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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.

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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