Patch of gold: Ken Bray, the namesake of Braemore vineyard on Hermitage Road in Pokolbin. Picture: Simone De PeakWest, beyond the rugged coastline of Newcastle; bounded to the north by the long slash of the Hunter River, and the distant blue shadows of the Barrington Tops; right below the flank of the ancient Brokenback escarpment; here, beneath a blue sky perpetually menaced and obscured by clouds; row upon row of straight lines run north to south, organising a landscape that was once an ancient sea floor into a neat terrain of toil and promise.
For almost 50 years, semillon vine trunks have grown out from the finely packed grains of earthen white sand that defines this part of Pokolbin. In the shadow of she oaks, which grow along the creek that divides the vines east to west, grapevine bark peels and splits away, forming rough fissures that twist and knot themselves up, around, and along the dark wood.
A vineyard, located within a strip of fine white sand on Hermitage Road, Pokolbin. Part of a band of outstanding vineyard sites that is collectively and colloquially known as the ‘Dress Circle’; H.V.D., Trevena, Casuarina, and Keith Tulloch’s Field of Mars (formally known as Paradise) vineyards all form an integral part of this flat and narrow arc of moderately fertile, sandy loam. Soil that was deposited during the Permean period, some 250 million years ago.
Braemore is considered to be one of the Hunter Valley’s best sites for semillon. Since the early 1970s it has been the source material for some of the Hunter’s finest and most age-worthy white wines.
“The name ‘Braemore’ has only been around for 26years, but, as a vineyard, it has this historical reputation that makes it feel as though it has been here forever,” says winemakerAndrew Thomas, who knows this plot of dirt well.
SLICE OF PARADISE: The border of the Braemore vineyard off Hermitage Road, Pokolbin, in the Hunter Valley. “In the shadow of she oaks, which grow along the creek that divides the vines east to west, grapevine bark peels and splits away, forming rough fissures that twist and knot themselves up, around, and along the dark wood.”
Braemore was first planted in 1969 by Joch McPherson and his son Andrew. It was initially part of a larger planting that also included the Casuarina and Paradise vineyards. Collectively, the whole vineyard area was called ‘Project One’.
“It was called Project One because we were terribly imaginative people in those days… although, sometimes it was referred to as She Oaks,” Andrew McPherson recalls.
“The vine stock came from a nursery in Mildura. We had two teams planting out the vineyard, running behind a tractor and water trailer with water guns … One person would wet the ground with the gun, another would follow behind, putting the vines in the ground, and then two others would stamp the dirt in and around the vine, so to speak.”
McPherson says the decision to plant semillon vines here was due, simply, to the quality of the sandy loam soils that defines the area.
“It’s a beautiful bit of dirt. I remember, you could dig an awfully deep hole before you reached any heavy clay,” McPherson says.
“The soils were incredibly free draining; perfect for semillon. The fruit used to go to McWilliams and to Tyrrell’s, from memory … I remember they were always quite fine wines. By that I meanwines with really good acid structure.”
ANDREW THOMAS: “‘Sem’ is one of those varieties that we, as winemakers, don’t have a lot of influence on the final quality of the wine. The vineyard does. ” Picture: Dominique Cherry
The Project One vineyards were sub-divided by the Orlando-Wyndham Group in the early 1990s. This gave vineyard manager Ken Bray, and his wife Christine (née Moore), the opportunity to purchase a sizeable portion of this grand cru strip of fine white alluvial sand on Hermitage Road.
“We bought the vineyard because I was already familiar with it. It was renowned for producing good fruit, plus we always had a thing about Hunter semillon,” explains Ken Bray. “The fruit would always end up in the show reserve wines for Orlando, and they always seemed to get the accolades.”
Upon purchasing the 11ha property, Ken and Christine promptly identified the land’s boundaries, and changed the name to Braemore.
“It didn’t really have a name before we bought it,” says Ken. “It was just regarded as an extension of Casuarina. So, we combined Chris and my last names together, and just changed the spelling a bit to get, ‘Braemore’.”
Part of the condition of sale was for Orlando to purchase back most of the Braemore fruit for 15 years. Other remaining grape parcels made it into the hands of only a select few discerning winemakers around the Valley.
“The flat that Braemore is a part of has been responsible for producing some of the best white wines in the Hunter for the last four decades,” says winemaker and McGuigan Wines CEO, Neil McGuigan. “Why? Because of the beautifully deep, sandy loam soils that allow the roots of the vines to penetrate deep down into the subsoil…
“In the 90s, I made semillon for Briar Ridge and Pokolbin Estate from Braemore fruit,” Neil continues. “The wines always drank well early on, but they became outstanding the longer they were allowed to age.”
Towards the end of the decade, Braemore caught the eye of a fledgling winemaker from South Australia, who, at the time, was working as an assistant winemaker at Tyrrell’s.
“I’d never dealt with Braemore prior to speaking with Ken, but from my time at Tyrrell’s, working with the fruit from HVD, I knew that strip of dirt had a bit of significance,” explains Andrew Thomas. “So, I went and spoke to Ken on a whim to see if I could buy some grapes.”
“Thommo showed up out of the blue, the year after Pokolbin Estate had some show success with their semillon (from Braemore), and he asked to buy five tonnes,” recalls Ken. “Our contract with Orlando was coming to an end, so the timing was right.”
After a few years of buying fruit from Ken, Andrew Thomas’ 2002 Braemore Semillon eventually won the trophy for Best Current Vintage Semillon and Best Current Vintage White Wine (for the second year in a row) at the 2002 Hunter Valley Wine Show Awards. That year, the 2001 Braemore Semillon won the trophy for Best One-Year-Old White Wine at the same awards.
“That was a nice little double header,” says Thomas. “That win gave me the confidence of the vineyard.”
“If the fruit looks good then people will want to buy it,” says Ken. “But you also need to gain the confidence of the winemaker, who needs to have confidence in the fruit. Then, together, you work as a team to honour the site by making the best wine you can from it.”
Semillon is synonymous with wine from the Hunter Valley. The grape defines the region and distinguishes it as a place for world-class winegrowing. If you want to make wine in the Hunter Valley and be taken seriously on wine lists and bottle shop shelves in the profuse world of wine, you need to be able to make great wine from semillon.
“‘Sem’ is one of those varieties that we, as winemakers, don’t have a lot of influence on the final quality of the wine,” says Thomas. “The vineyard does. We’re just guiding that inherent potential quality from the vine into the bottle… If you want to rise to the top, particularly with semillon,” Thomas continues, “it all comes down to the quality of the fruit.”
After twenty-odd years, at the end of 2017, Andrew Thomas bought the Braemore vineyard from Ken and Christine. A decision he says he does not take lightly.
Proven: One of Andrew Thomas’s Braemore semillons.
“Taking on ownership of Braemore does give me a warm and fuzzy feeling,” says Thomas, “it’s arguably one of the iconic sites in the Hunter. Plus, it’s good to have skin in the game, it gives me fruit security, and shows that I’m pretty serious about what I’m doing here.”
Just months ago, verdant leaves shaded golden berries for the 49th year in a row; and yet, it was the first official year for the vine’s new custodian. Braemore is one of those rare vineyard sites, which exist throughout the world, that manifests its provenance in every glass. A site that grows the type of wines that oenophiles and dilettantes alike adore. A kingmaker, and a testament to the relationship between humans and the land. Now, the dead wood is ready to be cut away once more, in anticipation for another vintage of toil and promise and, surely … fine wine.