If Riesling is considered to be one of Australian wine’s white wine bargains, then Semillon must be Australian wine's unsung hero. Whether Semillon is heading for a renaissance or obscurity will depend largely on whether winemakers are willing to promote traditional styles of the grape while experimenting with new approaches. In this blog we will look at some of Australia’s traditional Semillon styles, the effects of regional variation and winemaker influence, and the outlook for this hugely important variety, one that should, one day soon perhaps, enjoy another day in the metaphorical sun.
Semillon: From Bordeaux To the Barossa
Originally from south-western France, Semillon is often regarded as an unassuming and somewhat unfashionable grape variety. That said, when it comes into its own in the shape of botrytized sweet wines or dry whites from areas such as the Hunter Valley, it can produce wines of outstanding character with seemingly endless cellaring potential.
As with some many European grapes, Semillon arrived in Australia in 1831 as part of James Busby’s collection and found its first Antipodean home in the warm, humid Hunter Valley. Early Hunter Valley Semillons were often misleadingly labelled Hunter River Riesling, Hock, White Burgundy or even Chablis, none of which helped promote Semillon on its own merits as a standalone variety. From its earliest days in Australia, however, it proved a popular vine with winemakers. Its vigour, ease of propagation, high yields and resistance to disease made Semillon an easy vine to like.
Hunter Valley Semillon: A Jewel In Australia’s Wine Crown
The warm, humid climate of the Hunter Valley technically shouldn’t be capable of producing Semillon with any great character. Yet Hunter Semillon is one of the wine world’s great wonders, able to morph over time from a zesty, crisp youngster into a deep golden, nutty, honey and straw-scented old-timer. Pristine winemaking is key to Hunter Semillon. Grapes are picked at a low baume (usually around 10–11% alcohol), gently handled in the winery, crushed with minimal skin and seed extract; the juice is fermented at cold temperatures in stainless steel and transferred to bottle as soon as fermentation stops.
When first bottled, Hunter Valley Semillon is almost water-white in appearance with aromas of citrus, grass, straw, lanolin, and subtle green herbs. It’s crisp and delicate with a chalky minerality. Patience pays great dividends, however, and the finest examples with high acidity and low alcohol transform after as little as five years’ in bottle, revealing honeyed, toasty, grilled nut characters – almost as if the wine has spent time in oak (even though it hasn’t). It’s these wines that make Hunter Valley Semillon one of the wine world’s great collectable wonders. Prices of these age-worthy Semillons are well within reach of most wine lovers and, under the right conditions, the transformation that occurs over time is substantial. The key point of difference in aged Hunter Valley Semillon is that the best examples will retain an identifiable stamp of primary fruit and a nucleus of fine acidity even after decades in the cellar.
One of the early proponents of Hunter Valley Semillon was Maurice O’Shea who recognised its potential as a long-lived single-varietal wine. O’Shea planted the Lovedale vineyard in 1946, releasing his first Semillon in 1950. His influence is commemorated today with Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon, an enduring, multiple award winning wine now crafted by sixth-generation winemaker, Scott McWilliam.
Collectors seeking Hunter Valley Semillon with ageing capacity should look to producers like Brokenwood, De Lulius, Keith Tulloch, McLeish Estate, Mount Pleasant, Pepper Tree and Tyrrell’s, whose iconic Vat 1 Semillon sets the benchmark for the region.
Hunter Semillon reflects its terroir with some of the finest sites, including Tyrrell’s ‘Johnno’s’ vineyard which is composed of sandy soil over limestone, showing notable minerality. Along the alluvial flats of Hermitage Road, the Braemore vineyard planted in 1969 provides pristine fruit for Andrew Thomas to create the fresh, vibrant Thomas Wines Semillon, currently celebrating its seventeenth consecutive vintage.
The Many Faces Of Australian Semillon
There are four distinct styles of Semillon in Australia:
- Unoaked single-variety
- Oaked single variety
- Blended (oaked or unoaked)
- Dessert wine
It is a vine that is found in many of Australia’s great vineyard regions, including:
- The Barossa Valley - poles apart from the freshness of the Hunter Semillons, these are the riper, richer styles which are often barrel fermented, creating a deeper, rounded, toasty style. Peter Lehmann and Grant Burge were two of the first Barossa producers to promote this style, but with tastes moving to crisp fresh whites - such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio - the popularity of this style is starting to wane. Today, more Barossa winemakers are trying the Hunter Valley Semillon approach: picking earlier and eschewing oak to create lighter, more delicate styles that are more aligned with the current market.
- The Clare Valley - creates Semillon that is slightly more structured and refined than the Barossa, yet shows good levels of richness and ripeness. The Clare Valley’s benchmark Semillon is made by Stephanie Toole at Mount Horrocks using handpicked fruit that delivers layers of white peach, apple and citrus fruit supported by French oak. Other pure Semillon Clare Valley producers include Tim Adams, Mitchell, Pauletts, Sevenhill Cellars, Taylors, Annies Lane and Kirrihill.
Australian Semillon: The World’s Best Value Desert Wines?
It’s something of an anomaly that one of the world’s greatest sweet wines comes from Australia’s wine ‘engine room’, the Riverina in New South Wales. Ironically, the region that produces most of Australia’s bulk, low-cost wine is also home to gloriously sweet, intense and complex Semillon dessert wines. How is this possible? In certain years, the Riverina experiences ideal conditions in which botrytis cinerea thrives. If the air is still, humid and foggy during ripening, noble rot surrounds the grapes, sucking moisture from the berries leaving lusciously concentrated juice creating wines with eye-opening sweetness, intensity and length. While not built for anything other than short- to medium-term cellaring, these Australian desert wines offer staggeringly good value when compared to their Bordeaux counterparts. De Bortoli Noble One is the leader from this region, with Gramps, Nugan Estate, Petersons and McWilliams close behind.
Adelaide Hills Semillon
The cool-climate Adelaide Hills produces highly respectable Sauvignon Blanc, so it stands to reason that Semillon performs just as well, reaching acceptable ripeness levels with flavour intensity. Adelaide Hills Semillon is used to best effect when it’s blended with Sauvignon Blanc (in varying proportions), contributing flavour and roundness to the more austere, sharper Sauvignon Blanc notes.
Margaret River Semillon
Margaret River’s signature white wine style after Chardonnay (some might say even before Chardonnay) is the Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend. The two varietals are inherently complementary, contributing texture, aromas and flavours that fill each other’s gaps creating a wine that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Producers exemplifying the Margaret River style include Vasse Felix, Voyager Estate, Xanadu, Were Estate, Cape Mentelle and Clairault.
If Semillon is content to let winemakers take a passive role in regions like the Hunter Valley, Adelaide Hills and Mudgee in Margaret River, it provides a tempting canvas for winemakers to influence aroma, flavour or texture.
Some Margaret River winemakers simply blend unoaked Semillon with unoaked Sauvignon Blanc to create vibrant, fruit-filled whites with crispness as sharp as an acid-drop. Others will experiment and tweak, picking blocks of grapes at varying ripeness, fermenting portions of the juice in barrel, varying the proportion fermented in stainless steel versus oak to influence depth, style, flavour and texture. It’s these wines that show what can be done with Semillon through skilful winemaking that enhances rather than hides the grape’s characteristics.
Surfing The Semillon Wave
A bunch of dedicated winemakers are experimenting with Semillon, creating exciting wines that show the potential of this delicate white wine. In Australia’s oldest wine region, newcomer Harkham Wines are applying a minimalist approach to create natural Hunter Valley wines that are intended to be ‘pure and honest; true representations of nature.’ Made without additives or preservatives, Harkham Aziza’s Semillon offers spiced grapefruit notes with hints of honey and French oak; definitely out on a limb and definitely worth seeking out.
Along with a portfolio of classically austere, crisp, dry wines, Andrew Thomas is reinventing the Hunter Valley Semillon style, creating Thomas Wines Six Degrees Semillon in an off-dry style, echoing German Rieslings of the Mosel. Fine-tuning the balance between residual sweetness and acidity, Thomas plays an interesting riff on the typical Hunter style.
In another twist on the Hunter Valley Semillon style, Bimbadgen Estate creates a unique non-vintage sparkling Semillon, giving the bright citrus flavours a boost of delicate bubbles from secondary tank fermentation using the charmat method. Entirely unoaked and highly aromatic, this crisp wine makes you wonder why more producers aren’t making sparkling Semillon. Could it be the Australia’s answer to Prosecco?
Applying organic and biodynamic farming practices, Iwo Jakimovicz and Sarah Morris at Si Vintners in Margaret River create ‘Si White’ Semillon-Chardonnay – hand harvested, whole bunch pressed and naturally fermented in concrete eggs, large format French oak and stainless steel and kept on yeast lees until bottling.
At family owned and operated Smallfry in the Vine Vale sub-region of the Barossa Valley, foodies Wayne Ahrens and Suzi Hilder make wines designed to coax the best out of food. Their Smallfry ‘Tangerine Dream’ is predominantly Semillon rounded out with Pedro Ximenez, Riesling, Rousanne and Muscat. This intriguing wine is slightly cloudy in appearance, with an almost saline hint and oily texture carrying the layers of flavours.
David Franz, son of winemaking legend Peter Lehmann, has a distinct advantage before he even starts to make his Long Gully Road Barossa Valley Semillon: the fruit is picked from prized 129-year-old vines. This dry-grown Madeira clone Semillon creates a wine with waxed lemon and dried herb aromas leading to a super-light juicy palate.
In the Clare Valley, Jeffrey Grosset blends Semillon with the ancient Italian Fiano grape, whole-bunch pressed and separately tank fermented, to create Grosset Apiana. This textural wine shows lemony wildflower characters with a lengthy, savoury profile.
These efforts at reinvigorating Semillon’s conservative, dowdy, austere image could be the key to attracting a greater slice of the market and a new legion of fans. Semillon remains one of Australia’s exciting white wine discoveries and deserves a place on the best wine lists and in cellars around the world.
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