The Sémillon grape in Australia’s Hunter Valley, when cellared for at least a decade, provides a unique joy. For publication in week of 11 December 2017.
One of the joys of getting older is the knowledge that wines are maturing in cellars around the globe. Another joy is access to wines in the cellars of friends and family.
Early next month my mother celebrates her 90th birthday and I’ve been staying with her this past week near the Hunter Valley in Australia. My mother has several beautiful messages on the walls of her home. The most relevant says: “I’m not old. I’m just becoming vintage”.
Time is the magic ingredient in the unique wine the Hunter Valley produces: aged Sémillon. This grape variety improves radically with time. The closest comparison would be classic Riesling from Germany, which also starts to display its peacock-feathered beauty after decades. Indeed, some generations ago Sémillon from the region was labelled “Hunter River Riesling”.
Sémillon arrived in 1831 as part of collection of grapes that James Busby brought to the country. It was first planted in the hot and humid Hunter Valley where it became popular with winemakers because of its high yields and resistance to disease. The variety originated in the South West of France around Bordeaux, where it remains the most-planted white grape in the region.
Sémillon has been one of the most planted grapes in the world. In the 1820s it represented more than 90 per cent of South Africa’s vineyards, where it was known as Wyndruif. During the 1950s almost three quarters of Chile’s vineyards consisted of Sémillon.
The Hunter Valley produces Australia’s best aged Sémillon. Fruit is picked early with low sugar levels and fermented dry. In its youth Sémillon is like the character in the John Keats poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci “alone and palely loitering”. Expect aromas of lemon and lime, with a citrus-based crispness and lively acid. Some people enjoy Sémillon young, especially on a hot day. It is typically about 10 to 11.5 per cent alcohol, meaning it can be drunk with lunch and one can still return to work.
But major joys emerge with time. Aged Sémillon is class in the glass. After two decades that pale white takes on a noble hue of burnished gold. It radiates joy and golden majesty, much richer than the yellow of the daffodils Wordsworth rhapsodised about.
The aromas change from floral and white fruits to an excess of joy, if it’s possible to have excess of delight. Flavours of coconut, honey and citrus plus toasty notes with a sensation of beeswax. The kind of flavours associated with honey fresh from the hive smothered on good rye toast, with some pieces of wax still in the honey.
All this is achieved without any oak. The transmogrification is simply the product of time. The rewards of patience, to steal the slogan for the benefits of ageing that Penfolds apply to their range of great red wines.
Jancis Robinson, the doyenne of British wine writers, wrote in The Oxford Companion to Wine that Hunter Valley Sémillon was “one of the most idiosyncratic and historic wine types exclusive to the New World,” describing it as “one of the unsung heroes of white wine production”. Her understatement is too understated. Aged Sémillon is wondrous.
Most Sémillon does not receive any extra acid – known as acidification, a standard practice among some Australian winemakers. Wines with natural acidity have a softer and more refined palate compared with acidified whites that tend to feel hard or austere.
As a cellaring wine it is one of the greatest whites in the world, writes Australian wine guru Huon Hooke. He says it can live for at least two decades, often much longer. I suggest the great ones will live much longer. “When young it’s great with fresh oysters, cooked cold prawns and simply cooked white-fleshed fish,” he writes. “[and] at 10 or so years it goes with smoked trout or salmon, lobster with burnt butter, and other flavoursome dishes.” Even older Sémillon works best with full-flavoured foods such as smoked fish and smoked or roasted chicken.
Hooke maintains on his web site that Sémillon has a “quirky affinity” with the Hunter Valley because it ripens earlier than most other whites. This means it is not likely to be affected by late-summer rain. “The Hunter’s climate is unique in the sense that the weather is quite hot during the vine’s growing season, but the sunlight is moderated by coastal cloud cover. There’s also higher summer rainfall and higher relative humidity than in any Australian wine region west of the Great Dividing Range (a strip of mountains which shadows much of the east coast).”
Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley has been making Sémillon since the 1850s. Its flagship Vat 1 Sémillon was first bottled in 1962 and is a classic. I’ve had the privilege of tasting several vintages, most recently the 1998 with my brother Phillip in Newcastle.
Sadly it was his last bottle, but it will remain long in my memory. It glowed gold in the glass, with aromas and flavours of honey and toast, and with enough acidity to suggest it could have lasted at least another decade. That distinct citrus tang was still there but complimented by several layers of tertiary flavours.
Three of Tyrrell’s seven Sémillons come from a single vineyard labelled Stevens, HVD and Belford. In most years the Vat 1 is a blend of three vineyards. All come from distinct soils: sandy river flats near the winery. These four wines tend to be held back and sold about seven years after vintage. The other wines are entry level and are meant to be consumed young.
Other excellent Hunter Valley Sémillons tasted this week included the delicate 2010 and 2011 Poole’s Rock, and the 2007 Mount Pleasant Blue Label Sémillon. The Blue Label is released as “cellar-aged”. It does not have the refinement and class of the Tyrrell’s Vat 1 or the Poole’s Rock but at about half the price it is a bargain.
Another of the message on my mother’s wall is not connected to wine, but still relevant: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” I offer many thanks for the vinous kindness of friends and family.
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