Semillon has a bit of a chequered history in Australian wine. In many regions it has been a workhorse – blended with chardonnay to make bulk wines in the Riverina, and partnered with sauvignon blanc in the classic early-drinking Margaret River dry white.
The Hunter Valley is where semillon’s reputation for fine wine in this country has been won; it is a local obsession. The early-picked, low-alcohol style retains fruit freshness, giving the wines high acidity, which allows them to stand the test of time. They begin as shy, green apple and bubblegum-scented delicacies before evolving into honeyed, richly textured white wines with their distinctive hit of lanolin.
It is a style that has been developed and honed by famous Hunter families, most notably the Tyrrells and McWilliams, now followed across the valley.
Semillon vineyards, generally on the sandy, alluvial soils, were identified long ago and their fruit is highly sought after. HVD, Stevens, Braemore and Lovedale vineyards produce wines that, when young, are delicately coloured and shy before maturing to become some of the country’s most ageworthy whites.
While not seen quite in the same light, Margaret River blends of semillon and sauvignon blanc can also be spectacular – wines that emulate the great whites from Pessac-Léognan in Bordeaux. Whole-bunch pressed, then fermented and aged in French oak with yeast lees maturation, these blends are often given less attention than the local chardonnay, but they still show immense potential in the region.
Semillon does have some similarities to chardonnay in that it is a bit of a blank canvas for winemakers and works well with a variety of winemaking techniques.
The classic Hunter Valley style utilises methods to retain fruit at every level, with cool, clean stainless steel ferments without even a whisper of oak. But semillon can also react well to wild yeast, oak ferments and maturation, yeast lees contact and even skin contact, all adding layers to this variety’s subtle personality.
Semillon, though, like most other varieties is also going through a metamorphosis. The classics from the Hunter Valley and Margaret River are still strong but there are also evolving regional styles. Perhaps the most exciting changes in the evolution of Australian semillon has been trialling of new blends and techniques – using semillon’s blank canvas to create wines with greater personality and detail.
At one end of the spectrum is Usher Tinkler’s Hunter Valley Death by Semillon, a preservative-free, skin-fermented natural wine that bears little resemblance to the usual Hunter style.
A slightly more traditional but still exotic style is that of Matt Burton at Gundog Estate, also in the Hunter. His Wild Semillon, using natural yeasts and some skin contact, gives an attractive savoury edge to the classic Hunter style. However, Burton’s most interesting wine in the range is the Indomitus Albus, a thoroughly original blend of semillon, gewürztraminer and riesling made with natural ferments, skin contact and oak influence, delivering wines with both fruit and textural complexity.
While the Indomitus Albus probably won’t age as well as the best from the Hunter Valley, this complex and incredibly food-friendly style of semillon does open new doors.
It also shows that semillon has significant untapped potential, particularly as a blending partner with a whole range of grape varieties.
2019 Tyrrell’s Johnno’s Semillon, Hunter Valley, A$90
Made with fruit from a 111-year-old vineyard, basket-pressed and fermented on lees to create a more textural style. It’s expressive for young semillon, with lanolin, peach skin and Sunlight soap fruits. Exceptional balance.
2017 Cirillo Estate 1850 Semillon, Barossa Valley, A$40
Picked early giving low potential alcohol and crisp acidity while retaining its youthful vitality. It is fuller-bodied than the Hunter equivalent, with dried grass and citrus fruits plus touches of acacia and lemongrass. Brisk acidity and powerful fruit drive a long finish.
2019 Gundog Estate Indomitus Albus, Hunter Valley, A$40
A modern take: Hunter semillon blended with local gewürztraminer and Canberra District riesling. There is also wild fermentation, plus a portion matured on skins for 142 days. Exotic and savoury notes – lychee, lanolin and frangipani. Riesling is prevalent on the palate with citrus fruits and a crisp acid bite. A great food wine.
2020 Oates Ends Semillon Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River, A$25
Semillon juice is given a little skin contact before wild ferment in old oak, with wines left on lees post-ferment for texture. The sauvignon blanc in the blend adds explosive guava and passionfruit aromas, under which are more subtle hay, green herbs and vanillin oak, with savoury elements and some textural richness rounding out an attractive package.