Landmark Australia Tutorial, Seminar 5: ‘Semillon’ presented by Andrew Thomas

Semillon remains one of Australia’s less-discovered varietals, especially in international markets. Even within Australia, it is not unusual for those outside of New South Wales, for example, to have little experience of Hunter Valley Semillon, the archetypal region for an intriguing style of wine.

In the cloud-covered, hot, humid and thereby viticulturally challenging Hunter, Semillon is typically picked early, which helps maintain naturally high degrees of malic acidity, resulting in wines that only attain around 10-11% alcohol even when fermented to dryness. Citrus-driven and unoaked, these are austere, yet refreshing wines in their youth – ideal with oysters and other seafood – but with bottle age take on complex toasted and savoury aromas that are to die for. Not for nothing are blind-tasters regularly fooled into thinking old Hunter Semillon is high-end aged white Burgundy.

Andrew Thomas has done much to raise awareness of Hunter Semillon whilst also developing more than one style likely to appeal to a wider range of consumers. Not everyone likes young Hunter Semillon, nor is willing to wait 20 years for a wine of aged complexity. Thus, Thomas has produced both the classic style and a later picked, slightly higher alcohol version that preserves Semillon’s unique character but offers a more generous style. Nor should one forget the richer, headier and often oaked examples of Semillon to be found in the Barossa and in Western Australia.

To return to the Hunter, Thomas explained how, with variable picking dates, some producers blend together Semillon harvested at different must weights, even taking advantage of the occasional crop of botrytis-affected bunches (which lend weight to the palate rather than conferring botrytis flavours to blended wines, if handled carefully).

Most revealing perhaps were the different closures on offer for the 2003 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon with the wine under screw-cap being in much better condition.  The pick of the bunch here: 2009 Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon, Hunter Valley, 2009 Brokenwood Semillon, Hunter Valley, 2005 Tyrrell’s Belford Semillon, Hunter Valley, 2005 Peter Lehmann Margaret Semillon, Barossa Valley, 2005 McWilliams Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon, Hunter Valley, the various examples of Vat 1 and the stunning 1986 Tyrrell’s Futures Semillon, Hunter Valley. Look out for Hunter Semillon from the excellent 2009 and 2010 vintages.

Editor’s note: This is an ongoing 13-part series of Edward Ragg’s account of Australia’s 2010 Landmark Tutorial. Each week, Edward will give us an insider’s view of the program. Join us next week as he covers Cabernet Sauvignon, a blind tasting presented by Brian Croser.

Top photo Sommelier Kim Bickley; Bottom photo Andrew Thomas. Photo credits: Edward Ragg