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Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 160th Anniversary Vertical (1998-2017)

Hunter Valley Semillon

Lots to smile about – Chris Tyrrell, fifth generation winemaker at Tyrrell’s Wines, the Hunter Valley

Established in 1858, Hunter Valley leading light Tyrrell’s Wines is 160 years old this year.  Fifth generation winemaker Chris Tyrrell was in London to host a suitably celebratory tasting from their Sacred Sites’ range, showcasing select vintages of Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon (first released in 1963) and every vintage of Tyrrell’s Old Patch 1867 Shiraz (first released in 2007). 

A chip off the old block, Tyrrell, who joined the family firm in 2001, is as warm, engaging and opinionated as his father Bruce.  Joining the family business aged 20, in 2001, he emphasised that staff as well as family continuity has been important to Tyrrell’s Wines’ ethos of constant improvement.  Chief winemaker Andrew Spinaze joined in 1980 and Red Winemaker Mark Richardson in 1994.  It’s not about doing what my grandfather did, but rather, “what are we going to do next year to make it better,” said the youngest member of the “tight, really focused” winemaking team.

Whilst records from 1912 and 2012 show that the Semillon harvest started on 26 January, Australia Day, one of today’s challenges is climate change. Take 2018 which, Tyrrell reported, initially looked similar to 2003, that is to say, very dry.  Between last easter and harvest 2018, there was just 110mm of rain – “you’d normally put a zero on end,” said Tyrrell.  However, 150mm of rain fell in the last two months and saved the vintage, which was very compact – just 27 days from 10 January to 7 February.

It’s as well Tyrrell’s has doubled the fermentation space – a long term investment which acknowledges the impact of climate change.  Winery logistics no longer impinge on/compromise picking dates or ferment durations.

Commenting on climate change, Tyrrell recalled that, growing up, sulphur rockets were launched every few days for a few months but none have been launched since he has worked vintage.  Picked “a lot earlier,” he reckons Chardonnay has changed most in the Hunter.

The Hunter Valley & Semillon

Hunter Valley Semillon

Hand built in 1858 by Edward Tyrrell, the ironbark slab hut in Pokolbin, the Hunter Valley

Tyrrell’s are located in Pokolbin – prime Semillon (and Shiraz) territory.  As Chris observed, “it’s a little bit wet, a little bit humid, so it shouldn’t really work” and yet “not many dry whites that have this consistency.” 

It sets us apart

Commenting on Hunter Semillon’s worldwide recognition – “it sets us apart” – he added, “this year, the Hunter Valley represented 0.3% of the Australian crush.  To be that small and this relevant pays tribute to the great vineyards and guys who have been here before.”

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon is sourced from Tyrrell’s best old vines parcels, but the Short Flat Vineyard just over the road from the winery, is always the backbone.  Located on a creek bed, it features ideal sandy (well drained) soils. Its dry grown vines, mostly planted in the 1920s, are planted on own roots; the oldest date back to 1908.

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon – history & evolution

First produced in 1963, Vat 1 is fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and spends minimal time (6-8 weeks) on fine lees before bottling, filtered.  It is released after five years, save for the small quantity offered for early release to Tyrrell’s Wine club members.

Presses – the enemy of white winemaking

Whilst the basic formula remains the same, key changes to improve quality have involved changing pressing and settling techniques, also closures.  Describing presses as “the enemy of white winemaking,” Tyrrell pointed out that, whilst they still use a pneumatic bag press, they don’t rock the press and add 30% of stems (to create drainage channels amidst Semillon’s notoriously slippery skins).  It means juice extraction is gentler and the must higher quality, with a lower pH and higher total acidity.

As for settling techniques, Tyrrells have moved away from using a centrifuge and, since 2008/2009 use flotation instead.  The juice is not as clear, he said, but it lends a bit of texture, which I enjoyed in the 2017.

Tyrrell elected to show only vintages bottled under screwcap, which practice officially began with the 2003 Vat 1 Semillon, only half of which saw cork.  However, the family had trialled the closure in 1998, putting 200 dozen bottles under screwcap, so the line up included the excellent 1998.

The winemaker explained that, even paying top dollar – $1.50/cork – did not resolve issues, notably premature oxidation.  Tyrrell reported that some 30% of Vat 1 Semillons bottled under cork were failing the lightbox test and had to be chucked before release.  Tyrrells converted 100% to screwcap in 2004 and haven’t looked back – sales rocketed.

A bit more ripeness and flavour intensity in warm years makes the best wines

Recalling that high acid vintages used to be the most revered (leading Australian ambassador and show judge Len Evans used to say, if your teeth hurt it’s a gold medal, but if your knees are shaking it’s a trophy), Tyrrell and his team beg to differ.  He commented, “we figured it out in the mid-90s – a bit more ripeness and flavour intensity in warm years makes the best wines” and, in the last three to five years, this has influenced picking decisions.  The consensus was that it showed in the remarkably approachable 2017, the first wine in the line up.

Waiting for flavour ripeness doubtless accounts for alcohol levels being a bit higher too in recent years.  Tyrrell observed, in the past when lots of growers owned vineyards, they picked no matter what whilst, “if he saw a cloud, grandad would pick as soon as there was a hint of flavour.”   Incidentally, Tyrrell mentioned that top years often coincide with high cropping years.

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon Vertical

Hunter Valley Semillon

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon vertical tasting

Tyrrell’s VAT 1 Semillon 2017 (Hunter Valley)

Vintage note: Solid rains in winter and spring meant vines had constant access to water and the warmer weather in the new year meant all of the fruit was in near perfect condition and ripeness when it was harvested.  One of the best vintages in living memory.  11.5%abv, pH 3.0, TA 6.34g/l

Tasting note: Pale, almost water white. A tight, fresh nose shows kaffir lime, lime blossom and talc hints and, with time in glass, a touch of hops, which notes follow through on the palate.  Lovely balance and intensity in the mouth with a very attractive, delicately (lemon and lime) pithy mouthfeel.  With a touch of Granny Smith snap and bite, it tapers into a long focused finish, with a lift of talc and lime blossom in the tail.

Tyrrell’s VAT 1 Semillon 2013 (Hunter Valley)

Vintage note: The growing season for the 2013 vintage was one of minimal stress.  The incredibly wet autumn and winter of 2012 meant there was great soil moisture and warmer conditions followed in summer and into vintage. 11.5%abv, pH 2.95, TA 6.92g/l

Tasting note:  Tyrrell’s are just about to release this vintage and it’s definitely moving into more expressive mode with classic toast, tufa and lemon curd/dried honey hints – a touch of sweetness – already.  In the mouth, though it feels quite slippery, with a succulent skins’ and talcy softness, flavour-wise, it seems more restrained than on the nose.  Very mineral and clear-eyed, with a lingering, slow burn build to the finish.  Terrific.

Tyrrell’s VAT 1 Semillon 2009 (Hunter Valley)

Vintage note: Great soil moisture from the previous growing season meant that all of the vineyards saw their best season in years.  Kind weather over Christmas ensured even ripening and flavour development in the bunches.  11%abv, pH 3.06, TA 6.36g/l

Tasting note:  – initially very tight and grapefruity on the nose and palate, with pithy restraint.  Curiously, going back at the end, it seemed rounder and simpler in comparison with the others.  But of course, the others set the bar very high, so I am being super tough!

Tyrrell’s VAT 1 Semillon 2006 (Hunter Valley)

Vintage note: Warmer conditions were experienced in 2006, a continuation of the previous vintage.  Picking took place one week earlier than in 2005.  10.5% abv, pH 2.88, TA 6.62g/l

Tasting note:  – relatively developed – especially in comparison with the 2005 and 2004 – with expressive tertiary oilskin and orange peels notes to its grapefruit and lime and a waxy mouthfeel.  With a softness about it, rolling acidity makes for a long finish, with powdery, talc nuances.  In a nice drinking window.

Tyrrell’s VAT 1 Semillon 2005 (Hunter Valley)

Vintage note: A dry winter and spring with some rain through mid to late December that filled out the bunches, which was followed by a dry harvesting period that gave us smaller crop than 2004 but with more concentrated flavours.  11.2% abv, pH 2.97, TA 7.10g/l

Tasting note:  – apparently this is Tyrrell’s most awarded wine and it was my stand out wine amongst stiff competition.  Good news, because Tyrrell’s have issued a 160th anniversary museum release which I’m told is en route to blighty!   It shows a touch of lime blossom on an otherwise mineral, tight-coiled nose and palate, with tight fisted, squeezing blood from a stone, firm lime.  It makes for a very focused, yet spiralling, dynamic (think diamond drill bit) palate with lime rind/zest and a smidge of juice – lovely pith and juice striation. Terrific backbone and minerality to the finish.  Outstanding.

Tyrrell’s VAT 1 Semillon 2004 (Hunter Valley)

Vintage note: The growing season at the end of 2003 provided us with almost perfect pre-vintage conditions.  We had some extreme heat just after Christmas and a good fall of rain at the end of January.  10.5% abv, pH 2.88, TA 6.62g/l

Tasting note:  – tight but at the same time more expressive than the 2005, Tyrrell’s VAT 1 Semillon 2004 shows a touch of spice and lemon sherbert to the nose and palate. Leaner, it seems to almost accelerate to the back palate, where its delicate oilskin, lime and lemon rind notes resonate on a waxy finish, with a touch of kerosene.  Lovely, lingering finish, a firm undertow of acidity teases out the flavours.

Tyrrell’s VAT 1 Semillon 2003 (Hunter Valley)

Vintage note: The drought of 2002 had a serious impact on the volume of fruit with whites down by approximately 40%.  Good conditions with a warm growing season.  10.9% abv, pH 2.9, TA 7.57g/l

Tasting note:  – It has the volume one might associate with the vintage, additionally an unusual smokiness and mealy introspective quality to the palate in this, the first official year of screwcap.  In a funk, as if caught up in itself – wheel-spinning – I’m not techie, but I’ve always thought that perhaps it’s overly reductive (with sulphur/carbon dioxide levels out of kilter – too high – for a screwcap versus cork bottling).  I detected a prick of carbon dioxide in this wine too.  Tyrrell said the smokiness (at least on the nose, though I also get it on the palate) has been remarked on before.  However, a technical analysis did not find fault with the wine.   The winemaker remarked that, under cork, wines had 55ppm free sulphur, whilst they now have 41/42ppm free sulphur and residual carbon dioxide is sparged out of the wine. I’d give this year a miss.

Tyrrell’s VAT 1 Semillon 1998 (Hunter Valley)

Vintage note: Drought conditions were experienced during the growing period followed by extreme heat in January and February.  Consequently 1998 was a short, sharp harvest.  10.5% abv, pH 2.9, TA 7.7g/l

Tasting note:  produced in the days before screwcap took hold, a clear Vermouth bottle was the only option for this trial screwcap example.  Well and truly into tertiary mode yet still with so much life in it, this is a beaut.  A super complex nose and palate shows dried honey, oilskin and tight, pithy lemon to the nose, which notes follow through in the mouth.  With a firm spine of acidity, flavours of lemon buttered toast, lemon thyme and honey lemon lozenge ricochet resoundingly on the back palate.     Terrific length, with a delicious hum of lemon buttered toast and honey.

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