On the Hunt for Semillon

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

So many times, I hear people say that they do not like white wine or they prefer red wine. To me, there is a time and a place for every wine.

And, as much as I love red wines, I am currently obsessed with white wines. Chenin blanc, assyrtiko, grenache blanc, riesling, gruner veltliner, vermentino and so on, the vast diversity of white wine in the world is what I find exciting. I have now added semillon from the Hunter Valley, Australia to that list.


When you think of Australian wine, you probably think about shiraz. But in the Hunter Valley, located in New South Wales, two hours from Sydney, semillon is the iconic wine of the region.

Semillon, a golden-skinned grape, is the famous variety blended with sauvignon blanc to make Bordeaux blanc. With “noble rot” from botrytis, semillon is the dominant variety in the sweet dessert wines of Sauternes, Barsac and Cérons. But outside of France, semillon’s other primary home is the Hunter Valley.

A grape thought of as lacking complexity and intensity, semillon in the Hunter Valley is distinct. A sub-tropic region, Hunter Valley is a challenging area in which to grow grapes; it has lots of rain, humidity and an overall harsh climate. Despite these conditions, semillon in Hunter Valley has a lot of character.

Semillon is not an aromatic variety. Lacking the fatness of a Bordeaux semillon, Hunter Valley semillon is lean and crisp, with flinty and citrus notes and a full mouthfeel. As a young wine, it is austere with notes of lemon and grass. But as the wine ages, it develops rich notes of honey and toast while maintaining a mineral backbone.

One of the producers expressing the characteristics of the Hunter Valley is De Iuliis. As their tagline states, De Iuliis is “hard to pronounce but worth asking for.”


I recently met Mike De Iuliss at his first winemaker dinner in the U.S.. De Iuliis is a typically jovial and fun Australian but he makes wines that are a bit more retrained. The wines of De Iuliis are expressive of the Hunter Valley, with the aim to identify with a sense of time and place.

De Iuliis’ father, Joss, and his mother, Anna, emigrated from Italy, and Joss worked in the mining industry. They first planted grapes in 1990 and sold fruit for a decade to top producers in the Hunter Valley.

Mike De Iuliis studied science at university but, as he told me, “I could not find a job where I could sleep and drink.” And then he found the wine industry. He did postgraduate studies in oenology at Adelaide University’s Roseworthy campus and started working with his father in 1997, with their first vintage in 1998.

The De Iuliis’ attention to detail makes their wines stand out. While neighboring regions, such as the Barossa and McLaren Vale, can achieve ripeness, Mike De Iuliis embraces the conditions of the Hunter Valley to make drinkable, medium-bodied wines. It is no wonder he was named 2015 Winemaker of the Year at the Hunter Valley Legends awards, which recognized him for his winemaking skills, as well as his tireless contribution to the Hunter Valley community. With 80 acres of vines, all of the wines are produced in small-batch, with a total production between 10,000 and 14,000 cases per year.


At the wine dinner, De Iuliis shared two vintages of his semillon, the current 2015 vintage and the 2009 vintage. De Iuliis semillon is picked early and then aged three months, sur lees, in stainless steel. It is a wine with high acid and low alcohol. The 2015 De Iuliis Semillon has notes of citrus and florals and on the palate the acidity is refreshing with a long finish. This is a wine to drink now and can be paired with oysters. We enjoyed it with wood grilled baby green lip abalone with green curry and Thai aromats, and a hot and sour Wagyu beef tartare.

The 2009 De Iuliis Semillon demonstrated the aging potential of Hunter Valley semillon. This seven-year-old white wine was taut, fresh, vibrant and aging well. It has aromas of lime, lanolin and beeswax and the acidity, and structure is still there.


At the dinner, after savoring and swooning over the two semillon wines, we also enjoyed De Iuliis shiraz. After all, De Iuliis is in Australia. The De Iuliis shiraz is vibrant with berry aromas and concentrated without being over-the-top. The red wines are medium-bodied and good food-pairing wines.

The 2014 De Iuliis Estate Shiraz is a medium-bodied shiraz with savory and red and black berry notes and a long, smooth finish. The 2014 De Iuliis Steven Ranch Shiraz has floral, perfume and black fruit aromas. On the palate it is soft and round.

After reading this, you still may not be able to pronounce “De Iuliis” but be sure to seek out these wines. Perhaps ask your local retailer for the wine from the Hunter Valley that has a lot of vowels in it.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.