THE ULTIMATE REWARD
Winemakers around the country are embracing semillon and working with it to produce increasingly diverse results.
Zesty, light and crisp in youth, with bright acid and citrus fruits; sometimes chalky, sometimes waxy. With time and technique, toast, honey, nougat and nuts may appear, along with grace, elegance and finesse, structure and intrigue.
This is semillon: the ultimate reward for patience and restraint, and Australia’s unique gift to the world of fine wine. Often maligned, semillon is the hero for many Aussie winemakers – not just in the Hunter Valley, but also far beyond. Multi-faceted in its blended and even amber forms, elegant and ageworthy in its more classical guises, for many, semillon is the grace of God, liquefied.
“Semillon is my obsession. I love making wine from it,” says Adelaide Hills winemaker Charlotte Hardy of Charlotte Dalton Wines. “I love the personalities I see from each vintage, batch and barrel. I love how diverse it can be – zingy and driven by acid, or ripe and rich and full. There are so many layers to semillon that constantly unfurl over time,” she adds. “Semillon is a journey.”
High among the Adelaide Hills, where chardonnay and pinot noir reign side by side, Charlotte has uncovered the jewel in Australia’s fine-wine crown. Often a synonym for the world-class wines of the Hunter Valley, semillon is winning young hearts and curious minds outside of Australia’s oldest wine region.
“I am very conscious of the fact I’m not in the Hunter Valley, and so I don’t try to emulate the style,” Charlotte says. “Here in the Balhannah district, it is lovely and cool, which allows the fruit to hang a little longer to develop flavour. When the fruit arrives in the winery, it goes straight to the press, gently, to try and avoid extracting too much seed tannin or skin phenolics. After fermentation, the wine stays on yeast lees between five and six months, stirring occasionally for texture.”
Charlotte makes two wines from semillon – the joyful Love You Love Me, and the more thoughtful Ærkeengel. Both wines are gorgeously fleshy renditions of this magical wine grape that still retain that quintessential semillon grace – something that Hunter Valley winemakers have long known and loved.
“Obviously semillon is something we’re known for in the Hunter, so to be able to work with the quality of fruit from the likes of the Lovedale vineyard, planted by Maurice O’Shea in 1946, is an absolute privilege for me,” says Mount Pleasant chief winemaker Adrian Sparks. The Hunter Valley’s sandy white soils and warm climate have proven a perfect match for semillon. Thomas Wines’ Braemore, Brokenwood’s ILR, Mount Pleasant’s Lovedale, and, arguably Australia’s most iconic white wine, Tyrrell’s Vat 1, are among the benchmarks that all hail from the little region that could.
“The soils here are the precursor to the fine-boned, low-alcohol, naturally high-acid and long-living semillon wines made from here,” Adrian says.
Liz Silkman of Silkman Wines believes natural acid is a critical aspect of Hunter Valley semillon. “We’re looking for citrus and slate, and a fineness in the structure of the wines we make,” Liz says. “Sadly, though, people still think semillon is acidic and not good drinking when it’s young. But in the past 10 years or so, the style has changed dramatically.”
Gentler and even slightly sweeter, off-dry styles of Hunter Valley semillon are beginning to emerge. Wines like De Iuliis’ fruitforward Wilderness Road Semillon, Gundog Wines Off-Dry Semillon, and Thomas Wines’ Six Degrees Semillon (featuring some 33 grams of residual sugar) are more akin to a Kabinett-style riesling than the classically stern and bone-dry semillons of old. Other new Hunter semillon styles include preservative-free examples from trendy natural wine impresarios Harkham Wines, and established Hunter brand Hungerford Hill.
“I find the textural quality of wines with no sulphur additions to be really interesting,” says Hungerford Hill winemaker Bryan Currie. “Our Preservative Free Semillon is a good example. It still has varietal character, but the palate and structure of the wine is completely different… softer and so much more approachable as a young wine.”
One time-honoured and historically significant tradition of making semillon more approachable is blending it with its buddy from Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc. Margaret River producer Vanya Cullen knows this better than most.
“We planted semillon specifically so it could be blended with sauvignon blanc,” Vanya says. “We find semillon provides a lovely
“We planted semillon specifically so it could be blended with sauvignon blanc.”
Vanya Cullen, Cullen
white floral, lemon citrus freshness to the palate, with an excellent line and length coming from the grape’s natural acidity.”
Cullen has also been experimenting with an amber wine, which in the past has blended semillon with sauvignon blanc, leaving it on skins in amphora for up to a month. “This gives the grape and the wine a completely different varietal expression,” Vanya says. Making the blend more like a red wine, with extended skin contact, Cullen’s Amber wine transforms the typical clear hue, lemon and lime fruits of semillon into faint copper-tinted wonder, with wafts of dried pears, ginger and delicate spice. It’s yet another secret of semillon for wine lovers to discover, thanks to some intuitively creative winemaking.
On the border between the Adelaide Hills and Barossa Valley, more semillon secrets are being uncovered by biodynamic winegrower Wayne Ahrens of Smallfry Wines. “Having been down the traditional barrel-ferment route with minimal market impact, and finally ending up making verjuice from our semillon vines, I got excited by the orange wines at [natural wine festival] Rootstock and tried to make a wine that could capture a whole other side to semillon,” Wayne says. “As a grape variety, it’s very good at providing a framework for the other elements of the blend to hang off. We use semillon to make our Tangerine Dream, a deep, golden orange wine that’s been really popular for us and given our old vines a new lease of life.”
“I got excited by the orange wines at [natural wine festival] Rootstock and tried to make a wine that could capture a whole other side to semillon.” Wayne Ahrens, Smallfry Wines
Harvest time at Mount Pleasant.
Mount Pleasant chief winemaker Adrian Sparks.