For Bruce Tyrrell, fourth-generation custodian of Tyrrell’s Wines in the Hunter Valley, the family myths and practical learning passed down through the decades act both as inspiration and provocation.
He explains: “When you know the history of something it does make working with it much easier, but we’ve never lived in the past at Tyrrell’s. My father [late wine industry pioneer Murray Tyrrell] was not easy to work with and convincing him I was right about something was no easy task, but when I did he was 150 per cent behind me – sometimes even claiming it as his own idea!”
After Edward Tyrrell founded the estate in the 1860s, his son Dan fine-tuned the vineyards and then his nephew Murray modernised and expanded wine production; it was Bruce’s turn to the family winery into a major player. Jettisoning the Long Flat bulk wine brand to refocus on premium wines, including the brand’s revered semillon, was one move that raised eyebrows.
Bruce says: “Scrapping Long Flat and taking our production right down was a decision that took 15 years to come good but I just knew we had to do it.” He adds: “In any agricultural business you’ve got your roots in the land that your family owns so you look at things through a much longer lens than a corporate entity can. We accept that investing in new plantings, for example, might hurt us financially for a few years, but we’ll eventually get where we want.”
Having helped make Hunter Valley semillon a global icon is something Bruce is immensely proud of. “My doctor told me I’d never be able to give blood because semillon runs in my veins,” he jokes.
From humble origins
A childhood spent running amid the vines may sound like a blessing, but it is not without its hazards according to Bruce. He recalls: “My first memory, aged three, is running around the concrete vats while my dad was cleaning and him accidentally tipping a bucket of water and grapes over the side of a vat and straight onto my head!”
As he watches son Chris going about his work in the winery Bruce says he is glad winemakers occupy a higher social position than the one they did in his day “lower than second-hand car salesmen”.
When the day-to-day challenges associated with wine production are mounting, Bruce says it can be helpful to remember the road taken by his forebears. “I often think about my 18-year-old great grandfather landing from foggy England aged 18 in 40-degree heat in the Australian bush and having to clear the land himself with an axe,” he explains. “Edward Tyrell would have been amazed by our equipment and refrigeration today, having worked out of a tin shed with a diesel engine-powered crusher.”
That said, restoring antique equipment such as a traditional hand press has given the winemaking team at Tyrrell’s much food for thought in recent times. In line with their minimal intervention philosophy, Bruce says basket-pressed wines like the 2015 Johnno’s Semillon have become in-house favourites.
In the red corner
As for the modern-day dynamic between father and son, Bruce says he and Chris collaborate regularly and easily in the winery. “Naturally we have our disagreements because he’s 34 and I’m 65, but we each know when to step away because our skillsets are very different,” he explains. “While I still have final say over our whites Chris has oversight of the reds, and I believe our current red releases are the best we’ve ever made.”
Bruce adds: “Chris is far tougher about grading our reds than I ever was and I’m proud to see Chris earning a reputation on the wine show judging circuit.”
As the veteran in the team, Bruce says his role is often in providing reassurance. “When the other winemakers are frantically checking and rechecking their weather apps I’ll be the one to say that picking fruit early isn’t the right course of action based on what decades of experience have taught me about the region,” he explains.
As one of the 12 members of the prestigious Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW) collective, Tyrrell’s Wines benefits from even more than its own 160 years’ worth of learnings.
Bruce says: “We should be competitors but we’re actually the oldest of friends, and those bonds are only getting stronger through our children and the Next Generation network.”
Next on the calendar is a group visit to fourth-generation winemaker Chester Osborn’s d’Arenberg Cube restaurant come art gallery come wine museum, so wine tourists may want to watch this space for more exciting innovations around the country in the near future.
Bruce says being part of a collective containing so many historians of Australian wine is a joy. “We all like to belong to something and being able to work in a family winery is a blessing, “ he adds.
Father’s Day favourites
Bruce says: “I think the 1972 Vat 1 Semillon is the best wine made under my watch, and outside of our portfolio I’d look for a 2010 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet.”