Hunter Valley semillon is unique in world terms. Through the lens of one of its great makers, we learn how the wine style has evolved over time.
Hunter semillon is held in high regard for several reasons. Firstly, it’s an age-worthy wine, with the structure to last for decades in the cellar. The arrival of the screwcap has also been a godsend for those who enjoy the rich, toasty flavours that can grow in the varietal over time – a development that, according to James Halliday, led Bruce Tyrrell to declare this ‘a golden age of semillon’. You can acquire top-notch examples for a steal, with many, including aged releases, found for $30 or less. And finally, the dry semillons of the Hunter Valley are individual to the region, unmatched anywhere else in the world.
For those in the know – the wine industry and well-versed aficionados – this is a much-loved style. James has been shouting about it for some time, claiming it as one of his all-time favourite Australian wines. But in general, it’s under-appreciated. One thought is that for the generation of consumers who prefer to ‘drink now’ rather than wait 10 or 20 years, it’s seen as a wine less approachable in its youth (although as a young wine, the varietal can offer a fresh, citrussy, food-friendly style). According to Bruce Tyrrell, however, new approaches in the vineyard and winery are changing its drinkability on release.
When asked about the methods that have contributed to modern incarnations of the wine, Bruce points to new technology and improvements in winery equipment. “Machine harvesting, better presses and pressing techniques, juice handling and refrigeration make the difference. Today, we’re able to pick when we want to, so fruit for the ready-to-drink young semillons is picked a bit later at higher Baume [sugar/alcohol] levels, slightly lower acids and always left just off-dry. The extra flavour from more ripeness makes our young semillons eminently drinkable without having an impact on ageing ability,” he says.
Tyrrell’s chief winemaker Andrew Spinaze agrees, but believes there’s more to it than that. “The flexibility in the winery and around harvest is certainly one aspect. Semillon gets great natural acid, but for me, PH is more important. Semillon that’s soft, in balance and has good PH levels will be approachable on release and still age very well. Some of the best semillons we’ve made over the years have not been high-acid wines. I avoid adding acid and focus on PH,” he says.
Tyrrell’s is famous for its Vat 1, but Andrew says all the semillon labels are treated the same way in the winery – the difference lies in the fruit and vineyard selection. Of the current releases, which is he most excited about? “The 2017 Hunter Valley Semillon is getting great reviews, and that’s because of the freshness and softness of the wine. The 2017 vintage is the best we’ve had for semillon in a few years – our last really good one was ’13 and before that ’09. We only get a few vintages in a decade when semillon, shiraz and chardonnay all line-up in terms of quality, and this year was one. In spite of some extreme heat, the sub-soil moisture going back to September kept the vines nice and healthy.”
In Andrew’s opinion, Hunter Valley semillon is worth trying as a wine lover because of old-vine fruit from exceptional sites. “In the Hunter, we produce 0.3 per cent of the country’s grapes, but we hold a fair bit of weight in terms of quality,” he says. “Vines have been pulled out, people have moved on and so by way of evolution, the better vineyards have been left behind. Semillon is a big part of what we’re recognised for, as well as the age of our vines [the oldest dating back to 1908]. Hunter semillon achieves good acidity in years wet and dry, and has truly distinctive characteristics.”
In the name of research, do yourself a favour and seek out this inimitable wine style. It’s one of the greats.
Next article: look back on some of the best red wines by varietal from last year's Wine Companion guide.