Hunter Valley’s Simple Yet Complex Semillons

wine barrels on racks at Brokenwood wineryThis year’s Wine Media Conference took me to Australia’s Hunter Valley, for the first-ever overseas version of this yearly event.

This gorgeous region, which is little known outside of Australia, produces some of the world’s best Semillon wines. Both youthful versions and aged versions have been thrilling wine aficionados for decades, and I was thrilled to experience them in their natural habitat.

Semillon is the signature wine of the Hunter Valley — a region that is little known outside of Australia. The region’s dominant red grape is Shiraz — Aussie for Syrah. The latter tend to be lighter, less opulent and more nuanced versions than those produced elsewhere in Australia.

I was aware of Hunter Valley Semillons because a few of them are sold at The Wine House where I work, from iconic producers like Tyrrell’s, Brokenwood, and Silkman. Addionally, in my WSET Level 4 Diploma studies, I learned in-depth about Hunter Valley Semillons, including the effect the area’s sub-tropical climate has on the grapes in the vineyard, the winemakers’ minimal intervention approach (i.e., no oak), and the wines’ ability to age for many years. In fact, my final exam for my Diploma included one essay question comparing two wine labels, one for an aged dry white Bordeaux blanc (a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillion blend) and an aged Hunter Valley Semillon. The Old World versus New World faceoff!

Pick, Crush, Ferment, Bottle

Semillon is a white grape variety, well known as a blending partner with Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux’s dry whites from the Entre deux Mer and Graves appellations, and the succulently sweet wines of the Sauternes and Barsac appellations. Additionally, California Sauvignon Blancs often have Semillon blended in, and I prefer these versions as the grapes fill in the gaps for each other — the Sauvignon Blanc providing aromatics and searing acidity, the Semillon providing more toned down fruit and aromas and a more rounded texture.

Semillon vines are productive, easy to grow, and well-suited to the climate of the Hunter Valley, a wine region a couple hours drive northwest of Sydney, in New South Wales. The sub-tropical weather in the valley provides afternoon cloud cover and humidity that keep the vines stress-free in this otherwise hot valley, and the light, sandy soils are ideal for Semillon.

Per Liz Silkman of Silkman wines, the typical Semillon from the valley evolves from a lean, tight, coiled citrus (lemons and limes) wine for the first five years, then it grows into toasty nuttiness. The reason? Per Silkman, they don’t really know why, and it’s possibly the chemistry of the wine itself. But the winemaking approach “could not get less interventionist,” says Silkman.  The wine can sit in this evolutionary phase for five or 10 years, and then can evolve into a beautiful golden color, while retaining its acid and citrus notes. (See notes on the Tyrrell vertical tasting below.)

Rain and Lack Thereof

The Hunter’s rainfall can be plentiful and often occurs during harvest. Unfortunately, the valley has had three consecutive drought years and its water supply is at a critical level, which means drinking water, much less water for vine irrigation, is in danger of drying up completely. While we visited the Hunter, every winemaker we met expressed the need for rainfall, and the tension surrounding this issue was palpable. I was heartened to see, however, that global climate change is an accepted scientific phenomenon in The Hunter Valley, which was stated emphatically by Julie McIntyre of the University of Newcastle, who did a presentation on the history of the vine in Australia, and is also the co-author of Hunter Wine. She will be spending time this year at UC Davis as a 2019 Fulbright Scholar.

A Sampling of Semillons

As part of WBC 2019, we were invited to taste some Semillons from the more well known producers as well as many from smaller boutique producers. Following are a few of the standouts for me:

Two Rivers Stone’s Throw Semillion

2018 Two Rivers Stone's Throw Semillon

I include the 2018 Two Rivers Stone’s Throw Semillon here because it was what my husband and I drank while having a picnic lunch on a blanket at Manly Beach, to the north of downtown Sydney. This wine, while not complex or expensive, will always evoke memories of one of our favorite days in Australia. 

On that day, we boarded the ferry at Sydney’s Darling Harbor, saw the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Bridge up close, and disembarked in Manly about 40 minutes later to discover this enchanting, relaxed seaside community that offers so much. It has beautiful beaches, bustling village streets, hiking trails, lots of wildlife (including the Eastern Water Dragon), and several “bottle shops,” which we call wine stores in the US. I found the delicious bottle of Two Rivers Semillon at one of the shops for about $18 Australian, a real bargain!

It was a delightful wine, pairing well with our picnic lunch. This young Semillon is light, citrusy, and cheerful, and has been awarded many accolades, including a gold medal at the 2019 Sydney Royal Wine Show, produced by the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales. (Another fun fact about the Australian wine industry: they love and have many wine shows!) Unfortunately, I cannot find this wine for sale in the US.

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon

Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon

When you drink Tyrrell’s Semillon you are drinking Hunter Valley history. Since 1858, this family-owned winery has been growing vines and perfecting its wines, and now siblings Chris, Jane and John Tyrrell are the fifth generation to helm the business. Chris, 36, began his wine-making career in 2001 when his grandfather Murray Tyrrell passed away, and he was our excellent host for a tour of the original vineyard and winery, with its dirt floor and ancient wine vats, followed by dinner at the lauded Muse restaurant. 
Before dinner, in the barrel room of the original winery (the main operations have moved off the historic site to a modern facility), Chris Tyrrell set up a vertical tasting of Semillon and Shiraz. Of note, we tried 2019, 2009, and 1998 of Vat 1 Semillon — Vat 1 is Tyrrell’s top-line vineyard. The 2019 was light, bright and aromatic; the 2009 was lovely and rounded, and still evolving; and the 1998 was suprisingly bright and acidic, with lots of lemony citrus notes. This was the perfect example of how Semillons from the Hunter Valley can evolve and age, in this case for over 20 years, and still have some life in them. 

Tyrrells wines in glasses
Tyrrell’s 2019, 2009, and 1998 Vat 1 Semillon displayed how this wine can age beautifully.

Echoing Liz Silkman’s words, Tyrrell says, “It’s all quite simple; we crush, ferment, and bottle.” That’s the story of Hunter Valley Semillion … minimal intervention, but beautiful, complex results.

Brokenwood ILR Reserve Semillon

Stuart Horndern with Brokenwood bottle
Brokenwood senior winemaker Stuart Horndern

The Hunter Valley Wine Tourism Association hosted all attendees at Brokenwood Wines for an evening of wine tasting and mingling with about 20 of the “Legends of  Hunter Valley.” The Legends are the men and women winemakers of the region who had the most impact on the valley’s wine reputation. This beautiful winery was named 2019 Cellar Door of the Year by the Tourism Association and it is stunning (see picture below with my husband).

Brokenwood’s senior winemaker Stuart Hordern, who introduced the Legends at the event, brought his 2013 ILR Reserve Semillon to the white wine “speed tasting,” which has become a hallmark of the WMC. This classic Semillon was 100% stainless steel-aged, and had notes of brioche and bees wax, with zingy acid. It was bright and fresh and just beautiful.

Fortunately, both Tyrrell’s and Brokenwood’s wines are generally available in the US. It’s the small, boutique wineries that you are less likely to find, but they are worth seeking out while in Australia.

Bruce Nozick at Brokenwood winery
My husband Bruce at the beautiful Brokenwood Winery cellar door.

It was great to have the opportunity to explore Hunter’s Semillons, both the ones I was familiar with and new ones, while in Australia. The above is just a sample of the wines of Hunter. I hope to explore the Shiraz and other other grape varieties of Hunter in future posts, as well as the wines of the Mudgee region.

Until next time,
G’day Mate!