). At only four years of age, this wine is still quite youthful, with lime and lemon flavours and with a crisp finish. 88.

Tyrrell’s 2006 Vat 47 Chardonnay ($55). This is an elegant and fresh Chardonnay very reminiscent of a white Burgundy. It has citrus aromas and flavours with subtle oak.

There’s a story behind this wine. Murray Tyrrell was a great admirer of white Burgundy but, in the late 1960s, there was very little Chardonnay grown in Australia. As it happened, one of the few vineyards was just down the road and belonged to Penfolds. Murray asked for cuttings so he could nurture his own vines and Penfolds refused, three times.

“So one night, we snuck in there and stole them,” Bruce remembers. A few years later, Tyrrells bought the entire vineyard.

Tyrrell’s Rufus Stone Heathcote Shiraz 2006 ($30). This wine has aromas and flavours of black cherry and plum, with a touch of spice on the finish. The texture is elegant. 91.

Tyrrell’s Vat 9 Shiraz 2010 ($55). The vines that produce this wine date from 1968; some date from 1892. The vine age accounts for the intensity of sweet cherry and plum on the palate. There is a touch of liquorice on the finish. 91

Tyrrell’s 4 Acres Hunter Shiraz 2011 ($78). To taste this wine, made from vines planted in 1879, you might need to join the Vancouver chapter of the Australian Wine Appreciation Society. I am told that AWAS has ordered some for its cellar. This wine is youthfully bright, with layers of berry flavours that dance on the palate. 92.


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