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Chardonnay Queens of the Hunter

According to Google the “Hunter Valley Chardonnay Queen” royalty comprises a viticulturist, a winemaker and a marketer, all playing their part in the resurgence of Hunter Valley Chardonnay and producing wines that rival the greats of the world. Each queen represents a mighty fine, strong woman all from competing wine businesses yet so aligned in playing their part to producing outstanding wines from one region and all the way from the vineyard to the glass.

Ask any winemaker and good wine starts in the vineyard, and fortunately in the case of the Hunter Valley, great Chardonnay vineyards are plentiful. But when it comes to what makes for an outstanding Chardonnay vineyard, we spoke with Queen Viticulturist Liz Riley.

You won’t meet anyone more knowledgeable about a grapevine than Liz Riley. Settle back with good cuppa and one of her house-baked delights and you can listen for days. Undoubtedly Liz is Queen of the Vine, recently gaining the highest recognition in her field for her contribution to research and development and sustainability and productivity, having previously taken out every award known to man in her field. Liz brings cutting science to not only the vineyards of the Hunter Valley, but through her consultancy Vitibit, right across Australia. Essentially Liz helps Australia grow better grapes.

Photos by Chris Elfes Elfes Images 0272R0A0929

Photo Credit: Elfes Images Liz Riley 

But ask Liz, she’s a Chardonnay chick through and through. Married into the Scarborough family of Chardonnay fame, where her husband Jerome Scarborough is General Manager - Winemaker. In fact it’s love and Chardonnay that brought the Western Australian, Roseworthy Graduate to the Hunter almost 30 years ago.

Liz loves what’s happening with Chardonnay in the Hunter right now and attributes this evolution to knowledge. With a genuine thirst for it, she claims “it’s really quite exciting. There are some super amazingly old vine assets in the Hunter and at the other end of the spectrum some awkward teenagers and everything in between. But key to it is how we manage these sites, and what we learn from them year after year.”

When we asked Liz where she thinks Hunter Valley Chardonnay is headed. Quite simply, she answers “well, no one is pulling out Chardonnay vines”.

For Liz growing incredible fruit is one thing, but respectfully acknowledges that viticulturist and winemaker go hand in glove and admits that there really is only one Chardonnay Queen when it comes to winemaking. Meet Liz Silkman.

The two Liz’s as they are affectionately known do have a lot of the Hunter Valley’s Chardonnay stitched up, it would be safe to say that either one or both of the Liz’s has had a bearing on much of the Chardonnay produced in the Hunter Valley be it from the vineyard or the winemaking side, or sometimes both.

Photo by Elfes Images Jan 2022 Copyright CE1 9656

Photo Credit: Elfes Images Liz Riley & Liz Silkman

Take Liz Silkman’s own label, Silkman, which has taken out almost every conceivable Chardonnay gong in the country, the two Liz’s spend plenty of time debating canopy, ripeness, sugar levels and so on. Liz Silkman’s faith in Liz Riley is evident in the fact that together they manage Silkman’s top sites from which they source their flagship Chardonnay fruit, the Murphy’s and Mulberry Vineyard, and according to Liz Silkman, “no one knows these sites better than Liz Riley.”

Even before the fruit is in the winery its over to the Chardonnay Winemaker Queen herself, and her firm commitment to “not letting it hang out” and become overly ripe and extracted on the vine like the Chardonnay styles of old. For Liz, picking Chardonnay at around 11.8 Baume (not the old 13+) is key.

Liz Silkman also proudly makes many of the top Chardonnays in the Hunter under contract through her husband Shaun’s family business, First Creek Wines where she is Chief Winemaker. She acknowledges that she is blessed to have such a diversity of Chardonnay to work with in the Hunter Valley and attributes that to having a combination of really top old clone, old vineyards as well as some fabulous sites planted to the newer more versatile Bernard Clones, and everything in between. But for Liz, it’s the site-specific vineyards planted on sandy grey loam soils that are planted to old vines that she finds most intriguing.

Photo by Elfes Images Jan 2022 Copyright CE1 5825

Photo Credit: Elfes Images Liz Silkman

We asked Liz Silkman why she thinks consumers have developed a renewed fondness for the worlds most planted white wine variety. Is it these new clones that Liz Riley attributes to the more modern flavours and profiles, is it the modern winemaking practices or is it all just marketing?

Liz laughs. “Liz Riley would tell you it’s the modern clones and better fruit handling, and to an extent that’s right, but for me it’s that combined with picking at optimal ripeness, not 13 Baume! It’s using less invasive winemaking practices, it’s handling the fruit more gently in the winery, and using quality oak but only to support, not dominate the wine. Just make it not so busy” she jests.

Sally Scarborough, Director of Sales and Marketing at family-owned Scarborough Wines, might tell you that Chardonnay is in her blood. The self-professed “Chardonnay Queen”, who reigned long before there was such a thing, spent her formative years travelling on a plight to taste as many of the world’s best Chardonnays as she could. Living in the Napa, the heart of Chardonnay country for several stints in her early career gave her a real insight into one of the world’s largest Chardonnay producing and consuming markets.

Photo by Elfes Images Jan 2022 Copyright CE1 8781

Photo Credit: Elfes Images Sally Scarborough

If you ask Sally why she thinks Chardonnay is on the rise, she will tell you that “they have all finally wised up! God, we saw it 40 years ago, why did it take them all this time? No, seriously, we think it’s because of its versatility, and like we do at Scarborough, we make a broad range of styles with different flavour profiles and price points, even packaging so that there really is a Chardonnay that every kind of wine drinker loves.”

“We get people come into our cellar door and say they don’t like Chardonnay, and it’s our job to make sure they leave not only with a box of it in their boot, but with their name firmly entrenched on our mailing list.” adds Sally.

As it turns out there really is no Chardonnay Queen in line for the throne here in the Hunter Valley, instead it’s a lovely synergistic, inclusive hierarchy, one where they all co-exist and complement each other with their various skills and experiences. Hear hear ladies, long may the Chardonnay Queens reign


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