THE UL­TI­MATE RE­WARD

Wine­mak­ers around the coun­try are em­brac­ing semil­lon and work­ing with it to pro­duce in­creas­ingly di­verse re­sults.

Halliday - - Semillon - Words Daniel Honan

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.

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