Hunter Valley Semillon

Some years ago, a distinguished Bordeaux winemaking academic and writer was quoted as saying semillon was not one of the noble grape varieties. Perhaps he had never tasted a classic Hunter Valley semillon by Tyrrell's or McWilliam's Mount Pleasant. For such wines are among the greatest and most distinctive in Australia – if not the world.

The classic style is early-harvested, fermented bone-dry and bottled early, without any any exposure to oak. These wines are relatively low in alcoholic strength (typically between 10 and 11.5%), while early harvesting preserves the natural acidity, often saving the winemaker from having to add any acid (acid addition being standard practice in Australian white winemaking).

The Frenchman's comment echoes a refrain that is often heard from wine drinkers and experts from other countries – especially the US. Many Americans just don't seem to 'get' Australian semillon. Look at their idea of what constitutes great chardonnay and some light may be shed on this conundrum. Do they expect a top white wine to be overpoweringly rich in flavour and extreme in alcohol? If so, no wonder they are disappointed: classic Hunter semillon is the very antithesis.

British audiences tend to react more positively, in keeping with their apparent receptiveness to delicacy in all wines. What Australians and Brits love about this wine could be narrowed down to three features. First is its appeal at many ages, from brand-new to fully aged (say, 20 years) and at the in-between stages. Second is its suitability (and versatility) with food at every stage of its lifecycle. Because it is a light wine, semillon does not fight the flavours of food; on the contrary, it complements food. And the third feature is that because of its low alcohol, you can drink a surprising quantity without being affected by alcohol. Indeed, Hunter semillon is, like Mosel riesling, one of those white wines that prove that length - or persistence - of flavour does not depend on a certain level of alcohol. Even 10% alcohol Hunter semillons, such as the legendary 1994 Mount Pleasant Museum Elizabeth, have plenty of extract and length.

As a cellaring wine, it is one of the greatest whites in the world, and can live for a good 20 years, often much longer, mellowing from a fresh, tangy, fruity, pale-coloured white wine into a deeper-coloured, softer, richer, fuller (but never full-bodied) wine that goes with different sorts of food. When young it's great with fresh oysters, cooked cold prawns and simply cooked white-fleshed fish; at 10 or so years it goes with smoked trout or salmon, roast stuffed chicken, lobster with burnt butter, and other flavoursome dishes.

I recently was lucky enough to taste a 1953 Mount Pleasant 'Florence' Riesling (actually a pure semillon!) made by the Hunter wine legend, Maurice O'Shea. At 53 years of age, and having been sealed by the same rather shrunken, wine-sodden cork all that time, it was utterly delicious.

Deep golden in hue, it smelled intensely of toasted bready, beeswaxy old semillon fruit, still sound and recognisable as semillon, while the palate was still rich and flavoursome, mouth-filling and smooth. No doubt it was on its graceful way downhill, but it was still a marvellous drink.

Semillon is grown in many Australian regions, including Margaret River (where it tends to be grassy), Clare and the Barossa, where it tends to be fat and even somewhat oily. Early harvesting seems critical. Jancis Robinson, echoing the British appreciation of Hunter semillon, writes in 'The Oxford Companion to Wine': "In Australia's Hunter Valley (semillon) is responsible for one of the most idiosyncratic and historic wine types exclusive to the New World." And it "… is one of the unsung heroes of white wine production."

Why semillon and why the Hunter?

The Hunter Valley has a rare and quirky affinity for the semillon grape. The late Hunter doyen Murray Tyrrell used to say as much as he liked chardonnay, semillon was the better grape for the Hunter because it ripened earlier and didn't get caught so often by the late-summer rains (but this has become something of a joke in these days of perpetual drought). Semillon's quirk is that it is flavour-ripe at relatively low sugar-levels – 9.5 to 11.5 degrees Baumé is the usual range – whereas chardonnay needs at least 13.5 before it tastes fully ripe. The Hunter's climate is truly unique in the sense that the weather is quite hot during the vine's growing season, but the sunlight is moderated by coastal cloud cover. There's also higher summer rainfall and higher relative humidity than in any Australian wine region west of the Great Dividing Range (a strip of mountains which shadows much of the east coast). When semillon is picked at low sugars it still has plenty of acid, and therefore needs little or no correction. Natural acidity makes for a finer, softer, more seamless palate, whereas heavily acidified white wine tends to be hard and austere. As well, the Hunter has an abundance of sandy soils, which semillon loves – especially old river beds such as those that run through the Hermitage Road/Casuarina area where Tyrrells' HVD and other famous semillon vineyards are sited.

Tasting the benchmarks

  • 95


    McWilliam's Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon

    Medium-full yellow, bright with green reflections. Superbly fresh lemony aromas with greener herbal elements; lots of primary fruit and only gentle toastiness from bottle-age. Palate soft and rounded, light bodied; acid is seamless and the finish is soft, dry but not at all austere. Wonderful balance; great food wine. 11.5% $50 Cork 

  • 96


    McWilliam's Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon

    Starting to show the mellow lemon-curd and lightly-toasted bread aromas of age, but still very fresh and vital, this classic is very complex nose but still has a few years head of it. Has a touch of honey and a very long, crisp acid finish. $50 Cork

  • 95


    Tyrrell's Reserve HVD Semillon

    Medium-full yellow with a buttered-toast bouquet showing lovely aged complexity and some almost floral fruit complexities. Still alive and frisky in the mouth, lean and tangy, with minerally acidity, long and linear. It really sings. 10.5% $29 Cork

  • 93


    Brokenwood ILR Reserve Semillon

    Light-medium yellow, with a slightly curious caramel overtone to its nose together with a combination of toasty age, herbal/grassy and lemony fruit aromas that are different from those of Tyrrell's or Mount Pleasant but almost as satisfying. Very youthful with many years in front of it. 11% $39 Cork

  • 92


    Gartelmann Benjamin Semillon

    Superbly clean, refined and delicate; a scintillating youngster with many years ahead of it. Subtle lemon/citrus aromas; delicate low-phenolic palate with mouth-watering acidity which is in no way aggressive. Delicious seafood wine: it cries out for oysters. 10.5% $20 Screwcap

  • 92


    Meerea Park Epoch Semillon

    Fresh, creamy, straw-like aromas, as pure as spring water. Same in mouth: creamy soft and perfectly balanced yet well endowed with refreshing acidity. Echoes of mother's baked lemon pudding. Drink young or cellar up to five years. 10.5% $19 Screwcap

Who are the key players?

Tyrrell's is a fifth generation family owned winery which has been making semillon since it opened in the 1850s. It's been bottling its flagship Vat 1 since 1962.

Tyrrell's makes no fewer than seven semillons every year. All are labelled 'semillon'. Some are single-vineyard wines (Stevens, HVD, Belford) and some are blends - Vat 1 comes from the same three vineyards most years, all of which are on the sandy river flat below the winery. These four are sold as semi-mature wines, at seven years. All come from subtly different soil types and taste slightly different. The thing they have in common is that they all win show trophies hand over fist. Futures is another premium wine which is offered to mailing list customers 'en primeur'. Tyrrells' big sellers are cheaper and sold younger – under the Old Winery and Lost Block labels.

McWilliam's Mount Pleasant also has a proud and long tradition. Maurice O'Shea, its original owner and winemaker, was making semillon the 1920s (McWilliam's bought him out in the early 1940s) and he purchased and planted the prized Lovedale vineyard which today yields the firm's flagship semillon, released at six years. Mount Pleasant's main semillon is the big-selling Elizabeth, which is marketed at five years. Since 2002 there is also an early release of this wine, now labelled Mount Pleasant Classic Semillon (the '05 is current). This has special appeal to cellaring fanatics because it has a screw-cap, while the aged Elizabeth is still under cork, until the '04 comes on-stream. There is also a Museum Release Elizabeth, the same wine re-released with even more maturity (the 1998 was current at time of writing). Like Tyrrells', these wines win show trophies with almost embarrassing regularity. Mount Pleasant chief winemaker Phil Ryan has begun a cellaring program to release a Museum Lovedale 'at its peak': – in 2012, the 2004 will be re-released, with a screw-cap.

Brokenwood has been making excellent and consistent semillon since it started in the mid-1980s. Its flagship is ILR Reserve named after long-standing chief winemaker/manager Iain Riggs. 

Wyndham Estate, McGuigan and The Rothbury Estate all make semillon and it can be both high quality and very modestly priced. McGuigan has often fielded a $15 semillon which is remarkably fine. Rothbury was founded by Len Evans and friends in the '60s on the basis of producing just two wines, a semillon and a shiraz, those being the Hunter's stand-out varieties. This ideal was substantially watered down later. Since becoming part of Foster's, Rothbury has lost its way and semillon has slipped further down the order of priorities.

Other long-standing semillon makers include Drayton's, Tulloch (a new incarnation of an old name, run today by Jay and Julie Tulloch and family), Lindemans (which got lost in the wilderness following the Southcorp/Foster's takeovers, but there are signs of a return to serious traditional shiraz and semillon making).

Poole's Rock, ensconced in the former Tulloch winery and with former Lindemans winemaker and lifelong Hunter stalwart Patrick Auld as winemaker, is also making very smart semillon in a soft but cellarable style. The brand-name is Cockfighter's Ghost. 

Any up-comers joining the elite?

Most certainly. Most are small producers, but there is a renaissance of interest in traditional Hunter semillon, at least locally, and in any analysis of show results or comprehensive tasting, the names of two younger winemakers keep coming to the fore. They are Andrew Thomas and Jim Chatto. Thomas earned his stripes at Tyrrell's before moving to the new Hungerford Hill winery at No1 Broke Road, where he started his own Thomas label and took in a host of small vineyard clients. The most successful of these include Warraroong Estate, Mount View Estate, Pokolbin Estate, McLeish Estate, and of course Hungerford Hill and Thomas Braemore.

Jim Chatto's main gig is as winemaker at major Hunter contractor, Monarch Winemaking Services, but he divides his time between the Hunter and southern Tasmania, where he is establishing a new vineyard. He produces Hunter semillon and Tasmanian pinot noir under his own Chatto label. In partnership with Greg Silkman, also of Monarch, he produces a range of wines including an excellent semillon under the First Creek label. Other small vineyards for whom he makes fine Hunter semillon include Krinklewood, Honeytree, Mount Vincent, Pyramid Hill and Two Rivers (arguably the best value for money semillon in the entire Hunter, at $10-$13).

The Eather brothers, Rhys (winemaker) and Garth (marketing) are behind the dynamic

Meerea Park brand which was launched in 1991. They are the great grandsons of Alexander Munro, who was a pioneering Hunter winemaker in the mid-19th century. Meerea Park has three excellent semillons cast in traditional style, although the cheapest, called Epoch, is a softer, more approachable style than the other two which are released with some age and designed to age well. They are called Alexander Munro and Terra Cotta.

Rhys Eather also makes wine for other growers, most notably Glenguin, whose owner Robin Tedder bought and expanded an established vineyard on sandy soil on the edge of the Wollombi Brook, in the Broke Fordwich area.

Andrew Margan, born into a Hunter family and who worked for many years at Tyrrell's before setting up his own winery, has been marketing Margan Family Semillon (sourced from the Broke Fordwich sub-region) since 1997. The evolution of this wine is interesting. Margan began with a pragmatic view that semillon under a new brand would have to be soft and up-front, fruity and accessible, helped along by a touch of residual sugar. It worked. There are other factors at play (excellent packaging, sensible pricing and highly professional national distribution), but the winestyle has been intelligently thought-out. After 10 years, Margan's style has gradually dried off and is more in the classic mould today – although it is certainly not austere. 

Ian Scarborough, who for many years sold chardonnay, shiraz and (quixotically) pinot noir under the popular Scarborough label, only recently decided to add a semillon to the range.

Ken Sloan's winery, Mistletoe, is another newer entrant making a spirited bid to join the classic semillon league. With consultant winemaker Nick Paterson (of Chateau Pato, and formerly  Brokenwood) Mistletoe produces a regular and a reserve semillon, both of which – especially the reserve – can be formidable as youngsters because of their acid and sulfur levels.

Len Evans's last venture, Tower Estate, also makes classic traditional Hunter semillon among its eclectic portfolio of regional varietals. Another newie, Piggs Peak, makes smart semillon under the quaint brand-name Sow's Ear.

Capercaillie is the latest venture of long-time Hunter identities Alasdair and Trish Sutherland. In a previous life, Al was the winemaker for the now-defunct but once distinguished Saxonvale. He and Trish bought a going concern called Dawson Estate in the Lovedale locality and have been very successful. They market small quantities of  superb bottle-aged semillon at around six years (the 2000 and '01 were both available in 2006).

Pepper Tree, with long-serving Chris Cameron at the controls, makes classic Hunter semillon which is released both young and mature (the '99 Reserve and Grand Reserve bottlings were available in 2006).

Gartelmann, Allandale, Keith Tulloch, Pothana, Colvin, Saddlers Creek, Bimbadgen, Tempus Two, Tintilla, Rothvale, Terrace Vale, De Iuliis, Tranquil Vale, Tamburlaine and Wandin Valley also turn out smart semillon regularly. 

Final mention must be made of those 'negociant' style businesses which market Hunter semillon, such as Will Taylor. Taylor is an Adelaide lawyer specialising in the wine industry. His wines can be very good indeed.

Semillon's marketing problem

While blends of semillon and sauvignon blanc – indeed, anything with the words sauvignon blanc on the label – is going gangbusters in the market, semillon's sales curve is as flat as a tack. Why? Surely it's no big step from the flavour profile of many SSBs (some of which have barely enough sauvignon blanc in them to fulfill the requirements of labelling law) to straight unwooded semillon?

Many semillons have some of the herbaceousness of savvy, but even if they don't smell pungently tropical or herbal like Marlborough wines, they have a similar flavour profile, similar delicacy and raciness, similar crisp, clean, tangy finish and similar refreshing qualities. The difference being, they are often better wines! Why? Because they are riper: in other words, less-green and less-tart, and the palate structure of a good semillon is better. Semillon invariably has better length, depth and balance than similarly priced sauvignon blanc. That's why the Margaret River people value it in their blends: it makes up for sauvignon blanc's inadequacies. It gives strength and structure to a wine which can be thin and flimsy.

The Hunter Valley has been growing and making semillon since the mid 19th century. Until the late 20th century, though, it was sold as anything but semillon. The name was unknown to most wine drinkers until the labelling laws changed and required winemakers to use the correct names of their grapes. Till then, semillon had been sold as generic Hunter Valley Dry White, or Chablis or White Burgundy or even Hunter River Riesling (how this came about is anyone's guess: semillon has nothing to do with the riesling grape), and in the 1980s and '90s, Fumé Blanc and Classic Dry White. Then Australia's wine industry had a wake-up call and started to label wines by their correct varietal names. 'Rhine riesling' (remember that?!) became just riesling; hermitage became shiraz, and so on. The word semillon began appearing on wine labels and drinkers had to learn what it meant. A new word had entered the lexicon; it took a while to take hold in the public consciousness.

At the same time, semillon had an image problem of a different sort. Much Hunter semillon was marketed as an aged wine (principally by McWilliam's), but relatively few wineries could afford to hold back and age bottled wine. So drinkers had to be taught that semillon could be enjoyed young; it didn't have to be stashed away and put under lock and key for years while it matured. In fact, good Hunter semillon can be enjoyed young or mature.

Finding closure

One thing that cannot fail to help Hunter semillon's image is the screw-cap. The cap was given a huge boost in Australia when Clare Valley winemakers decided en masse to use it for their rieslings in the 2000 vintage. Like riesling, unwooded semillon is a very delicate wine whose subtly aromatic bouquet mercilessly exposes even the slightest degree of TCA cork taint or oxidation. Hence it was one of the first wines to be switched to screw-cap - with outstanding results. The common link between Clare riesling and Hunter semillon is that, for dry white wines, they age uncommonly well and long. And the longer such wine is in contact with a cork, the greater the risk of spoilage due to cork-related factors. As Iain Riggs of Brokenwood says, the cork industry may be surprised to know that TCA and other taints are not the main cause of winemakers' dissatisfaction with cork. It is random (or sporadic) oxidation. Riggs says that while packing the 5-year-old ILR Reserve Semillon for market, 30% of bottles are discarded because of unacceptably dark colour – a sure indicator of premature oxidation. Tyrrell, Ryan and Riggs are adamant that the screwcap will make a huge difference to semillon's acceptance. Says Riggs: "There's more chance of converting drinkers to young semillon, because of the freshness and consistency. Even a tiny degree of oxidation flattens a young semillon, so that it tastes dull." Ryan adds: "When you look at the economics of throwing out at least one-third of a 5-year-old Elizabeth before release, it's a no-brainer."

Soils – Red for Red and White for White?

If ever it can be glibly said that the red soils produce the best red wines and the white produce the best whites, it's in the Lower Hunter Valley's pivotal district, Pokolbin. The top exponents of the style have their semillon vines on poor, white to grey sand or sandy loam soils. Mount Pleasant's famous semillon vineyard is Lovedale, an unglamorous looking, flat expanse near the Cessnock Airport, of grey sandy-loam to clay-loam bordered by dried-out creek beds. Hunter legend Maurice O'Shea first selected the land 60 years ago. His first vintage, the 1950, won show trophies and the flow continues today. Lovedale is also a prime source for the almost-as-good Elizabeth, Mount Pleasant's second-string semillon.

Tyrrells' best semillon vineyards are ancient creek beds, where the unirrigated vines are planted on similarly well-drained, sandy loams. They have names such as Short Flat, Long Flat, DeBeyers and HVD. All are poor but deep, self sustaining soils which produce modest tonnages of extraordinary quality grapes. Speaking of three of his top semillon wines, Bruce Tyrrell says: "Vat 1 comes from three vineyards on the flats in front of the winery, where the soil is river sand with calcite. Belford is a single-vineyard wine off soil that is so fine that it's like talcum powder. HVD is river sand over light sandy loam. But Stevens is different: it's on a hill of red clay-loam over a layer of sandstone pebbles."

We could ask whether the tradition of growing white grapes on poor white soils is simply a  matter of convenience: red soils are great for red grapes and relatively rare in the Hunter, while red wine off white soil is never any good. So, were the whites were planted on white soils by default?

Riggs replies in the negative. He thinks semillon grown on red soil isn't as good as that grown on white soils, while Ryan says it's just different. "We use some red-soil semillon in Elizabeth and that helps set it apart from Lovedale. The red soils give a richer style with more tropical character, whereas Lovedale is finer, leaner and more mineral."  

Food loves semillon

Semillon is the ideal seafood wine, so much so that every year a Hunter Semillon & Seafood festival is staged among the vineyards. Semillon works beautifully with shellfish (oysters, scallops, mussels, clams), crustaceans (prawns, marron, yabbies, scampi, crayfish, lobster) and most fish, whether white or pink-fleshed. Whiting, flathead, snapper, blue-eye, flounder and john dory are stand-outs, but there are many others. Serve the fish cold (such as boiled prawns or lobster) or hot (such as flathead with a buttery or oil-based sauce, or just plain ol' fish 'n chips) and semillon works equally well. Riggs's favourite food with young semillon is fresh oysters. Even better, he suggests: fill the shell with the wine and drink the whole lot as a shooter.

Semillon – unlike, say, chardonnay – takes a chill really well. You can serve it numbingly cold from the fridge (at beer temperature!) and you still won't kill its fruit. Aged semillon should be served a little less-cold and with fuller flavoured foods, such as smoked fish and chicken (smoked, roasted, cold or hot). It's happy with various poultry and white meats, such as pork, but can also work with some cheeses: fresh-curd (especially goat's milk) and white-mould (brie; camembert). Plus all sorts of appetisers such as (non-vinegary) antipasto, tapas, dips and nibbles. Chinese dumplings and Japanese sushi and sashimi also work well.