Often described as Australia’s “greatest gift to the world of wine”, it seems – against all odds – that semillon is responsible for putting the Hunter Valley on the world wine map. Both unique in style and the ultimate regional expression, it’s Hunter Valley semillon’s ability to reflect site characteristics that has inspired so many winemakers to consistently produce wines of the highest quality, that remain quintessentially Australian, and so, so celebrated.
With origins dating back to 1736 in Bordeaux in southwestern France, semillon is perhaps best known for producing some of the most revered dessert wine styles, commanding some of the world’s top wine prices. It is however without comparison to the purity of styles produced in Australia’s first wine region that has led to semillon becoming synonymous with the Hunter Valley and vice versa.
Australia’s unsung hero is as underrated as it is unique. The pristine unoaked incarnation of the variety has the ability to transform in the bottle from a lean, crisp, fine, minerally, citrus flavoured youngster into a fine, rich, toasty, honeyed teenager with gorgeous grilled nutty flavours at its core. Taking on an almost oak like maturity over time, it’s a style that has set it apart from other great wines of the world.
Hunter semillon’s natural acidity and wonderful texture, not to mention its vigour and resistance to humidity and disease have all proven that there the variety’s immense suitability to the region. So, could it be said that if the world’s best semillon wines are arguably produced in the Hunter Valley; that the sacred semillon sites upon which these grapes are grown are the best semillon sites in the world?
According to the custodians of three of Hunter Valley’s most celebrated vineyards, Braemore, Short Flat and Lovedale, it’s an unequivocal yes.
Tyrrell’s, with its most awarded wine in Australia, Vat 1 Semillon, hailing from the Short Flat vineyard; Mount Pleasant with its historical Lovedale Semillon and Thomas with its most prized site sitting firmly in Pokolbin’s ‘dress circle’.
Ask 5th generation winemaker Chris Tyrrell what makes the relatively unknown Tyrrell’s Short Flat Vineyard so special. “Undeniably, Short Flat is one of the oldest greatest vineyard sites in the Hunter Valley. It sits on a strip of fossilised silt which runs from the base of the Brokenback Range through the winery to the other side of Broke Road. With no apparent reason for its name, it’s a 40-acre patch of hallowed dirt where revered Semillon destined for Vat 1 was planted in 1923 and also is the home of shiraz and chardonnay vines which contribute to other famous Winemaker’s Selection wines, Vat 9 Shiraz, and Vat 47 Chardonnay.”
It was during his formative years as winemaker at Tyrrell’s that Andrew Thomas, now of Thomas Wines fame, first came across pristine semillon from a vineyard planted along the ancient watercourse on Hermitage Road. Sitting amongst the she-oaks on deep sandy loam alluvial soils, the vineyard was planted in 1969. Acquired in the early 1990s by viticulturist Ken Bray and his wife Christine Moore who later named the vineyard Braemore, the prestigious site is now owned by Andrew Thomas. Now in its 23rd vintage, Thomas Wines Braemore Semillon is one of the most revered white wines in Australia. Its incredible purity, vibrancy and remarkable longevity are all attributes of this dress circle vineyard site, and a remarkable example of pure classic Hunter Valley semillon.
It is, however, likely that it was the foresight of Maurice O’Shea who really put Hunter Valley semillon on the world map when he planted the Lovedale Vineyard in 1946. He had long considered white grapes most suitable to the region, its climate and its soils, acknowledging semillon ideal for its consistency, flavour, intensity, vigour, yield and ability to age. But it was by pure chance that the ‘Hunter River Riesling’ that they ultimately planted and fought so hard to grow on the poor soil now known as the Lovedale Vineyard, was later confirmed to be semillon, not the German clone of riesling they originally set out to plant. The prestigious 75-year-old planting of gnarly twisted vines is of an unidentified semillon clone and 1% random vines scattered throughout, which is what is thought to make this sacred site so unique.
It’s the unlikely terrain where once was an ancient sea floor, alluvial flats now lay, bearing finely packed grains of earthen white sand, remnants of prehistoric molluscs and critters which once roamed, that form the optimal free draining, spectacular sandy loam soils upon which semillon thrives. Unmistakably world class, Hunter Valley semillon.