A Lesson in Semillon

While attending the Australian Tourism Exchange in Sydney in May, Graham Howe visited Hunter Valley, birthplace of food and wine tourism in Australia.

Two hours north of Sydney, the country town of Cessnock is the gateway to the Hunter - home to more than 150 boutique cellar doors. You know you’ve arrived in wine country when you pass road signs warning, “Phylloxera exclusion zone: Do not take grapevines past here” and “Noxious weed zone: Targeting St John’s Wort today”! Heading down a line of blue gums on Broke Road - an ironic name for a winery address - we came to the first vines in Pokolbin, the hub of the Hunter Valley.  

When you spot kangaroos in the vineyards, you can only be in Australia. Driving through some of the oldest vineyards in Australia we arrived at the quaint wood, corrugated iron and stone cellar of Tyrrell’s Wines, “Australian family owned since 1858”. Scott Richardson, cellar door manager, pointed out some of Australia’s oldest Shiraz vines planted in 1879, the oldest Chardonnay vines dating back to 1908 and Semillon planted from 1908 - 1923. On a tour of the old cellar, the old red dirt floors - which control humidity in the Hunter’s hot summers - breathe living history.

Every framed centre head stave in the tasting room tell a story. Richard Irkinshaw, who has worked at Tyrrell’s for forty years, proudly pointed out the stave from the original cask used to make their iconic Vat 47 Chardonnay, Australia’s first commercial varietal Chardonnay in 1971. Another display is a stave from the original cask used to ferment and mature Vat 1 Semillon, first released in 1963 - the most awarded white wine in Australia (with over 169 trophies and 462 gold medals). Genealogy charts document the history of this fifth generation first wine family.

Tyrrell’s pioneered premium vat labels in the early 1960s, wine tourism in the 1970s, the Hunter’s first wine club and single vineyard releases in the 1990s. Over a tasting of five expressions of Semillon, I begin to understand what Bruce Tyrrell means when he declares, “Australian Semillon is a wine with two lives: vibrant, fresh and crisp when young and then wonderful toasty rich characters with five years plus in the bottle.” A display of soil samples from historic vineyards show the alluvial sandy and clay loams and limestone which produce the HVD, Belford, Stevens, Johnno’s and Vat 1 Semillon - wines with mineral edge, floral aromatics and vibrant citrus flavours.

Tasting Tyrrell vintages from 2017 back to 2008, we explore the two lives of Semillon - from the scintillating, lemon and lime character of younger wines to the honeyed, toasty lanolin quality of older wines with amazing length. The grapes are picked early after a short ripening period at low alcohols and low ph, and spend a minimum time on lees. “Semillon is the sashimi of the wine world” declares Scott Richardson enigmatically, “Our winemaking tradition is more European than new world - minimalistic, based on the expression of terroir of old dryland vineyards”.

Semillon sure is the hero variety of Hunter Valley - along with Chardonnay and Shiraz. With only 2664 hectares planted to vine (55% white), the area produces less than 2% of Australia’s wines. Yet it is home to many of Australia’s oldest wine families, has pioneered distinct wine styles, boutique single vineyard production and food and wine tourism, and wine regionalism. The official guide claims “The Hunter Valley sets the world benchmark for Semillon”. Many critics and the awards agree. In 2017, Decanter named Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon as an international wine legend.

My learning curve in Semillon continued at Brokenwood. Mandi Drew took us on a cellar tour and barrel tasting of this famous cellar founded in 1970 by the likes of wine critic James Halliday. It is home to renowned labels such as Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz - among a dozen single vineyard Shiraz, Semillon and Chardonnay wines. “We talk of CBA - Chardonnay is Back Again - not ABC (Anything but Chardonnay)”!

Mandi explained, “The beauty of Hunter Semillon is the low alcohol (11%), low sugar and high acids of early-picked grapes which allow unwooded wine to mature in the bottle. We get tremendous concentration from the small grapes from older vineyards” We tasted the (unoaked) Oakey Creek Semillon 2009 (80 year-old vines) and ILR Reserve Semillon 2009, legendary wines with amazing acidity and toasty, lanolin texture through to a LPS (Late Picked Semillon) and Sticky Wicket Semillon. I was discovering the third and fourth lives of Hunter Semillon - in best-selling blends like Cricket Pitch Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon and as a Sauterne-style dessert wine.

The Hunter Valley is also home to sixty restaurants, many at cellar-door - including some of the most renowned in New South Wales. We enjoyed a fabulous degustation menu at Muse Restaurant at Hungerford Hill created by chef Troy Rhoades-Brown (who has a two hat rating). Specialising in contemporary Australian fare, Muse has a serious focus on seasonal, locavore fare - showcasing the artisan growers of wild ingredients from berries and fruits to wood sorrel, dandelions and pinewood mushrooms, fennel, nasturtiums, herbs and greens. We enjoyed an inspired lunch of local mackerel, pumpkin coals, corn risotto and lamb, plated in creative combinations with piquant umami flavours - and sampled a few of the 16 or so Hunter Semillons.

My lesson in Semillon ended on a high note with a personalised, one-on-one tasting with Keith Tulloch, one of the legends of the Hunter Valley. A fourth generation winemaker Keith heads up the eponymous winery, Keith Tulloch Wine, a “destination address” in the valley. In a lounge-style tasting room overlooking the vineyards, he explained, “We only do sit-down wine tastings - and have a dedicated wine club room for members. We like to get visitors as close as possible to the coal-face”.

Over a tasting of KT Semillon 2016 from a dryland 50 year-old vineyard with roots in fine white river sand, Keith spoke about his passion for Semillon. “Hunter Semillon ages so well because of the chemistry. We get a perfect balance of flavour and acidity with a ph of 3 at early harvest - and low alcohols. The wines hold their brightness and primary fruit but develop secondary characteristics only after seven or eight years.”

We move onto a tasting of his iconic Field of Mars label - a classically inspired wine series named after the training fields of the Roman legions (Mars was god of war and husbandmen/farmers). This single vineyard series of the best blocks of Semillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz aims to express outstanding varietal expression, historic and regional identity. Keith declares, “I want to make a great international wine - not a great Australian wine. The most Eurocentric style of wines in Australia are made in the Hunter Valley - the elegant, lighter-bodied Hunter reds (he makes five different styles of Shiraz) and the tight, bony skeletal Semillons. We get extraordinary aromas, a zesty, mineral purity and fruit texture in our Semillon - bold nervous acidity. You need patience to get the best from Hunter Semillon before its majesty is revealed.” 

* Graham Howe attended the Australia Tourism Exchange in Sydney in May 2017 as a guest of Tourism Australia and Tourism New South Wales. See www.australia.com, www.winecountry.com.au and www.destinationnsw.com

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and www.blog.getaway.co.za - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."

Brokenwood Cellar, Hunter Valley

Old vines at Tyrrell's Cellar, Hunter Valley

Kangaroos in the vineyard, Tyrrell's Wines

Tyrrell's Single Vineyard Semillon

A stave of Tyrrell's legendary Vat 1 Semillon

Cellar tasting of Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz

Brokenwood's Sticky Wicket Semillon

Keith Tulloch Wines, Hunter Valley