Brokenwood 40th anniversary verticals Part 1: ILR Semillon 1992-2010

Located two hours north of Sydney, the Hunter Valley has long been a popular retreat for Sydneysiders three of whom, solicitors Tony Albert, John Beeston and James Halliday, established Brokenwood Wines in 1970.  The self-professed hobby winemakers harvested their first vintage in 1973, conscripting friends and family to help.  Apparently grapes were carried to the winery in buckets in the back seat of Len Evans’ Bentley!

No doubt the involvement of two of Australia’s most famous sons of wine, Len Evans and James Halliday, augured well, but the winery’s transformation from a small “hobby” winery into a producer of international repute is in no small part due to one Iain Leslie Riggs, Managing Director, Chief Winemaker and these days part owner of Brokenwood.

Riggs, who joined in 1982,  is something of a human dynamo.  Within a year he’d revolutionised Brokenwood with his skills in white winemaking.  A new winery was built that year with premium white wine production in mind – up until then, Brokenwood had only produced red wines.   By the following year, production was focused 70% on white wine!

In 1992, Brokenwood celebrated Riggs’ contribution with the launch of ILR Reserve Semillon, its flagship Semillon, so it seems fitting to kick off my report of Brokenwood’s 40th anniversary celebrations with my notes of a vertical tasting of this wine.   First, I’ve faithfully set out below Riggs’ text from the 40th anniversary booklet (though the headings are mine), which describes how ILR came about and the problems subsequently encountered with cork closures.

The good news is, as James Halliday remarked during the tasting, with the advent of screwcap in 2003, ILR “took off in another dimension” which explains why Riggs observed “the golden years of Semillon are ahead of us.”

Iain Riggs’ forward

An evolution in style

The Hunter Valley Semillons made at Brokenwood from 1983 perfectly fitted the Sydney wining and dining culture with grassy fruit lift on both nose and palate.  Making use of the pyrazine inherent in Semillon by long skin contact, the wines were well received. Andrew Caillard, a cellar hand in 1984 can testify to the hours spent digging out drainers of Semillon. An unwooded Semillon style was not actually in the plans of the new pro-white Brokenwood as it was very much a time of Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Aiding the cause was a brace of wet years, 1984 and 1987 to 1990 except that skin contact and botrytis aren’t good bed fellows with bottle age. By 1990 with the first Semillon’s being 7 years old, it was obvious that the murmurings of Murray Tyrrell were correct – they weren’t Hunter and they won’t age. Although MJT said it in more colourful language.

The emergence of ILR – made for ageing Vintage 1990 and 1991 weren’t exactly ideal for targeting a style for long term aging, the first horrendously wet and the latter one of extreme heat. Vintage 1992 was another drought year but at least without the scorching days and despite the low yields it turned out to be a perfect Semillon vintage and a suitable tank bottled to be released at a later time as the ILR (Iain Leslie Riggs) Reserve Semillon.  After tasting the wine over the first three years the decision was made to release at 5 years bottle age, in other words to have some bottle development but capable of aging further.

A decline in cork quality

In terms of winemaking it was a case of low (and now days zero) skin contact and neutral yeast. Unfortunately it also corresponded with a decline in cork quality to the point where Brokenwood had to colour sort every bottle before release. We finally moved to screw cap for the 2003 Semillon’s as it took an extra year to get the Georgian Green bottle for screw cap.

Sporadic oxidation robbed us of up to 40% in some years and wasn’t a case of some wines being slightly lesser quality than others, once oxidized, Semillon’s are undrinkable. How many drinkable Reserve Semillon’s – 1992 to 2002 and Semillon’s that we made (including the wooded version 1982 to 89) that are under cork, will be an interesting aspect of the tasting. Suffice to say, we don’t hold high hopes. From 2003 the wines are as intended by the winemakers.

Best of vintage, not single vineyard

Unlike a McWilliam’s Lovedale Semillon or Tyrrell’s HVD, the Brokenwood Reserve Semillon is selected from the best of the vintage. In other words, could be single vineyard or a blend.

Brokenwood puts aside three or four different Reserve Semillon’s each year and from the mid 2000s it became obvious that the wines generally fell into three categories. The Maxwell Vineyard was usually tight/restrained, the Oakey Creek was often richer as was the Belford Block 8 and then there were wines either as blends or straight vineyard (including the previous three) that showed great balance and finesse. [ The Drayton vineyard (planted in 1979) first featured in ILR in 1999].

History buff’s would realise Brokenwood was simply following the Lindeman’s classification of Chablis, White Burgundy and Hunter Riesling.  Everything old is new again.

My tasting notes, followed by Riggs’ vintage notes

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 1992 – antique gold, with a herbal, buttermint quality to the nose.  In the mouth it shows lemon butter with sweet herbal talc notes and more pungent fenugreek.  A touch of residual sugar (5g/l) rounds it out, for me, slightly dulling the finish.

“A vintage more known for winemaker Iain Riggs nearly being run out of the Hunter Valley. An ‘off the record’ remark to Huon Hooke about the vintage being a disaster went into print and made for a very tense time down at the Tallawanta pub. The ‘disaster’ for Brokenwood was real enough, with no grapes being picked off the Graveyard vineyard and the Hunter overall suffering a loss of at least 10,000 tonnes. As locals were keen to point out, quality of what was on the vine was generally good, especially the Semillon.

A tasting of all the Semillon tanks (there weren’t many) post vintage identified one as having what Brokenwood deemed as the right stuff. Low alcohol, no grassy characters and it just happened to have about 5g/l residual sugar. Thoughts of the 1970 Lindeman’s Riesling Bin 3855 came to mind. Only a few bottles and magnums left. 10.7% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 1993 – deep gold, with saffron hints on the nose; cork taint detracts from the palate.

“The recovery vintage and one where the Shiraz bettered the Semillon. A wine very much affected by sporadic oxidation, with virtually all bottles now oxidized. 10.8% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 1994 – deep gold and though as James Halliday pointed out the white noise of cork taint comes through as it opens up, on my initial taste I found lots to like in its layers of toast, lime shred and lemon butter gently buoyed in length and line by lovely stony acidity.  Very present and complete until the taint seaps through…

“A very good winter in 1993 enabled the vines to survive the extreme heat of the summer. The bushfires did not affect flavours in any way. Regarded in the Hunter as a great Semillon year. 11% alc”.

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 1995 – a touch of corkiness, also pungency to this with spicy/pithy fenugreek, honeyed throat lozenge, saffron and toast.  A little flat.

“While the rain caught the Shiraz at the back of the vintage, the Semillons were all harvested in great condition. Fuller, generous-flavoured wines. 11.4% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 1996 – none left!

“Odd year/even year quality starting to emerge. A much higher crop than usual, but weather in favour of the winemaker. 67mm of rain 10-17 January, then 5mm in the most important time up to January 31. Outstanding Semillons. 11.4% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 1997 – burnished gold in hue.  Very spicy/toasty on nose and palate with lively citrus pith and juice lending great drive to its riper lemon butter and lingering, floral, honeyed finish.  Just beautiful.

“Difficult year even for Semillon. Wet spring giving lots of foliage, then 100mm of rain over the last 4 days of January and another 90mm 10 days later. Some botrytis influence. More forward style. 11.6% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 1998 – bright yellow/gold, well toasty and developed on the nose and palate with herbal, fenugreek notes, spicy citrus pith/moldy orange even.  A real patina of age to this already – lacks a bit of drive and purity.

“A very hot, dry summer led to an early start in mid January. Lower crops and lack of heavy rain put the quality high. This Reserve was actually rebottled after a protein hale was evident. Some S.O. and shows the double handling. 11.2% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 1999 – a big contrast with the 98.  Quite a tight youthful nose and palate, very lime pithy, with lime shots, warm stone and white porcini.  Persistent citrussy acidity carries a long finish tinged with honey.  Lovely.

“The first of a single-vineyard wine, but due to Brokenwood’s policy of just releasing the best, labeled as ‘Reserve’. Sourced from Drayton Oakey Creek Road. Picked mid February. A change in processing with zero sulphur through to the tank stage and then to fermentation, ie. slightly oxidative. Held back and released in 2005, is quite restrained and the best bottles have aged well. A great Hunter Semillon vintage. 11.4% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2000 – deep gold, with a moldy orange quality, buttermint and fenugreek pungency to nose and palate. Less thrust, so a tad clumsy in comparison with the 1999.

“Winter of 1999 provided an unusual amount of rain, so set up for an excellent vintage if no rain. Exactly what happened and surprisingly early as well. Most of the Semillon off before the end of January. Once in tank very herbaceous characters which met with critical acclaim. Two reserves kept with the Drayton (Pokolbin) ahead of the McMillan (Lovedale). Riper and more grassy than Brokenwood would usually make and released ahead of the 1999 as such. 12% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2001 – this is more like it.  Lively on the eye with its bright yellow flashes, invitingly lemon curdy on the nose and, in the mouth, developing a delicious girth of lemon and lime butter threaded with toast.  Very well structured – lots of go yet.

“Dry winter and then 130mm in November 2000. Very large crops evident but no rain between mid December and late January. Another January picking of Semillon, which worked in Brokenwood’s favour as the rain came down in the first 10 days of February. Lean but citrusy/lime flavours. The Maxwell Vineyard (Pokolbin) well ahead of the others. 11.3% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2002 – though the nose shows quite earthy, white porcini notes, it’s not giving much away compared with the 2001 and 2003 vintages.  The palate is relatively austere/coiled too – stony, with kaffir lime and tight lemony acidity.  Very promising.

“The merry-go-round of picking dates continued in 2002. A very dry winter in 2001, bushfires and no January rain. But unlike the previous year ripening wasn’t until early to mid February and so was the rain: 135mm by February 10. Lean and austere in style. Trials finally conducted on screwcap as Brokenwood debated over the bottle to use if the Georgian Green didn’t become available in screw cap. Brokenwood did bottle under screw in the antique bottle that was available, so both wines available for tasting. The Oakey Creek became the Reserve. 10.3% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2003 (from this vintage onwards bottled under screwcap) – lashings of lemon curd here on the nose, which is just starting to show on a subtly rounded palate, though it still possesses a tight, citric backbone.  Good length, line and purity with a lively undercurrent of juicy, mineral-sluiced limey acidity. Super long without being lean. Terrific; lots of potential.

“At last 100% under screwcap. Hot drought year, again bushfires, but the Semillons held up and local winemakers still partying in Wanaka for Dan and Sarah-Kate’s wedding had to pick slightly riper grapes on their return. All in by end of January. Fuller style but good blossom/citrus characters. Maxwell better from the warm year.10.9% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2004 – yellow/gold with lime, lime cordial, spicy pith and white porcini on nose and palate.  Just starting to put on weight, its acidity stony rather than citric.  Seems quite forward/developed but none the less delicious for that!

“Quite a large crop. Ripening helped by heavy spring rain. A very hot summer interspersed with rain. The first use of Semillon from the Belford area on Hermitage Road. A triumph for the blend that featured Belford and Brycefield Vineyards. The latter in the Lovedale region next to Allandale Wines. 10.1% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2005 – very youthful, still tightly coiled with ripe, lemon zest, lemongrass lift and zingy lime juice.  Great purity and potential.  Lots in the tank.  Very good indeed.

Brokenwood Maxwell Chablis 2005 – as the name suggests, this vineyard produces a very flinty, mineral, narrowly focused style – all trammelled power.  Exciting.

Brokenwood Brycefield/Belford White Burgundy 2005  –  a deeper yellow/gold than the Maxwell Chablis.  Though the nose is tight, it’s long, lemony and stony (rather than flinty) with a steady hum of acidity.  A seamless, poised wine – just beautiful.

“Funny what makes a great vintage. The lead-up to picking had everything from hailstorms and rain to 40-degree heat. Considered one of the best vintages, equal to 1996 perhaps. Three very distinct wines put aside and the Lindeman’s classification springs to mind. The Brycefield/Belford (white burgundy) released first, the Maxwell (chablis) also now sold out and the 2005 ILR Reserve (riesling) is now just on sale.  The wine is in fact a blend of the three vineyards above.11% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2006 – yellow with gold flashes.  On the nose it’s quite mineral, with a tufa (soft mineral) quality as well as fresh squeezed lemon and lime.  In the mouth, it shows subtle lemongrass lift and spice to its citrus fruit, a stoniness too.  Very very talcy going through the finish, though it lacks the length of the best.

“This time a few too many days over 40C. Still all the Semillon picked between 10.3 and 11.2 with very good talc/lemongrass flavours. The Belford Block 8 is on release and the Reserve is still 12 months off, but the Drayton has the front running. 11% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2007 – though it shows a really attractive ripe lemon butter quality already, it’s deftly counterpointed by a mouthwatering seam of very lively, juicy acidity.   Delicious now but plenty of power to go the distance.

“The last of three hot dry years and again three superb Semillons. A very dry winter of 2006 and picking started mid January. Based on weight of Gold Medals, the Drayton Vineyard likely to be the Reserve. 11.7% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2008 – more pungent, a wet year, so it’s grassy and herbaceousness with slightly softer acidity, a sense of relative dilution.

“La Nina returned with gusto and the 2007 year was well over 1000mm as the rain continued over the summer and into 2008. Low sugars and at times herbaceous fruit characters. Four Reserve wines ranging from 9.5% to 10.6% alcohol. The Drayton presented for tasting. 9.5% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2009 – a touch more depth of (yellow) colour compared with the nose and a beautifully defined, lemony nose and palate.  Very juicy with lovely rolling, stony acidity, it possess great length, sherbetty persistence even, suggesting a long life ahead.

“Another above average year of rain but good fruit ripeness in the whites. All picked before the February rain. Three Reserve wines and all at 11.0%. The Drayton presented for tasting. 10.9% alc.”

Brokenwood ILR Semillon 2010 – very pale with green glints and a restrained, youthful, slightly grassy, lemongrassy nose.  In the mouth, though initially stony, a very pure citric backbone really pushes out the finish.  Very promising.

“A year that caught a few on the hop with rapid sugar gains. Across the board very good Semillon but on the fuller/riper side. The Drayton presented for tasting.11.8% alc.”

Afterword

Following my first visit to the Hunter Valley in 2004, I came away still scratching my head about Semillon.  We just didn’t get to taste anything more than several old and, while there’s some perfectly lovely wines of this age, to borrow James’ Halliday’s phrase, the wines take off into a different dimension with a decade or more.

PJ Charteris, Brokenwood’s winemaker, captured the essence of Hunter Valley Semillon when he told me it’s about “catching the line and carrying it, the idea being it will grow – you can see the wines expanding and growing out of the acid core and filling the palate.”   No better way than a vertical tasting to witness this, so big thanks to Brokenwood for inviting me to this very special occasion, also to Wine Australia who hosted the Landmark Tutorial , including a superb Semillon Masterclass, which you can read about here.

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