Mother’s milk from Hunter hits jackpot
IWAS (vinously) suckled on Lindemans Hunter Valley semillon, in those faraway days variously labelled riesling, chablis, white burgundy and hock. The process started before I was 10 and continued through to the time I went to St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney in the mid-1950s, when I discovered there was a wine world outside Lindemans and, among many things, that there were other makers of Hunter semillon, though none so brave as to give it four names.
It started a love affair that continues to this day: top-class Hunter semillon between five and 15 years old is my favourite Australian white wine, just edging out similarly qualified riesling. So one of the great attractions of judging at the Hunter Valley Wine Show is the large number of semillon classes for young and old vintages alike.
In the terms of the show, held midAugust, current vintage means just that, 2007. These wines have been bottled somewhere between May and July, and many are already on the market, though some will be kept back for release when five years old.
In most years, judging these wines is a somewhat clinical process: they are almost watery in colour, the aroma subdued and the palate dominated by mineral acidity. The task is to uncover flavour components that at first aren’t obvious but, more importantly, to find and reward those with the greatest structure, balance and length, qualities that will change the pupae to the brilliant butterfly in the months and years ahead.
Then you have the other years. In 2005, for example, the new wines were full of lemon flavours, ranging from lemon tart to lemon juice to lemon, herb and grass. All spoke loudly and clearly. The 2007 vintage was always bound to produce wines of unusual character. It was the earliest on record; notwithstanding the early picking, the wines have an extra degree of alcohol (the typical 10.5 per cent became 11.5 per cent) but also had more natural acidity (with more lactic acidity) than usual.
The outcome has been a range of arresting wines with an exceptional range of flavours, as likely to appeal to those who normally dismiss young semillon as tasteless as to semillon aficionados. I was allotted two of the four main semillon classes by show chairman Iain Riggs and very nearly got away with a third (confiscated when Riggs realised what he had done). Thus, spread over two classes, I tasted 89 semillons from ’ 07. As I moved through the first class, I wondered what the other two judges on my panel would make of the wines.
Sometimes you get multiple jackpots, when all three judges give gold medals to several wines prior to any discussion; in others, gold medals will be scattered, some given by only one judge, others by two. As a panel chairman, I insist that any wine given a gold must be retasted along with the others, regardless of the number of golds (one, two or three) awarded.
I was very surprised to find the number of jackpots in the two classes in question. Indeed, it was mainly a discussion about which gold should be top. Hunter winemaker Jim Chatto and I were like conjoined twins but my surprise turned to amazement when Tony Guismondo (our overseas judge from Vancouver, Canada) came up with the same answers when he joined the panel for class 27.
In class four, the top gold went to the McWilliam’s Reserve, followed by the Capercaillie The Creel (already released), First Creek and McWilliam’s Elizabeth. In class 27 there was a tight contest between Brokenwood ILR Oakey Creek (top at 56.5 points), Brokenwood Stanleigh Park (56 points), followed by Meerea Park Terracotta (55.5 points). None of these wines has been released and you will have to wait five or so years for the ILRs.
You won’t have to wait so long for the debut next year of the McWilliam’s Reserve, which won two trophies, including for best current vintage dry white. But the main battles were between older wines. More on that next week.