On the Hunt for Hunter Valley Semillon

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

The world of white wines offers hundreds of varieties and one variety that has caught my attention is semillon, specifically from the Hunter Valley in Australia.

Semillon is perhaps best known when harvested late with botrytis to produce Sauternes and Barsac, some of the world’s greatest dessert wines. As a young wine, it is commonly blended with sauvignon blanc for Bordeaux blends. But in the Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine region, semillon is a wine to watch out for.

Chuck Hayward, founder of Vinroads and the former Australian and New Zealand Wine Buyer at JJ Buckley Fine Wines, is a big proponent of Australian wines. “My interest in Aussie wine started in the late ‘80s when the first ‘cheap and cheerful’ wines entered the US. They were just really good values, full of flavor and easy to like,” he explained. Hayward started Vinroads as a consulting outfit dedicated to marketing and education for Australian and New Zealand wines in the U.S.

Hayward recently brought three winemakers, Iain Riggs, Chris Tyrrell and Mike de Iuliis, from the Hunter Valley to the U.S. for a series of seminars to take a deeper look into the region.

Less than two hours from Sydney, the Mediterranean climate of Hunter Valley is a relatively wet climate at a low latitude. A mountain range stands over the valley and many of the vines are planted on the creek flats with alluvial and calcareous soil and closer to the hills on silky chalk with seashells. The first vines were planted in the Hunter Valley in the 1820s and most vines planted today are still on their own roots. The Hunter Valley is a well-known region because of its proximity to Sydney “but yet no one really knows it,” Hayward explained. “They make world-class wines and no one makes semillon like that anywhere on the planet.”

U.K. wine writer Jancis Robinson has called Hunter Valley semillon “one of Australia’s great gifts to the world of wine.” The semillon grape was one of the first varieties planted in the Hunter Valley and was originally called “Hunter River Riesling.” Low in alcohol, semillon is built on acidity. Young semillon can be austere with citrus, melon and grassy aromas. As it ages, an array of richer flavors, including honeyed characteristics, develop. While shiraz, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are also grown there, semillon is the primary grape of the Hunter Valley.

The way semillon is made is relatively similar from winemaker to winemaker. Because it is a fragile varietal, it is mostly hand-picked. The grapes are picked and either whole bunch pressed or crushed straight to press and there is limited or no skin contact. The juice is quickly clarified and fermented with neutral yeasts. Only stainless steel is used and no malolactic fermentation takes place. The amount of time the wine is spent on the less is up to each winemaker and then the wine is filtered after a few months and bottled.

The difference from one semillon to another is nuanced and is really based on the vineyards. This was the conclusion drawn after tasting the first round of wines which focused on youthful semillon. The 2016 and 2017 vintages were all a light straw color with a green tinge and each just a little different from the next.

— 2016 Brokenwood Semillon – Soil: riverbed vineyard with alluvial soils/Notes: lemongrass and hay

— 2017 De Iuliis Semillon – Soil: clay and reddish soil/Notes: pineapple, citrus and under-ripe papaya with a little residual sugar

— 2017 Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon – Soil: alluvial flats/Notes: lime and lemongrass

— 2016 Tyrrell’s Wines Semillon – Soil: sandy loam and clay/Notes: lemon peel, grapefruit and apple with a honeyed character

— 2017 Audrey Wilkinson The Ridge Semillon – Soil: sandy loam and red volcanic clay/Notes: lemon, lime and green apple

The next round was the “maturing” semillon with wines from the 2009 vintage. The wines still showed the primary characteristics of lemon and lime with secondary notes like lemon curd developing. The wines were all still so fresh but gaining complexity and the wines ranged in colors from straw yellow to a light-yellow gold. The 2009 Brokenwood ILR Reserve Semillon, the top semillon produced each vintage and released after six years of age, has notes of minerals, petrol and smoky flint and fills the mouth with a richness and acidity and tastes like a tart candy on the finish.

The 2009 De Iuliis Aged Release Semillon is a single vineyard wine with lots of citrus flavors with some toasty characteristics developing. It is bright and acidic on the palate with lots of aging potential.

The 2009 Thomas Wines Braemore Cellar Reserve Semillon is also a single vineyard wine with notes of petrol, lemon curd and honeycomb and a delicate freshness on the palate.

The 2009 Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1 Semillon has notes of pineapple and riper tropical fruit and bright acidity on finish and the 2009 Audrey Wilkinson The Ridge Semillon also has grass and citrus notes.

The final round was the “mature” Semillon as we tasted wines from the 2005 vintage with more than 10 years of age. The color of the wines was a yellow-golden color but still had some luminous green notes. The 2005 Brokenwood Brycefield, Belford Vineyards Semillon has aromas of petrol, lemon rind and a little hint of spice whereas the 2005 De Iullis Aged Release Semillon is still a little tart with strong citrus notes, as well as lemon curd. The 2005 Thomas Wines Braemore Cellar Reserve Semillon has aromas of flint, petrol and lemon curd with a long finish and the 2005 Tyrell’s Wines Vat 1 Semillon has notes under-ripe tropical fruit and citrus with a rich palate and full mouth acidity that made me salivate. The 2005 Audrey Wilkinson The Ridge Museum Reserve Semillon is ripe with soft citrus and tropical fruit notes.

No matter the vintage, the semillons from Hunter Valley were all such a pleasure to taste and really exemplified how the young semillon is ready to drink and can be enjoyed with oysters and shellfish. But semillon has the ability to age and the wine blossoms over time. As the semillon gets older, it can be enjoyed with richer foods such as grilled fish, smoked salmon and white meats.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.