The Landmark Tutorial 2010 Semillon report: why it’s not all beer & skittles & the one-percenters which make all the difference

During 2004 I spent several weeks in the Loire and South Africa researching Chenin Blanc.  That autumn, I visited Australia in the company of Christine Parkinson, wine buyer forHakkasan, the Michelin-starred modern Chinese restaurant.  How very ironic that the first wine we were shown was a Chenin Blanc!

My passion for Chenin baffled others and I recall feeling similarly perplexed by Parkinson’s passion for Hunter Valley Semillon.  Its charms are subtle and it can be positively austere in its youth.

Semillon, the seducer

My first glimmer of insight into Parkinson’s passion came last May after a vertical of tasting of Tyrrell’s Vat 1 and McWilliams Mount Pleasant Lovedale (reported here).  With age, especially after a decade or so, the variety starts to unravel its charms and they are abundant.

Total conversion followed last autumn’s intensive Semillon “workouts” at the Landmark Tutorial and subsequent visits to the Hunter Valley, not least a tasting of every Semillon Brokenwood ever made at their 40th Anniversary party.

Hunter Valley young gun Andrew Thomas of Thomas Wines presented the Landmark Semillon Masterclass and, speaking of his own conversion told us, “when I left the family home in McLaren Vale in 1983, I wouldn’t have expected to be here today talking about Semillon, but once you get it, it takes hold of you – I’ve a deep passion for it.”

It’s a passion which has pushed Thomas and others to question how they might broaden Semillon’s appeal.  And, as you’ll discover, he’s achieved it without compromising the Hunter’s intrinsic style or structure.

In the beginning

Thomas, who made no apologies for the “unashamed [Hunter Valley] bias” of the tasting, describes the Hunter as Semillon’s “spiritual home” and I can do no better than to borrow from the Hunter Valley Wine Industry Association’s website  for an account of its history in the region:

“As with most other varieties that came to call the Hunter their home, Semillon came to the region courtesy of the original Busby collection, planted in the Sydney Botanical Gardens in 1832 by Australia’s original wine pioneer James Busby.

The first viticulturist to exploit the variety in the Valley was thought to be James King of “Irrawang” near Raymond Terrace, who made some early vintages of such promise that one of his wines was selected to be placed on the table in front of Louis Napoleon at the Paris Exhibition in 1855.

The link between Semillon’s arrival in Busby’s Collection and its subsequent propagation in the Hunter Valley is possibly provided by Thomas Shepherd, a nurseryman and owner of Darling Nursery. Shepherd was a member of the committee which supervised the planting of the Busby Collection in the Sydney Botanical Gardens in 1832 and may well have obtained cuttings from the Botanic Gardens specimen at that time and subsequently propagated them. Henceforth, the variety though almost correctly named by Busby in his Journal as “Semilion” became known as Shepherd’s Riesling and later still until quite recently (1970s) as Hunter Valley Riesling.”

Today Semillon is the second most planted white grape variety in Australia after Chardonnay.  However around two thirds of Semillon comes from inland regions (the Riverina alone accounts for around 50% of the Australian Semillon crush), so less than a third goes into serious styles, of which the Hunter Valley is king.

The Hunter, a natural fit

So why is the Hunter king?  As James Halliday (co-founder of Brokenwood) reminded us at various points over the Landmark tutorial, the Hunter Valley is pretty unique.  Because it’s located in a northerly state and off the east coast, “it has a totally different weather pattern.”

The climate is sub-tropical, with higher temperatures, more relative humidity (49% versus 39% in the Barossa) and rainfall throughout the year.  Average annual rainfall is 740mm, but 530mm falls during the growing season/harvest between October and April.

It explains the Hunter’s correspondingly unique style of early-picked Semillon – you’ve got to get in there before the rain!  And Semillon is a great natural fit because, as Bruce Tyrrell explained to me some years ago, it attains flavour ripeness at relatively low potential alcohol (10-11 baumé/potential alcohol).

Still, in poor years like 2008, which he described as “a write off for Shiraz,” Thomas said sporadic rain can mean that vines never get a chance to develop sugars and flavours.  Lettuce leaf, snow pea, tinned peas and herbaceous notes, which go sweaty (not toasty or honeyed) with age he says are the mark of a lean year, “when you’re forced to pick at only 8-9 baumé.”  

The elixir of youth

But here’s the trade off – even in warm dry years like 2010, 2009 and 2007, which Thomas describes as “at the generous end of the spectrum,” Hunter Semillon’s hallmarks are its“freshness, vibrancy and very tightly structured acidity.”

Why?  Because still early picked at 10-11 potential alcohol, it retains relatively high tartaric acid.  And herein lies the secret to its fabulous ageing potential, also its low alcohol by volume.

But it’s not all beer and skittles

Though its structure and ability to develop complex bottle-aged characters with age delight the connoisseur, Thomas readily admitted that Hunter Valley Semillon can be “too intellectual for the average consumer” (or, for that matter, inexperienced member of the trade!).  Since “it’s not all beer and skittles in the marketplace,” he says the days of searing simple acid styles of Semillon are over.  He and others have worked on tweaks to make it more acceptable to the consumer, “building more texture in Semillon.”

Still, the starting point, he says, is to recognise that the (unoaked) classic Hunter Valley style“is a projection of the quality of fruit from the vineyard so, with Semillon, it’s really important to get the best fruit.”  The next step is to “look at the 1% of detail that can get more texture – fruit ripeness – don’t get the whole block off, take at least 2-4 tries.”  In any event no bad thing where he adds, in the Hunter Valley, you have to have “one eye on the vineyard and one eye on the sky, so it’s a bit of insurance picking as well!”

In the last few years, Thomas says he’s harvested in three stages 3 (100% by hand).  The first pick, a relatively small volume of fruit with elevated natural acidity, is “the spine,” which he describes as “a handy parcel to tweak things later on.”  The main picking, “the heart” (60-70% of whole) is “what you’d do if you picked everything together…it’s perfectly ripe.” The final stage, “the tail” – riper more generous fruit with slightly lower acidity  – is “to counterbalance the spine.”

Winery one percenters

In the winery, the convention is to handle Semillon anaerobically to preserve its delicate fruit and, because Semillon has notoriously slippery skins, whole bunch pressing comes into its own – stems create channels for the juice to penetrate the “cake.”  

Most then cold settle the must for 48-72 hours but, in a lean year like 2008, Thomas says “the one percenters come into play.”  He uses a bit of turbidity – a very light haze/bit of solids to“take off the [acid] edge” and for extra complexity and texture.

Generally neutral yeasts are used (which Thomas prefers for purity), though some ferment with aromatic yeasts for a fruitier style.  Most producers practice long, cool ferments but Thomas runs the ferment quite quickly (at 16-17 degrees 10 days tops) for fruit purity – “if it’s longer, more yeast esters come in.”  Very little Hunter Semillon sees oak – stainless steel is de rigueur.

For Thomas, the most critical decision which impacts on texture concerns lees ageing.  In generous years, he gets the wine off the gross lees quickly, after a fortnight or so, but in 2008, it spent three months on gross lees (with no stirring, which requires a clean ferment if you’re to avoid sulphides).

And elsewhere?

Outside the Hunter Valley, Semillon receives quite different treatment.  In South Australia fruit is, of course, riper, weighing in at 13% + and the wines have more weight on the front palate.

Though some styles are based on the Hunter Valley, wines are also barrel fermented and matured. Until recently, there was a tendency to use lots of new oak, up to 100% new.  However as with Australian Chardonnay, Thomas says the trend for big fat overt styles is now out of a favour.  These days producers are using less new oak now and creating fresher, more balanced wines.  Notable producers include Peter Lehmann, The Willows, Burge Family, Rockford, Kaesler, Tim Adams, Mitchell and Mount Horrocks.

In Margaret River, Western Australia, Semillon is mostly blended with Sauvignon Blanc.  For straight Semillon, because it’s harder to get flavour at low sugar, Thomas says wines are also higher in alcohol (13-14%) and show more fruit (sometimes tropical) and herbaceous notes.  A barrel/wood matured component is common.

The wines

Phat Wine Co. Hart & Hunter Single Vineyard Oakey Creek Semillon 2010 (Hunter Valley) – a quite tight, lemony, fresh nose with a whiff of lemongrass.  There’s a sweetness to this too with some tropical fruit hints, but the core is lemon pip sharp and its acidity brisk. Good line and intensity going through with lemon juice, peel, candied peel even. This wine comes from a single vineyard located on a silted up ancient watercourse, as are the region’s best Semillon vineyards.  Its very deep alluvial sandy soils allow for deep root penetration, also heat and light reflection  into the canopy.  11.5% abv

Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon 2009 (Hunter Valley) – this shows a more complex nose with lanolin, pithy grapefruit and lime notes.  It’s gentler on entry, less rapier like than the Hart & Hunter, but the finish keeps going and going! In the mouth it’s all citrus and honey with incipient lanolin/beeswax.  Though tight, fresh and fine, it has good weight and waxy layer. Thomas rents a parcel of 40 year old vines in the Braemore vineyard which has very deep alluvial sandy soils, he says “almost like talc on top when it dries out.”  Roots go very deep and yields are low.

Tim Adams Semillon 2009 (Clare Valley) – a more overt methoxypyrazene quality to this, with its riff of sweet dried herbs and talc on nose and palate.  Ripe citrus fruit is infused with smoky oak.  It lacks the high definition vibrancy of the Hunter wines but nonetheless has good freshness.  Always a good buy too.

Vasse Felix Semillon 2009 (Margaret River) – somehow poised between the Hunter and Clare Valley wines, it shows the delicacy and restraint of the Hunter, especially on the nose, while the palate is broader with stone as well as citrus fruit.

Brokenwood Semillon 2009 (Hunter Valley) – a super-citric example, with ripe lemon zest, fleshy pulp and juice.  A long, mouthwatering finish is fine and lemony.  Just the ticket for calamari.

Peter Lehmann Art Series Semillon 2008 (Barossa Valley) – ripe lemony and pure with good body – a fleshy, leavened quality to its mouthwatering, zesty fruit. Impressively bright.

Tyrrell’s Belford Semillon 2005 (Hunter Valley) – in this very low cropping year and with six years under its belt, this shows hints of beeswax and lanolin on the nose.  In the mouth though it has good line/acid backbone, it’s quite generous with waxy, lemony fruit and a hint of pith.  Lovely. For Thomas, though it’s “saleable” and displays what’s great about ageing, it’s still “a puppy,” with years ahead of it.  The Belford vineyard was planted in 1933 and, according to Thomas, produces wines which are “a little plumper than Pokolbin, Mount Pleasant or Lovedale.”

Peter Lehmann Margaret Semillon 2005 (Barossa Valley) – complex gun flinty nose and palate with toast hints, peel and pith.  A long, mouthwatering finish builds, showing smoky lemon fruit.  Very good.

McWilliams Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon 2005 (Hunter Valley) – the nose and palate is remarkably youthful, quite fruity and estery still.  Beneath lies a concentrated core of lemon fruit yet to be mined.

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2010 (Hunter Valley) – a lovely tight lemony nose, that vintage generosity there – indeed, there’s a strong fruit character to this, purity and line too.

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2006 (Hunter Valley) – showing some development, with honey, beeswax and lanolin on nose and palate.  Really lipsmacking acidity, lime hints as well as lemon – that bit more exotic/open.  A less good vintage.

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2005 (Hunter Valley) – a tighter nose with a vibrant lemon sherbert quality.  In the mouth, it shows powerful fruit/good fruit weight, which subtly fleshes out a tight spine of acid.  A long, long finish shows a touch of talc.  Terrific.

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2003 (Hunter Valley) – sealed under screwcap, this is tight, quite austere even, with a fine line in lemongrass and lemon nuance – lovely purity.

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 2003 (Hunter Valley) – sealed under cork this is less pure, a little fuggy/smoky even and softer.  More evolved, with a waxy texture – what a difference!  Makes the case for screwcap!

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 1998 (Hunter Valley) – really shifted into a glorious, developed, minerally stage though still tightly structured with mouthsluicing acidity and earthy/mineral tufa/white porcini notes.  Very pure.

Tyrrells Futures Semillon 1986 (Hunter Valley) – golden in hue with porcini and a touch of earthiness on the nose which follows through in the mouth.  While it retains a fruity core (lemon/lemon peel) as well as pithier spicy notes and lanolin, it’s not wildy long and little lacking purity.

Rothbury Estate Brokenback Semillon 1978 (Hunter Valley) – deep gold, with dried porcini and nuts to the nose, which follow through on the waxy palate.  It’s a little lacklustre in terms of structure, though texturally and flavour-wise (the nuttiness), it gives an indication of how Semillon evolves after 30 years.

Rothbury Estate Black Label Semillon 1977 (Hunter Valley) – bronze gold with beeswax and hints of saffron on nose and palate.  It’s past its best but retained its structure better than the 78.  Love the beeswax!

Reflections

Australian Semillon, especially from the Hunter Valley, offers a genuinely unique take on this French variety.  As I’ve discovered, it takes time to get to know, but it’s time well spent, especially if you can taste older wines, now increasingly bottled under screwcap which, for Thomas, is “the saviour of our style.”

It’s a task made easier for us by the fact some producers do the cellar-ageing on our behalf.  Step forward Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon, McWilliams Mount Pleasant Lovedale and Elizabeth, Brokenwood ILR and Peter Lehmann Margaret, to name just a few.

And I welcome Thomas’ one percenters – sensitive and subtle tweaks which respect vineyard, variety and tradition but render the wines delicious that little bit earlier, seemingly without compromising on structure.  Take Thomas’ Braemore Semillon.  It may be gentler on entry but a super-long, structured finish with building intensity and focus leaves you in no doubt this wine has the backbone for ageing.

Younger wines show plenty of citrusy zip and zest and, in some respects, there’s no better place to taste them than in the heat of an Australian summer.  With fresh shucked oysters they really come into their own.  Or a simple rule of thumb for you, if you’d add a squeeze of lemon to a dish, young Hunter Semillon just might work!

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