Interview: Hunter Valley with region’s 2024 winemaker of the year

May 20, 2024
By Cody Profaca

Stuart Hordern, Chief Winemaker at Brokenwood Wines, has been named Hunter Valley’s 2024 Winemaker of the Year at the Hunter Valley Legends Awards held last Thursday.

Stuart Hordern received the prestigious award in his first vintage as Chief Winemaker. Reflecting on the accolade, Hordern said: “It is a testament to the hard work and dedication we pour into every bottle at Brokenwood. This recognition highlights the high regard in which our wines are held, both critically and commercially, and celebrates the remarkable success that we have achieved over the past 12 months”.

Drinks Trade recently sat down with Stuart Hordern to discuss Brokenwood, the Hunter Valley, and current economic pressures on Australia’s wine industry. Here is what the best winemaker in the Hunter Valley had to say.

Drinks Trade: How was vintage ‘24 at Brokenwood? 

Stuart Hordern: Look, Vintage, it’s been a good harvest, it’s been really fast…  It was an early start, but not historically so, but the earliest that we have finished in my time at Brokenwood, And that was really due to a combination of a heat in mid/late January, quite dry, but the real driver of it was the low yields from a historically dry winter in 2023.

DT: Are yields lower/higher?

SH: Crops were quite small… Lower crops were standard across the board and some of our important varieties like Semillon were probably the most impacted.

DT: How’s grape quality overall?

SH: Quality is good, definitely, but there is less than our average.

DT: Anything to look out for? 

SH: I think the highlight, despite the small volumes, I think we’ll have our first 2024 Hunter Valley Semillon in bottle sort of early June. So we’re just starting to get them kind of prepped for bottle. I think they look really, really exciting!

There’s really good energy in the wines, great freshness, that sort of classic lime juice, lemongrass flavour and a nice sort of 11/11.5% alcohol that brings to that heat late. There’s a little bit more volume and a little bit more weight on the palate than maybe the last couple of years. They’re probably slightly fuller, but I think unmistakably, I guess that classic young Hunter Valley Semillon that everyone knows and loves will be ready to go sort of coming into spring of 2024.

DT: Vintage ‘24 was your first as Brokenwood’s Chief Winemaker… What’s changed in your day to day since assuming the new position?

SH: There hasn’t been a lot of day-to-day change, to be perfectly honest. I’ve just completed my 15th vintage at Brokenwood. I started out as Assistant Winemaker. I think the change in my role was when I went from Assistant up to Senior Winemaker. The change from Senior to Chief has not been a dramatic role change, but I think it probably speaks to the length of time I’ve been here and the level of experience that sort of comes with that time. 

I was actually thinking about it this morning that ‘24 is my 15th vintage here at Brokenwood [but] it’s my 10th in charge of basically all the winemaking decisions here in the graveyard vineyard. And that being our flagship wine, it’s probably the one that I’m the most proud of, but also conscious of, of not just maintaining the pedigree and quality otherwise, but building on what’s been done in the past. 

DT: How do you continue to build upon such an already high base?

SH: For me, it’s really about putting effort in throughout the growing season, making sure the vineyards are in good condition, knowing where things are up to in the vineyard.

So when it does come time to make those picking decisions, I guess that decision is the correct one and you’re able to get optimal ripeness without maybe rushing at any point. There’s sort of, I guess a calmness, and a sort of pragmatic view when it comes to harvest decisions. 

DT: How has Brokenwood been fairing with current strains on Australia’s wine producing industry?

SH: Look, it will be an issue for us because the biggest impact is going to be on our premium single vineyard sites. 

Whilst there is a bit of a wine glut at present, it is more at that commercial commodity end of the market, which is not really where we produce a lot of our wines. Most of our production is more in that single vineyard premium side of things.

So the production of our sort of ‘favourites’ like Cricket Pitch white and red, they’re not going to be as impacted in terms of volume. It’s more at that sort of single vineyard end of the market with our ILR Reserve Semillon Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz, Indigo Vineyard Chardonnay; they’re going to be the ones impacted in terms of volume. 

DT: What is it about Hunter Valley Semillon?

SH: Well, I think it’s the combination of soil, of location, of proximity to the coast, of the natural geography of the valley. It allows us to achieve ripeness at lower alcohol. So there’s great freshness in the wines, but still wonderful flavour. And that capacity to age is really unparalleled. 

But I think one thing that’s pretty important for us that we’re seeing, particularly since we’ve purchased the Oakey Creek vineyard three or four years ago, is really seeing (I think over the last 6/10 years) we’ve seen a real rejuvenation in Hunter Valley Chardonnay.

DT: Chardonnay can vary a lot based on winemaking decisions… Can you discuss how you go about making Chardonnay at Brokenwood?

SH: It’s 100% fermentation in French oak barrels. But I think picking the fruit at optimal ripeness so it has good natural acidity/not going through malolactic fermentation is pretty important for us; and then using oak to frame the wine, rather than build and be the wine.

I think at the end of the day, it’s really important to remember that wine is made from grapes, not from trees. The primary focus of the wine should be fruit, and that oak should be in the background supporting the wine. 

DT: What’s next for Brokenwood?

SH: Well, as anyone in agriculture can tell you, patience is critical… Look, the market’s obviously not the easiest right now, [so] we’re sort of probably thinking a little bit more short term than 10 years right now, but I think my intention is to really just build and build on the inherent quality of the wines that we have here, a unique vineyard resource that we have access to.

We look after some of the most critical old vine vineyards in the country, and these are under our stewardship and building on vine health, making sure all of our vineyards are now certified through the Sustainable Winegrowing Australia program, so building on that side of things, ensuring vine health is in good condition and things are in a better nick for the next person that comes along is really the thing we’re focusing on both in terms of vineyard health, but also business health.

See also:
Vintage Report – Orange
Vintage Report – Mudgee

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