Plush New Surrounds for Historic Winery
Family has always been at the heart of Oakvale Wines. From its 1893 beginnings as a dairy farm and fledgeling vineyard under the establishment of Scottish immigrant William Elliott to the three successive generations who carefully cultivated it into a wine label of great renown, Oakvale has been proudly family-owned and operated.
Fast forward to today, and you’ll find two generations of another passionate family – Richard Becker and his son James – writing their own chapter in Oakvale’s winemaking history.
Working with the same dedication and innovative spirit shown by William Elliott’s son Bob, grandson Doug and great-grandson John as they built Oakvale into one of the true icons of the Hunter Valley industry, the Beckers are spearheading the brand’s return to its glory days of premium handcrafted wines.
Richard Becker and his late wife Suzy began their association with the Hunter wine industry in 1995 when the couple purchased the O’Connor family property in Pokolbin and established Ablington Vineyard, planting 50 acres of Shiraz, Chardonnay and Semillon.
Fifteen years later, they acquired the 30-acre Oakvale estate and made the natural transition from vignerons to vintners, ably assisted by their son James, who was completing a post-graduate degree in winemaking at Charles Sturt University.
While taking the reins of a winery with such a long and storied past can seem daunting, Oakvale Wines Sales Managers Adam Winder and Jess Perry said the Beckers have been more than up to the challenge.
“Oakvale Wines is currently in its 128th year of operation,” Mr Winder said.
“Since being established in 1893 by the Elliott family through to its present-day owners, the Becker family, it has never ceased operations, making it one of the longest operating wineries and oldest working wineries in the Hunter Valley.
“The Becker family purchased Oakvale in 2010 and are the fourth custodians of the property. They have been committed to restoring Oakvale back its iconic status by producing small batch premium wines, while cosmetically and structurally they have reinvigorated the entire facility.”
A major refurbishment of the cellar door and winery was completed in 2013, creating a plush new tasting area with huge plate glass picture windows that perfectly frame the clinical white and gleaming chrome façade of the rebuilt winery.
A more recent refresh of the cellar door has delivered new furnishings and an expanded alfresco area that allows guests to sit back and truly immerse themselves in the Oakvale experience.
But it is the changes made to Oakvale’s award-winning line of wines since the Beckers took the reins that have been turning the most heads among wine connoisseurs.
While paying tribute to traditions, Oakvale isn’t afraid to push boundaries with innovative techniques, while the family’s commitment to a minimal intervention philosophy has also recently led to Oakvale achieving organic certification.
“The finest things in life are those that allow Mother Nature’s beauty to shine bright – it’s this philosophy of minimal intervention that inspires our winemaking team,” Mr Winder said.
“We make our wines under a minimum intervention philosophy, meaning we don’t add anything unnecessary to our grapes or wines. All of our wines are wild ferments with native yeasts that occur naturally in the vineyard, while minimal preservatives and no heavy metals or animal by-products are used, meaning our wines are also vegan friendly.
We’ll release our first certified organic wines this year, which has been a long term goal for us, and it’s been motivating and rewarding to work with Mother Nature rather than against her.
“Organic practices are a sustainable method of farming and winemaking, done without the use of harmful insecticides, herbicides or inorganic fertilisers. Conventional methods damage soils, fragile ecosystems and ultimately work against our ethos of having minimal intervention and sincerely allowing the region and vineyard to speak through the wines.
“We seek to add complexity, richness and finesse to every bottle by adopting innovative winemaking techniques. We also make use of our two 600L Nomblot Concrete Eggs, which allow us to create more textural wines taking advantage of the micro-oxygenation that is made possible by the clay-cement material.
“Having shaped the history of wine in the Hunter Valley for nearly 130 years, we are confident that Oakvale will continue to deserve its place as a leading winery well into the future.”
Oakvale sources the fruit for its wines from both cool climate vineyard regions and the family’s historic Pokolbin vineyards.
“The Oakvale site consists of 30 acres with a small planting of Shiraz that is used for our Harvest Party, as well as to produce a members’ exclusive Liqueur Shiraz,” Mr Winder said.
“The Ablington Vineyard is a sprawling 400 acres with 65 of those under vine. The first vines were planted in 1980, with the vineyard predominately made up of Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz; however, we like to experiment and so have 14 different varieties planted, including Pinot Noir Dijon, Riesling, Schronburger, Brachetto, Garganega, Pinot Gris Entav, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Carignan, Muscat Rouge and Blanc.”
As the Becker family moves to organic practices, the classic Hunter varieties and these experimental plantings, along with Ablington’s natural attributes, will ensure a wholly innovative and unique wine character for all Oakvale wines.
“The wines we are known for include Chardonnay, Rosé and our Sparkling Peach Bellini,” Mr Winder said.
“Our Chardonnay is barrel matured using older barrels, which creates beautiful harmony between fruit and oak where the gentle oaking showcases the beautiful Hunter Valley Chardonnay flavour profile. This uncovers all the delicate, subtle nuances without the distraction of the wine being over-oaked, ending up with a luscious and textural Chardonnay.
“The Rosé is dry, which is where most people’s palates are leaning to these days with Rosé – lean, crisp and pretty in pink! Unlike the Chardonnay with its beautiful complexities, the Rosé is very much a lovely light, crisp, easy-drinking wine. Not to say that it isn’t a serious wine – with more and more people enjoying a tipple of Rosé, our Rosé is stylised and not just a mish-mash of leftover fruit, it’s picked from the same parcel of Shiraz every year, so it remains consistent, which keeps bringing people back to us for it!
“Our Sparkling Peach Bellini is a twist on the famous cocktail where instead of using Prosecco, we use Hunter white varietals for the base. We then pit, puree, and press the juice out of white peaches and add the juice from the peaches to the finished wine base before sparkling and bottling. The end result is a beautiful light, peachy sparkling cocktail for you to enjoy without the mess and clean up!”
Aside from its renowned red and white varietals, Oakvale has also become known for another kind of fermented fruit drink – cider.
“Our cider was first produced in 2012, and that was predominately due to the dismal vintage that year with it raining intermittently throughout the white harvest and then the constant rain throughout February and early March hindering the reds,” Mr Winder said.
“With the minimal quantities of usable fruit, the winemaker started looking outside the box (or crate if you will) at other opportunities, and it came in the form of apples from Batlow!
“It is a blend of three varieties that complement each other and produce a fresher style of cider with less ‘alcopop’ qualities than your typical bottle shop styles. To this day, it is one of our most popular products.”
Of course, the descriptions above barely skim the surface of the amazing wines being produced by the Beckers at Oakvale, with a trip to their Pokolbin cellar door to taste the range for yourself an essential part of any visit to the Hunter Valley. Oakvale offers a ‘General’ tasting that costs $5 per person and includes seven different wines, while the ‘Premium’ is $25 each and features individual cheese boards and a more expansive tasting that includes their limited release wines, which are usually exclusive to members.
Mr Winder said they offered a COVID Safe experience on-site that had been adjusted to the current conditions, while the pandemic has also produced an entirely new tasting experience for Oakvale customers.
“COVID has been a very interesting time, for not just us but the entire industry, forcing us to re-assess the way we do our tastings,” he said.
“All our tastings are seated, and we have expanded our tasting space with the extension of our alfresco area to allow you to sit in the shade of the umbrellas in Summer and around the fire pit in the cooler months.
“We try to keep our group sizes under 12 people due to the intimate nature of our space, so we are introducing a new off-site tasting experience called ‘Cellar Door 2 U’, which caters to the larger groups that our cellar door can’t accommodate.
“The tastings also have a charitable side to them, with $5 from each being donated towards our efforts working with Meals on Wheels, producing ‘Piccolos’ to accompany the Friday evening meal. To date, Oakvale has produced more than 67,000 bottles for Meals on Wheels clients.”
Another great way to experience Oakvale is to become a member of the Wine Club. This comes not only with their amazing wines but the chance to take part in exclusive private dinners in Sydney and their two signature Hunter Valley events, the “Harvest Party” and the “Blending Party”, which give members a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of a winemaker.
To find out more, visit www.oakvalewines.com.au, or drop into the Cellar Door at 1596 Broke Road Pokolbin, which is open from 10am to 5pm daily (bookings recommended).