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Vintner offers Hope to counter Australia's blends

Dave DeSimone
| Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2003

In today's extreme international competition among wine producers, Australia has stayed at the forefront by keeping costs low with the widespread use of automated technology, both in the vineyard and winery.

At the same time, large Aussie wine companies and most midsize firms have pursued a benchmark style of fruit-driven, approachable wines that many consumers adore.

This successful formula is impressive, but it comes at a price. Most Australian wines are regional blends designed to deliver uniform, concentrated fruit flavors rather than expressions of the distinct characteristics of specific vineyards and regions. Regrettably, then, consumers miss the opportunity of tasting a variety and diversity of flavors from unique regions.

One of the exceptions to this general style is Hope Estate Vineyards of the Hunter Valley. Owner Michael Hope recently visited Pittsburgh as part of a nationwide tour to promote his relatively new winery, founded in 1994.

Hope met with me and sommelier Phil Real, who manages the Prelude Wine Bar at the Downtown Renaissance Hotel, to discuss wine and taste the winery's latest releases.

Like many winery owners who successfully pursued prior careers, Hope owned pharmacies before moving to the rural Broke Fordwich subregion north of Sydney to grow grapes, make wine and raise his family. He purchased and refitted a long-dormant winery and bought existing vineyards planted with verdelho and chardonnay for whites, and merlot and shiraz for reds.

His goal was -- and remains -- to make "nice, feel-good, lifestyle wines that everybody can enjoy," but, unlike other vintners who produce on a large scale, Hope also committed to making wines solely from grapes grown on his estates so they could reflect the area's distinct growing conditions.

His limited production puts Hope Estate in the "boutique" class, yet the prices are quite reasonable -- in true Australian fashion.

Hope is a passionate, knowledgeable and "hands-on" winery owner with an excellent lineup. The wines exhibit a more restrained and understated Hunter Valley style as opposed to the national benchmark style.

As a group, the bottlings have impressive depth and complexity, and they reflect how well a dedicated winemaking team can do in the Hunter Valley. Hope is assisted by Neil Orton, viticulture manager, and Joshua Steele, winemaker.

Although it takes a extra effort to purchase these wines -- they are Special Liquor Orders -- you should seek them out.

  • 2002 Hope Estate Verdelho, Hunter Valley (SLO 53870-1, $8.80) is made from a grape originally from Portugal and first used in Australia to make fortified, high-alcohol wines. Hope makes a dry but fruity white wine that is the Hunter Valley's answer to the great sauvignon blanc-based white wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume in France's Loire Valley. Hope Estate Verdelho was primarily fermented in stainless steel to open with aromas of limes and ripe melons with light herbal hints. Then it offers fruity flavors of limes and pears in a rich texture, balanced with lovely crisp acidity and a refreshing, fruity finish. This is a perfect match with pan-Asian cuisine, including Thai dishes with curry and mango. Recommended.

  • 2001 Hope Estate Chardonnay, Hunter Valley (SLO 53225-1, $10.39): Hope ferments 10 separate blocks for this wine after manual harvesting that exercises "ruthless selection" to ensure only the best grapes are used to create "maximum complexity and balance." All of the grapes were fermented in French oak barrels -- only 25 percent of them were new. The resulting wine has marvelous complexity and character similar to outstanding white Burgundies from villages such as Meursault.

    The wine opens with aromas of lime, pear and a touch of smoky oak and then offers rich, well-balanced flavors of citrus and tropical fruit with lovely acidity and mineral touches. Phil Real liked the "structure, depth, intensity and distinctive character with the right price." I concur. Try this with grilled fish. Highly recommended.

  • 2001 Hope Estate Merlot, Hunter Valley (SLO 53247-1, $14.00): Hope believes that the Hunter Valley's submaritime climate requires intensive vineyard management to grow merlot. His team restricts the harvest yields and handles the grapes very gently, in the manner of pinot noir, to try to limit overly herbaceous and mildew traits. He succeeds nicely with this wine, with bright black cherry aromas and hints of mint, earthiness and oak before leading into complex, intense fruit flavors of blackberry and plums. The tannins are nicely structured but very silky. Try it with beef stew. Recommended.

  • 2001 Hope Estate Shiraz, Hunter Valley (SLO 53636-2, $14.10): Hope likes to produce what he calls "the thinking man's shiraz." By that, he means the wine balances exuberant fruit with subtlety, and he hits the mark with this one. Aromas of plums and black pepper meld with earthy accents leading to juicy flavors of plums and chocolate with peppery accents layered on silky tannins, with a supple, well-balanced texture and fruity finish. Unlike many an Aussie shiraz, this wine is not overblown. Try it with grilled steaks. Highly recommended.

    (To order any of these wines, call (800) 332-7522.)

    Hope also offers a dazzling Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet, shiraz, merlot and malbec from the Virgin Hills vineyards in Victoria, which he purchased in 2000. The wine is available nationally for about $30.

    For more information on Hope Estate Vineyards, visit www.hopeestate.com.au .

    Additional Information:

    Wine Newsletter

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