Heavenly Hunter - The Scoop On Semillon

Posted by David on 1st Jun 2017

I don’t drink enough Hunter Semillon. I had the revelation a few weeks ago after opening a bottle of Tyrrell's Vat 1 2005, one of six I had lovingly cellared since release. At 12 years old it had a sublime balance of youthful vigour and aged complexity. I polished off the rest with friends soon after and I’m regretting that I didn't have more of this magical wine in my cellar. 

The majority of the world’s Semillon is found in southwest France, most notably in Bordeaux. Here it’s blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make Sauternes, one of the greatest sweet wines of the world, as well as the dry white wines of Graves. Very little Semillon of note is grown elsewhere except in Australia, where it’s the third most planted variety. While this sounds impressive, at 4,570 ha out of a total of 135,133 ha, it still only accounts for about 3.3% of plantings (Source: Wine Australia Vintage report 2016). By comparison, there are 21,442ha (15.8%) of Chardonnay - the most planted white variety, and 39,892 ha (29.5%) of Shiraz, the most planted variety overall.

So many of us, including me, overlook Semillon. Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson doesn’t beat around the bush, noting that “Semillon is not a fashionable variety.” But goes on to observe that “it has a noble history of being responsible for some of the most distinctive dry white wines in the world.” And it’s Hunter Valley Semillon that’s entirely responsible for this reputation.

“… classic Hunter Valley Semillon… such wines are among the greatest and most distinctive in Australia, if not the world.”Huon Hooke.

“Unblended, in Australia’s Hunter Valley, it is responsible for one of the most idiosyncratic and historic wine types exclusive to the New World.” Oxford Companion to Wine.

“Hunter Valley Semillon is one of Australia’s miraculous wines.” Decanter Magazine.

Hunter Valley Semillon is “one of Australia’s great gifts to the wine world.”Jancis Robinson MW.

Classic Hunter Valley Semillon is picked early, fermented to dryness, and bottled early with no exposure to oak. Because they’re picked early, the grapes have plenty of natural acidity and lower levels of sugar, the latter of which results in lower alcohol in the finished wine. The great thing about Semillon is that, unlike many other varieties, it’s able to reach flavour ripeness at these lower sugar levels. Riesling in Germany is another variety capable of this.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Hunter Semillon is it’s incredible ability to age but still be eminently drinkable along the way. When young, it’s bright, racy and refreshing, with crisp acidity and lemony flavours. With age, Hunter Semillon is transformed, becoming slightly darker in colour and almost magically taking on honeyed, toasty and oakey notes to such an extent you’d swear the wine had seen oak. With age, Hunter Semillon gains flavour and complexity, but due to its low alcohol and bright acidity, it avoids heaviness and retains its delicacy.

One of the things I particularly like about Hunter Semillon is the lower alcohol, usually around 10%-11.5%. It doesn’t knock you around like some of the 14%-15% wines common these days. Hunter Semillon’s bright acidity makes it great with a wide range of food, and best of all, largely due to its overlooked status, it’s very affordable. As one of the great white wines of the world, it’s an absolute steal.

Here are Semillons from three of the best producers in the Hunter.

De Iuliis Semillon 2016De Iuliis Semillon 2016

On a trip to the Hunter a few years ago I came across the terrific De Iuliis Wines (pronounced de yooly-iss). Joss De Iuliis migrated as a child from Italy in 1960 and built a successful engineering business in the Hunter, which he sold in 2003. But he still held dear the winemaking traditions and vineyards his family had owned for generations in the Abruzzi region of central Italy. In 1988 Joss and wife Anna bought a property in the Lovedale Road region, in the heart of Pokolbin. About 40 acres of vines were planted in 1990, with most of the fruit being sold to Tyrrell's.

Things were about to change though. Joss and Anna’s son Michael, completed postgraduate studies in oenology at the Roseworthy Campus of Adelaide University in 1999. He went on to be a Len Evans Tutorial Scholar (2004) as well as a finalist in the Young Winemaker of the Year Awards (The Wine Society, 2005). He was also one of 8 Nominees for the 2013 Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year. As James Halliday said of Mike “He has lifted the quality of the wines into the highest echelon.”

The family were now winemakers as well as grape growers. They built a state-of-the-art winery in 2001 and continued to plant new vineyards and acquire established ones. These days the family has about 80 acres of their own vineyards and source additional fruit from a handful of carefully selected growers. They handle about 150 tonnes of grapes, making them a small to medium sized winery by Hunter standards. By comparison, Tyrrell's does close to 3,000 tonnes and Margan does between 600-700 tonnes.

Mike De Iuliis

De Iuliis is considered one of the Hunter’s top producers, with James Halliday’s Australian Companion to Wine rating the winery 5 stars every year since 2010. Mike was awarded 2015 Hunter Valley Winemaker of the Year and 2016 Hunter Valley Cellar Door of the Year.

“De Iuliis Semillon in its usual good/excellent form. Light and crisp and yet penetrating. Just a hint of texture. Citrus and hay. Flickers of lemongrass and fennel. Picture perfect young Hunter Sem. Excellent buying.10.9%; Closure: Screwcap; Drink: 2016 - 2024+.” 93 Points, Campbell Mattinson, The Wine Front.

“The basic Semillon release for '16 by De Iuliis, but winning the top gold medal at the Sydney Wine Show '16. …the lemongrass notes are peculiar to Semillon and, as they age, the wine will adopt different personalities, honeyed nuances develop at 10+ years, the cracking acidity unchanged.” 95 Points and a Special Value Rating and Top 100 Wines of 2016, James Halliday.

Royal Sydney Wine Show 2016 - Trophy for Best Semillon
Royal Sydney Wine Show 2016 - Top Gold (97 points)

A no-brainer. Stock up.

I can offer it for $18 a bottle. SOLD OUT

Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon 2016Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon 2016

For someone who’s done over 30 consecutive vintages in the Hunter, it’s a surprise to learn that Andrew Thomas, known by all as Thommo, grew up in McLaren Vale. But his first job out of Roseworthy College in 1987 was with Tyrrell's. A combination of hard work and skill saw Thommo work his way to the top, eventually becoming chief red winemaker.

In 1997 Thommo started his own gig, specialising in Semillon and Shiraz. Over the ensuing years he received considerable recognition for his talent, including being named Hunter Valley Winemaker of the Year in 2008 and 2014, and collecting a swag of trophies and hundreds of medals along the way.

“One of the most awarded of a new generation of Hunter winemakers.” Australian Financial Review, April 2016.

“Andrew Thomas is actually re-inventing Hunter Valley Semillon. He’s developing more complex, minerality and texture in his young wines, without sacrificing any of the styled notes of longevity…Jeremy Oliver.

“These days clever winemakers such as Andrew Thomas are producing Semillon that is so refined, soft, beautifully balanced and delicately fruity, it is utterly delicious drinking within a few months of harvest.”Huon Hooke, Good Weekend Magazine, SMH.

“Andrew Thomas continues to be a shining light in the Hunter Valley.”SMH Good Food Guide.

“Winemaker Andrew Thomas is an emerging superstar of the Hunter, producing peerless Semillon and classy shiraz.”Peter Forrestal, Qantas Magazine.

Thommo makes several Semillons, his best being the Braemore, named after a vineyard on Hermitage Road in Pokolbin planted in 1969. It’s regarded as one of the best Semillon sites in the Hunter and not surprisingly the Braemore Semillon is Thommo’s most awarded white wine.

The fruit for the wine was handpicked and fermented in stainless steel, after which it spent five weeks on lees (dead yeast cells) to give a little extra complexity.

“Andrew Thomas is acknowledged as one of the best practitioners of the fine art of coaxing young Semillon to grab attention without compromising a 15+ year life, adding yet more to the flavour span. Here lime, lemon zest, grass and lemongrass all join hands, balance and length the outcome (or, if you prefer, the cause) of its extreme quality, acidity exactly where it should be.” 96 points and a Value Award, James Halliday.

Just last week this wine was featured in The Australian as a 'beautiful bargain.'"This highly awarded wine embraces all that is good about Hunter Semillon: drink it young as a searingly crisp, dry accompaniment to oysters or better still, sashimi; drink it in a decade or two when it has mellowed into a layered and complex partner for baked shellfish or chicken… This Braemore Semillon is right up there in the top echelon of the region’s wines."Daniel Hanna, The Australian, 18th May 2017.

Enjoy now or cellared well in 15+ years!

I can offer it for $29 a bottle. SOLD OUT

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2012Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2012

Tyrrell's is one of Australia’s most successful family wineries. Established by Edward Tyrrell in 1858, 4th generation Bruce Tyrrell is currently at the helm. Tyrrell’s has been awarded thousands of trophies and medals, and in 2010 was named 'Winery of the Year' in James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion.

Vat 1 is the company's flagship wine and considered by most as Australia's best Semillon. It was first made in 1962 and until 1990, was described as Hunter Valley Riesling (as was the practice) rather than Semillon. The wine has been under screwcap since 2004.

Vat 1 is Australia's most awarded white wine with a host of national and international awards, including an incredible 149 trophies and 466 gold medals. More recently it was named Super Premium White Wine of the Year by the Australian Liquor Industry in 2006 and a Decanter ‘Wine Legend’ in 2014.

“Tyrrell’s Vat No 1 is one of the supreme expressions of this underrated wine style. No wine has been awarded more medals on the Australian show circuit.”Decanter Magazine.

The key to the success of Vat 1 is the quality of the fruit, most of which comes from Tyrrell’s own dry-grown Short Flat and Johnno’s vineyards and occasionally from De Beyers vineyard in Ekerts Road, Pokolbin, which Tyrrell's leases. These are regarded as some of the best sites in the Hunter for Semillon, with an average vine age of around 60 years.

The handpicked fruit was fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks to retain freshness, after which it spent a short time on lees to add complexity. It’s 10.5% alcohol. The palate is tightly structured with considerable length and an amazing breadth of citrus characters. There is a hint of toasty complexity which will continue to develop with cellaring.

"This has the trademark Tyrrell's class and concentration, mixing power with restraint. There's plenty of lime and white nectarine fruit on offer here, with a really lovely lean yet juicy palate, great acidity and drive. Terrific." 95 points, Nick Stock, SMH Good Wine Guide 2013.

"It comes from the best, well-drained blocks that have always been the main source of Vat 1; lemon juice and lemon curd flavours follow logically from the bouquet, lemony acidity lingering long in the mouth after the wine is swallowed." 95 points, James Halliday, Wine Companion 2013.

" Five years have passed since the wine was made, but it’s oh so young and fresh, with years of life in front of it; its balance and length are faultless, so its future is gold-plated." James Halliday, 2017.

Vat I really is a must for any cellar. You’ll find it at Quay Restaurant for $168

I can offer it for $70 a bottle. Order online