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Who gets the gong for Semillon?

Let me take you back in time. Way back. Pre-Sauvignon Blanc. Back in the years B.C. (before Chardonnay), when only two white wine types vied for the crown of Australia’s best. For a large part of the twentieth century, Australia’s two greatest white table wines were Semillon and Riesling. Riesling thrived in Australian wine’s heartland of South Australia, and the old wine country of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales was the source of the nation’s best Semillon. Confusingly, Hunter Semillon was known for many years as ‘Hunter River Riesling’, and the true Riesling grown in South Oz was called ‘Rhine Riesling,’ but those who knew them would never mix them up, and now, thankfully, they enjoy their real names.

Both wine types bore distinctly Australian signatures, but Hunter Semillon went further – it was unique in the world. Nowhere else was Semillon made unblended into a high-quality, light, low-alcohol, dry white wine like this. The style was determined by the capricious climate of the Hunter Valley, where grapes had to be picked early to avoid the summer rains, resulting in only moderate levels of ripeness and high levels of acidity. Over the years, such circumstances meant Hunter Semillon evolved a unique personality, partly due to its improbable ability to build character and impact with long bottle age. Australian wines sometimes attract criticism, often ill-informed, for their lack of regional identity, the sense of place or terroir that marks great European wine, but this wine has it in spades.

Hunter Semillon starts life pale and crisp, dry and lemon-fresh, appetising drinking when a delicate, savoury drop is needed. Then, in a most unlikely and miraculous transformation, that shy, zesty young wine is transformed by bottle age. Richness and interest build in the bottle, and after five, ten, or even more years, the zesty young thing grows into a multi-dimensional white wine of fascinating complexity, smoothness and depth.

Generations of wine buffs have loved Hunter Semillon in either incarnation, young or old it was always a favourite among the cognoscenti, but the world of Australian wine has changed. The whims of fad and fashion increasingly determine what people drink and poor old Semillon, despite being better than ever, is looking like yesterday’s hero. Now a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is Australia’s best-selling white wine, obscure Italian white varietals obsess a new chattering class, and even big-selling Chardonnay is considered a bit passé by the fashionistas. Semillon languishes as an also-ran. What a pity.

The story in the south

The story of Semillon in South Australia is different. While the Hunter Valley version was a thoroughbred, South Australian Semillon was a workhorse used for bottled table wines, bulk wines, fortifieds, sweet styles, distillation, and anything else a winemaker could think of. In the Barossa, where for obscure reasons it was sometimes known as Madeira, straight Semillon enjoyed some popularity, but the style made for many years was more about strength and big, broad flavours than finesse, and in recent decades oak barrels have crept into the equation, making it into a sort of big, fat Chardonnay substitute, and often wiping out any fruit character that existed in the wine.

For many in the Hunter, and for most of that region’s fans in the Hunter’s traditional markets, South Australian Semillon only existed as an everyday drop, a component to cut back Sauvignon Blanc’s exuberance in a blend, or a curio not to be taken seriously, never a throughbred like the Hunter version. But things were changing in the rolling country around Nuriootpa, Angaston and Lyndoch.

A new type of Barossa Semillon was gradually emerging that started attracting the attention of wine drinkers across the nation. The Barossa boys and girls started easing off on the oak or ditching it altogether, they started harvesting their Semillon earlier, they selected fruit with more care, cropping levels were more tightly controlled, technique improved, special plots of vines identified. The Barossa’s aim of improving the region’s Semillon started to bear fruit. It hasn’t exactly shaken sales of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but many consumers have been won over by these new wines, commentators have received them very positively, and they are winning more plaudits on the wine show circuit. At the Sydney International Wine Show in 2010 the Trophy for best White Table Wine of Competition was won by Peter Lehmann Margaret Barossa Semillon 2004. Hunter winemakers sat up and took notice. The Barossa was indeed becoming competitive with the Hunter as a source of great Semillon.

This is the background to Selector’s latest State of Play tasting. How good is modern Barossa Semillon? And how does it compare to the classics from the Hunter? Is the Barossa wine better in its youth than the Hunter? Hunter Semillon ages superbly; what about Barossa Sem? To get a perspective on the two regional styles, Selector invited submissions of current release wines from all Semillon producers in both the Hunter and Barossa. Additionally, wineries with a good track record for ageworthy wines were invited to submit older Semillons.

The taste-off

The results confirmed just how good both Hunter and Barossa Semillon can be. Out of 49 wines entered, no less than 39 achieved scores that would get medals in a wine show. This is an amazingly high figure and had panellists scratching their heads to think of another wine type that would do so well. The tasting also showed that Semillon from both regions has two distinct incarnations – young and bottle aged.

This highlights Semillon’s ability to offer the best of both worlds, a trait that isn’t shared by many other white wines. Young, zesty Semillons are probably better wines than Sauvignon Blancs to accompany the sort of cuisine we enjoy in modern Australia, especially in the warmer months. Semillons take Thai influences, Mediterranean flavours, briny seafoods and sushi in their stride, yet their delicacy is perfect with simply prepared fish. Bottle-aged examples compete with Chardonnays as companions to more elaborate dishes like baked fish, smoked foods, more substantial seafood dishes, poultry or cheesy preparations.

A clear winner?

Young or old, both Hunter and Barossa Semillons proved their credentials in this tasting, but which region’s wines were better overall? If it were a competition it would be slightly in favour of the Hunter. But both regions make fantastic Semillon and it was very difficult to separate the top wines on quality. In fact the two top-scoring current releases comprised a wine from each area, as did the top two aged release wines.

At the moment there are many more producers of ‘great’ Semillon in the Hunter and the best of them are better than ever; there are only a handful of such producers in the Barossa.

Ideas of competition between these two great Australian wine regions can be overplayed. There’s a great deal of affection and mutual respect between them, and each side is very impressed with the other’s best Semillon. The real issue is how to rekindle interest in great Semillon, wherever it comes from, in a population besotted with other white wines. It will be a hard task, but the first step is having the product right, and there’s no doubting that both Hunter and Barossa Semillon’s quality credentials are up to the task.

Check out Wine Selectors great range of Semillon today.

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Wine
Australia’s Italian dream: An alternative future
Words by Adam Walls on 1 Sep 2016
The state of play tasting for this issue took an Italian turn as the Panel looked at four of Australia’s hottest new alternative varieties. When you think about cutting edge, alternative destinations in Australia, does Mildura spring to mind? If you’re a wine-lover, it should, because this small Victorian city is home to the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show (AAVWS). Held every November, the AAVWS celebrates outstanding ‘alternative’ wine styles during a week of educational and celebratory events. I had the honour of being selected as the 2015 AAVWS Fellowship winner and experienced firsthand the diversity and fun it promotes. But before I go on, let’s define ‘alternative varieties’. Firstly, they’re varieties that general wine drinkers have little knowledge and/or awareness of, and secondly, they’re relative newcomers to the Australian wine drinking scene. In the short time these varieties have called Australia home, they have generated a great deal of excitement and momentum. For a snapshot of this, you only have to look at the swell in the number of classes at the AAVWS. The 23 classes that made up the inaugural show in 2001 have grown to a total of 47 in 2015. While the quality of wines on show was high across every class, four varieties really stood out. The two white varieties, Fiano and Vermentino, and the two red varieties, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano are not only producing amazing wines, but there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of wineries producing them. Since 2010, Fiano has gone from eight to 37 AAVWS entries, and Vermentino has swelled from 15 to 38. Montepulciano has jumped from two in 2010 to 20 in 2015 and Nero d’Avola went from no entries in 2010 to 18 in 2015. This increase across these four varieties has been mirrored by the greater number of Fiano, Vermentino, Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola wines we have been tasting and offering at Wine Selectors. This begs the question, if this popularity continues, could these alternative varieties soon be held in the same esteem as the likes of Chardonnay and Shiraz? With this in mind, we set out to discover where Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano thrive and who is making the best examples. The call was put out to noted Australian producers and our Tasting Panel sipped through over 100 wines. But before we discuss the tasting, let’s give these four grapes a quick introduction. Meet the Italians While Vermentino is grown in a number of Italian regions, it’s on the island of Sardinia that it is most well-known. Famed for its notes of peach, lemon and dried herb, its high and refreshing acidity and its distinctive sea salt character, it is thought to be the same variety as the French grape Rolle. Fiano’s home is the hills of Avellino, inland from Naples in the Campania region. Famous for being full of citrus and stone fruits with racy and mouth-watering acidity, it can range in style from light and fresh to rich and mouth-coating. Montepulciano is widely grown in central Italy, but most famously in the eastern region of Abruzzo. It gives dark coloured wines full of black fruit and has softer tannins than most Italian red grapes. Nero d’Avola is the famed red grape of the island of Sicily. It makes wines with deep dark colour, high, refreshing acidity and black and red fruits. The style of Nero can range from light and fresh wines for immediate drinking to rich and dense wines that will benefit from age. In style Outstanding wines from all four varieties were revealed during our tasting with style and the region of origin emerging as hot topics of discussion. Across both Fiano and Vermentino there were two styles. The wines were either lighter in body with dominant citrus fruit flavours, or richer with more weight and pronounced stone fruit characters. Most of the richer wines were the result of the smart use of lees or subtle oak influence. So if you’re a fan of Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot G, you’ll likely enjoy the lighter styles, while lovers of modern Chardonnay will find much to enjoy in the richer examples. Unlike the whites, the two reds could be clearly differentiated from each other. Montepulciano showed off black fruits and soft, silky mouthfeel, revealing itself as a wine with mass appeal, especially to anyone who loves the fruit power of Australian Shiraz. Nero d’Avola turned out to be a more delicate, fresher style. The majority of wines were medium bodied, full of juicy black and red fruits with vibrant and lively acidity. These are wines that have immediate drinking in mind and would pique the interest of any lover of Pinot Noir or light bodied Grenache. Regional range The spread of regions featured in the tasting was inspiring. Vermentino had multiple representations from McLaren Vale, Hunter Valley, Riverland and Heathcote. Fiano was heavily represented by McLaren Vale, so it should come as no surprise that many of the region’s winemakers have heralded it as their big white of the future. The Hunter Valley, Riverland and the cooler regions of the Adelaide Hills and the King Valley also showed top class Fiano. Given Nero d’Avola loves the heat, it makes perfect sense that McLaren Vale, Riverland and Barossa were the standout regions. Montepulciano showed it can be grown successfully in both warmer and cooler climates with Adelaide Hills and Riverland dominating. The tasting clearly demonstrated that these four varieties have a big future. Not only do they offer diverse flavours and textures that complement our multicultural cuisine, but they also thrive in our hot and dry climate. This, as Kim Chalmers of Chalmers Wines notes, provides a “beacon of hope for growers wishing to continue to pursue quality wine growing in a world affected by climate change, while reducing pressure on natural resources and requiring less inputs in the vineyard and winery.” If you’d like to check out the AAVWS this year, keep the first week of November free. Judging starts on the 2nd November and full details can be found at aavws.com The Panel's Top 20 Kirrihill Wines Montepulciano 2014 La Prova Fiano 2015 Bird in Hand Montepulciano 2014 Bremerton Special Release Fiano 2015 Zarella Wines La Gita Nero D’Avola 2014 Deliquente Wines Screaming Betty Vermentino 2016 Coriole Nero D’Avola 2015 Mr Riggs Generation series Montepulciano 2014 Artwine Leave Your Hat On Montepulciano 2015 Atze’s Corner White Knight Vermentino 2015 Five Geese La Volpe Nero D’Avola 2014 Hand Crafted by Geoff Hardy Montepulciano 2014 Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards Fiano 2016 Mount Eyre Vineyards Three Ponds Fiano 2015 Chalmers Wine Project Nero D’Avola 2015 Serafino Bellissimo Fiano 2016 David Hook Vermentino 2015 Bress Silver Chook Vermentino 2015 Chalk Hill Lopresti Block 10 Vermentino 2015 Alex Russell Alejandro Nero D’Avola 2016
Wine
Green with envy: Organic wine
Words by Daniel Honan on 11 Jul 2016
This issue’s State of Play reveals that despite the challenges, Australia’s organic wine producers are a committed bunch and the proof of their dedication is in the tasting. Maurice O’Shea was Australia’s first great organic winemaker. He didn’t use synthetic chemical fertilisers to help his vines grow, he didn’t use herbicides like Round-Up to keep the weeds away, nor did he spray his Hunter Valley vines with synthetic pesticides that kill any and all bugs that dare to step a tiny foot near his verdant green vines. O’Shea was organic way before any trendy sommeliers, or some wine writers for that matter, thought it was cool. The thing is, though, O’Shea was organic because, at the time, there was no other way. He was an organic winegrower by default. There were plenty of pesticides available for him to use, but these were derived from naturally occurring (though still potentially harmful) minerals and plant products, like copper, lead, manganese, zinc, and nicotine sulphate extracted from the relatives of tobacco. All that changed after the Second World War when the scientific boffins who had developed particular products to use in explosives and chemical warfare, by manipulating molecules and rearranging atoms, also discovered that some of these new synthetic chemicals were sometimes less lethal to humans, yet still just as lethal to insects. And so, the agrochemical industry was born. What is organic wine? Nowadays, many winegrowers can choose whether to use these synthetic agrochemicals, or not. Those that do choose to use such chemicals are said to farm ‘conventionally’ – which is a little odd considering it’s a less than 100-year-old tradition – and those that choose not to use such synthetic chemicals are said to farm ‘organically’. Thus, organic wines are wines made from grapes that have been grown without the use of any synthetic chemicals. “Growing and making organic wines means no artificial herbicides, pesticides, chemicals or fertilisers are used in either the vineyard or the winery,” says Richard Angove from Angove wines in McLaren Vale. Richard is a fifth generation Angove winegrower. His family has been growing and making wine in McLaren Vale since 1886. “As a multi-generational, family-owned business, looking after our environment has always been an important philosophy. Organic farming is just a natural extension of that thinking,” says Richard. “We think that if we look after our soil, our vines will produce grapes of the highest quality every season. So, it’s important we nurture our soils to keep them healthy for many more seasons and many generations to come.” It must be said that not all regions are made the same. Some are better suited to organics than others. Climate plays a huge part in the production of any wine, but even more so with organic wines. As demonstrated by our Top 20, McLaren Vale has, perhaps, the most favourable conditions for chemical-free winegrowing in Australia. “McLaren Vale is well suited to organic viticulture,” says Battle of Bosworth winegrower, Joch Bosworth. “The climate is pretty similar to the Mediterranean, with good rainfall in winter and a generally dry growing season with low disease pressures.” By contrast, the Hunter is one of hardest regions anywhere in the world to grow wine. But, as Maurice O’Shea proved incredibly well, it can be done. These days, there are four certified producers making wine without a synthetic safety net in the Hunter Valley, and two of them feature in our Top 20. “We have long, hot, and sometimes very wet summers,” says Peter Windrim from Krinklewood. “During the growing season our vineyards are ripe for disease, but agriculture is never easy, so we just see it as another one of life’s little challenges. We’ve been certified for ten years now, so there’s no way we’ll change how we do things.” Converting to organics It’s much easier to convert your wine drinking habits over to organics than it is to convert your wine growing habits. A vineyard needs to have been farmed without the use of any synthetic chemicals for a period of three years before it can be legally recognised as being organic. For a wine producer to make any organic claims in the marketplace, including labelling their wines ‘organic’, ‘biological’, ‘ecological’, or any other word to that effect, they must be certified by one of Australia’s many organic certifying organisations, such as Australian Certified Organic (ACO). Those winegrowers who complete the conversion process must stop using artificial chemicals on their vineyard(s) if they wish to keep their certification ongoing. “We get audited at least once a year to make sure we’re complying with the standards of organic certification,” explains Jason O’Dea from Windowrie wines, in Cowra. “An inspector will arrive on the property and conduct soil tests and ask to see our paperwork, including spray diaries and receipts for various purchases related to the vineyard.” Not all wine producers who practice organic grape growing are certified, for one reason or another. For instance, Australian wine icon Henschke are known to practice organic viticulture in many of their vineyards, including the renowned Hill of Grace vineyard, but have decided not to get certified. Jasper Hill, from Heathcote, Victoria, is another of Australia’s renowned winegrowers who also don’t wish to be certified. “I’m not certified, and I don’t wish to be,” explains Ron Laughton from Jasper Hill. “I think the dirty bastards that are using chemicals on their vineyard should be licensed. Why should I be certified to be clean and do nothing harmful in my vineyard? It’s the wrong way around,” argues Ron. Tasting is believing Some say that the way organic wines are grown is better for the environment, some say they’re more sustainable, and some even say that organic wines taste better. That last one is still up for debate. In order to help you decide for yourself, have a read of our list of Top 20 organic wines from Australia, each tasted and selected by our expert panel, then grab a few bottles, taste them and decide for yourself. Top 20 Organic Wines Giant Steps Known Pleasures Shiraz 2014 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 Battle of Bosworth Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Angove Wild Olive Organic Shiraz 2014 Paxton MV Shiraz 2014 Em’s Table Riesling 2014 Kalleske Wines Rosina Rosé 2016 Pure Vision Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 Gemtree Vineyards Luna Temprana Joven style Tempranillo 2015 Cape Jaffa La Lune Field Blend 2014 Yalumba Organics Shiraz 2015 Krinklewood Biodynamic Vineyard Semillon 2015 919 Tempranillo 2013 Spring Seed Wine Scarlet Runner Shiraz 2014 Tamburlaine Block 14 Single Vineyard Malbec 2015 The Natural Wine Co. Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Rosnay Shiraz 2009 J & J Wines Rivers Lane Shiraz 2013 Ascella Wines Reserve Chardonnay 2014 Red Deer Station Shiraz 2014
Wine
Natural Wine
Words by Nick Ryan on 9 Aug 2016
Natural wine is the hottest thing in the world of wine right now, the boozy buzzword from Brooklyn to Bondi and all licensed points in between. The term ‘natural’ wine is problematic, more on that later, but in essence we’re talking about a winemaking movement that seeks to produce wines with the bare minimum of human intervention. That means no additions, no adjustments, no filtration or fining. Basically we’re talking about removing human intervention in the winemaking process from everything that happens between the picking of the fruit from the vine and crushing it to get the juice through to getting the resultant wine into the bottle. The juice begins to ferment not through the addition of commercially packaged yeast, but rather through the naturally occurring yeasts floating around in the vineyard and winery. The various options winemakers have to fill the gaps that the vagaries of vintage can create are also shunned, which means no added acid, enzyme, nutrient or tannin. Manic organics Any discussion of ‘natural’ wine will invariably touch on organic and bio-dynamic practices and while they’re intertwined, they’re not indivisibly so. When we talk about organic or bio-dynamic wines, we’re referring primarily to the farming practices in the vineyard, while most of the requirements for classifying a wine as ‘natural’ occur, or more accurately, don’t occur, within the winery. So any ‘natural’ wine worthy of the name will come from organic or bio-dynamic vineyards, but there will be wines produced from similarly certified vineyards that can’t be considered ‘natural’ because the winemakers responsible for them choose to be a little more ‘hands on’ when it comes to helping them along the journey from grape to glass. That’s just part of the difficulty with such absolutist terminology. Also tied up in this milieu are the wines that proclaim themselves ‘Orange’, not because they come from the central New South Wales wine region, but rather because they range in colour from the bruised umber of a hobo’s urine to a turbid tangerine akin to flat Fanta. Thrill or spill In essence, Orange wines are white wines made as if they were reds, meaning the juice is kept in contact with skins, often in oxidative environments, to allow the extraction of tannin, phenolic compounds and colour. This can make for some intriguing wines, but anyone expecting them to behave like conventional white wines might be seriously weirded out by the step up in texture and weight. Advocates for natural wine will say that the removal of winemaking fingerprints from these wines allows for the purest expression of terroir, a wine’s ability to express the true nature of the place from which it comes. In theory, this should be right, but experience tells me that’s not always the case. I’ve had natural wines that have thrilled me utterly and I’ve had natural wines that have made me wonder if I should rip my tongue from my mouth and wipe my arse with it rather than subject it to another drop. That’s part of the pleasure, and part of the problem, too. A natural division There is a political statement inherent in the whole ‘natural’ wine movement that makes me a little uncomfortable, an unfair juxtaposition that banishes all other wines that don’t fit the criteria into a bin implied to be ‘unnatural.’ I prefer the term ‘ low-fi’ that some of the best exponents use. It also has to be accepted that a more open-minded attitude to winemaking faults is required to enjoy a lot of these wines and I’m cool with that. There is beauty in the flawed as well as the perfect. But there is a worrying trend amongst the loudest advocates of natural wine to treat any criticism as simply the old-fashioned windbaggery of an old guard who just don’t get it and I think that’s wrong. A natural wine isn’t good just because it’s been made in line with the philosophies and methods that define the movement. A natural wine is good, just as any wine is, when it’s simply a delicious liquid you want to put in your mouth. The world of natural wine is one well worth exploring and some real thrills await those who seek them. Just remember, the best guide is always your own palate and a wine with nothing but a philosophy to commend it will always leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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