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Hunter Semillon - Members tasting

When James Busby and William Kelman planted the first Semillon vines in the Hunter Valley in 1832, no one could have predicted what a stroke of vinous genius that would be. Since then, the Hunter Valley has made Semillon its own, producing a style that is so distinctive Jancis Robinson has called it Australia’s gift to the world.

Of course, the Hunter is not the only wine-producing region in the world to produce Semillon wines, but it is rare in its production of a Semillon single variety dry white wine that is revered. 

Semillon is grown in other regions of Australia, but its true home is in the Hunter Valley. This is where it creates true wine magic. Its generously fruited, delicately aromatic, waxy textured style, coupled with its amazing ability to age in the bottle, wins the hearts and minds of wine experts globally. 

However, despite this, Semillon tends to polarise the wine-drinking public and is sadly under-appreciated. There seems to be a general feeling that Semillon is hard to match with food (unless it’s freshly shucked oysters) and that young Semillon is far too acidic to enjoy more than one glass. Mature Semillon appears to be much more palatable, but at a time when wine consumers seem to like their wines young and fruity to drink now, not everyone wants to wait for a wine to be more approachable.  

So, with this in mind, 12 enthusiastic Wine Selectors Members and guests together with wine experts, including senior winemaker at Tyrrell’s Wines, Andrew Spinaze and Selector’s Paul Diamond, got together at Regatta Restaurant in Rose Bay, Sydney, to test these thoughts and see what public opinion actually was of Semillon. It turned out to be a highly interesting day.

Poured and explored

Twenty Semillons were on show, ranging in price and reputation, with noted producers alongside rising star winemakers: Brokenwood, Drayton’s, Tyrrell’s, Tulloch, Lindeman’s plus Peppertree, Andrew Thomas, Comyns & Co, Glenguin, Tamburlaine and Usher Tinkler. Of course, to sample Semillon’s ability to age, the line-up included a spellbinding mix of vintages with wines from the current 2018 vintage right through to 2017, 2015, 2013 and even a bracket that included 10+ year-old Semillons: namely the Mistletoe 2007 Reserve Semillon, Drayton’s Reserve Vineyard 2006 and the Gold Medal-laden Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2005 – a veritable legend in the Semillon world.

Chef Logan Campbell prepared a four-course menu designed to highlight Semillon’s food-matching ability. The courses were: Seared Atlantic scallops, crisp chicken skin, cauliflower puree and saba followed by squid ink gnocchi, grilled bottle squid, edamame and mussels. Then came Cone Bay barramundi, steamed warrigal greens, garlic, lemon and smoked pork jus, with a tasting plate to finish of lemon and lime sorbet, nuts, Le Marquis and Saint Agur cheese.

As we took our seats, the first bracket of five 2017 and 2018 Semillons was poured. A wave of excitement and seriousness came over the room as everyone swirled and sniffed with gusto, furiously scribbling notes. Around the room were differing facial expressions from raised eyebrows to wrinkled-up noses and the odd smacking of lips.

The first course of seared Atlantic scallops proved young Semillon can be great with foods other than oysters! The 2017 and 2018 Semillons were at their light-weight and lip-smacking best. The citrus fruits were vibrant and the acid line ensured the wine was mouth-watering. The light weight made them a great partner for the delicate nature and gentle sweetness of the scallop, and the creamy cauliflower purée provided the perfect foil for the bright acidity.

When asked for comments, Wine Selectors Member Elena Sabag remarked that she was amazed how much the young Semillons benefitted from food. The 2018 Thomas Synergy was the big hit, with and without food. 

Coming of age

The second bracket saw some slightly more mature Semillons come out to play, with vintages ranging from 2015 to 2013. This is around the ageing level where Semillon can be a bit closed, or as Paul Diamond put it, “Semillon can go into stasis before moving to its next stage of evolution.” He also talked about this being the developmental stage, which he sees as the “magic of Semillon.”

The squid ink gnocchi matched perfectly. The Semillons were still vibrant and very fresh. The trademark acidity giving that mouth-watering finish, and citrus was the dominant fruit. The wines had more fruit weight than the current vintage and one-year-old wines. This enabled them to complement the creaminess of the dish.

As bracket three was poured, we saw a definite change of colour in the wines and knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The vintages ranged from 2013 to 2011 and proved to be the most popular bracket for drinkability, in particular, with Members Anthony and Jessica Ward saying that they would happily sit around with their mates and drink a bottle of mature Semillon, whereas the young Semillons they felt benefitted more from food. 

Another very interesting comment from Jessica was that tasting Semillon in this context made her realise that while the young Semillons all seemed pretty similar, as the wines got older, she became more definite in what she liked and didn’t like. She didn’t expect that kind of difference.

The Cone Bay barramundi proved once again the food-friendliness of Semillon. The older wines exhibited the classic citrus characters the variety is known for. They also started to show notes of lanolin, beeswax and lemongrass. The acidity was upbeat, but started to play a more background role to the core of fruit. They had more weight and could handle the stronger flavours of barramundi and pork jus.

In describing Semillon and its ageing potential, Andrew Spinaze made an enlightening comment: 

“The affordability of Semillon is very underrated. You can pick up a Semillon for $15 per bottle and keep it for 10 years. Wine consumers can pick a wine they like and taste it over a few years. There’s not many varieties you can do that with at that price.”

On acidity, he added:

“I’d like to think that winemakers these days concentrate more on natural acid wines that are more balanced and approachable that you can drink early or age. You don’t need high acid to age. You need moderate soft acid. Over-adjusted or high acid Semillon will be acidic when the wine is old and probably not in balance.”

Furthermore, he felt winemakers sometimes concern themselves too much with the measure of total acidity than the overall fruit, structure and mouthfeel.

Final thoughts

The final bracket was poured and here we saw the big guns of Semillon appear, in what proved to be a fitting finale. The 2006 Drayton’s Vineyard Reserve and the 2005 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 were the winners, with people running out of superlatives to describe the complex layers, flavours and balance of these beauties.

But the tasting plate proved a polarising match. Both cheeses matched well, with the creamy texture of the Le Marquis in particular combining beautifully with the acidity and complex layers of the wines. However, the sorbet proved to be too zesty and tangy, swamping the wines’ delicate layers.

It seems everyone took something away from this experience, with the general consensus being that the least appealing wines of the day were too acidic. The big surprise was that Semillon is more food-friendly than originally thought, especially young examples. Another revelation was that it is not necessarily very mature Semillon that was the big hit with the Wine Selectors Members. Most agreed that they liked their Semillons with fruit and freshness, but also with balance and interest.

Wine
Words by
Deb Pearce
Photography by
John Paul Urizar
Published on
13 Sep 2018

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