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In a league of its own

Publish Date: 21 Mar 2016

Authored by: James Halliday

Is there an Australian wine that’s more unique – or undervalued – than Hunter Valley semillon? James reveals why this changeable white should be a national treasure.

It’s tempting to say the climate of the Hunter Valley is utterly unsuited to viticulture because it suffers days of searing heat alternating with torrential rain. Vintages such as 2012 and (potentially) 2016 support that view, but 2011, ’13 and ’14 were very good to great: 2014 is considered to be the best since 1965. And before passing on, Burgundy suffered more than the Hunter Valley through devastating hail in 2012 and ’13.

The afternoon cloud, high humidity and warm nights are the main reasons, says Dr John Gladstones, why the Hunter is able to produce sublime semillon and marvellously elegant shiraz. I would throw in the no-less elegant chardonnays of Tyrrell’s, Lake’s Folly and First Creek/Silkman Wines.

Semillon is the ugly duckling that causes the most confusion, little understood (or purchased) outside Sydney, and not at all in Australia’s export markets. To make matters worse, the arrival of the screwcap, the torrent of semillon sauvignon blancs from Margaret River, and the appearance of the Barossa Valley’s Peter Lehmann Margaret Semillon, have compounded confusion, even – dare I say it – for those such as myself who lived and drank Lindemans Reserve Rieslings, Chablis, White Burgundies and Hocks (all semillon) made through the golden decade from 1961 to ’70, and drank beautifully for another two decades.

Which is as good a starting point as any, but I will sneak in the Hunter’s plantings as at 1956: a total of 466ha, led by semillon with 243ha, then shiraz (called red hermitage) with 145ha, white shiraz (aka white hermitage – invalid names for trebbiano) with 40ha, a listing I view with some scepticism. As of now, the Hunter Valley has a mere 587ha compared to Riverina’s 4576ha.

The next confusion is the dramatic change that semillon undergoes as it ages, confusion compounded by the contrast between pre- and post-screwcap years.

In the 1960s, cork-sealed semillons started life pale in colour, with relatively subdued fruit flavour of any description, relatively high in sulphur dioxide, and high in natural acidity. Experienced wine show judges could nonetheless tease out the differences between the best and lesser wines. I have before me as I write a 1964 Lindemans Hunter River White Burgundy Bin 2150. Its back label lists 11 gold medals won in capital city wine shows, five between 1964 and ’66, six between 1970 and ’73, none in ‘67, ‘68 or ‘69.

It is a real-life study in the dull period Hunter semillons were notorious for as they transitioned from spotty adolescence to confident maturity, such as a famous show wine, 1968 Lindemans Riesling Bin 3455. It was entered in the 1984 National Wine Show in a museum class that I and my fellow two judges (without any discussion) each awarded 19 points (out of 20). This for a 16-year-old semillon under cork.

Next, tasting notes of the 1970s and ‘80s repeatedly made reference to honey, butter and toast, often in conjunction. These characters unfailingly led overseas judges to the conclusion that the wine(s) had been matured in oak, which – of course – they hadn’t. We now have semillons under screwcap from 2001 and onwards, and while some have developed nuances of toast, I am yet to see any honey. Here I have an admission to make: it was only as I was writing this column that I had to face up to some of my treasured descriptors of aged semillon being anachronistic, and I must stop using the ‘honeyed’ descriptor. Another change is the much slower change in colour. High-quality semillons turned a full golden yellow (not orange or brown), whereas those of today substitute green for gold.

Now, don’t for one moment think I am suggesting we should abandon screwcaps and return to corks. The mammoth in the room is random/sporadic/premature oxidation. There has been a story going around that one major producer of Hunter semillon set out a few years ago on a witch hunt because of a glaring inconsistency in sales reports and stock-in-hand audits. After much gnashing of teeth, the penny dropped: instead of stock losses of 30 per cent per annum because of coloured wines (you don’t even have to pen the bottle to measure the change), the losses had disappeared within the use of screwcaps.

The other change has been one of attitude. In 2012 Bill Nanson, an American writer and author, published a compact, very well-written, book The Finest Wines of Burgundy. The front flyleaf had a five-star maximum vintage chart for red and white Burgundies between 1990 and 2010. His rating for whites between 1994 and 2004 had an asterisk referring to his comment, “The pervasive influence of oxidised bottles renders this period a complete lottery. Spend only what you can afford to lose.”

Returning to Hunter semillon, it has a unique chemical structure: it is fully ripe with a potential alcohol of plus or minus 10.5 per cent if fermented dry (as it should be, and almost always is) with natural acidity of around 6 to 6.5 grams per litre and a pH of 3 to 3.5. The acidity may well be increased to 6.7 to 7 g/l, pulling the pH down to 2.9.

Led by former Peter Lehmann chief winemaker Andrew Wigan, with more hectares of Barossa Valley semillon at his disposal (some 100 years old) than most Hunter Valley makers could only dream of, Peter Lehmann Margaret Semillon has produced some very good wines, but the few others in the Barossa to have seriously tried to do so haven’t succeeded.

So, if Australia has only one small area of great semillon, it is hardly surprising the rest of the world just doesn’t understand it: it has no international currency. Iain Riggs of Brokenwood sums it up this way: “As an aged style it really confuses consumers, even aficionados; especially under screwcap, the purity and graceful ageing defies belief. Those who do appreciate Hunter Valley semillon overseas have been exposed to the style through judging in Australia over many years. After 180 years it’s here to stay, and so are the winemakers producing it.”

Amen.

Next article: James tells the story of Summerfield wines, and focuses on their special shiraz series ‘Saieh’.

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