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Hunter Sémillon, Part Two

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 23, 2008 11:11am ET

In my continuing effort to understand Hunter Sémillon (see Hunter Sémillon, Part One, previously), I sat down with winemaker Phil Ryan to taste through two of the region's most venerable examples, from Mount Pleasant. The winery makes several levels of Sémillon, and we were focusing on the top tier: Elizabeth, a blend of the better lots from several sandy-soil vineyards, and Lovedale, a single-vineyard wine on calcareous soil from vines planted in 1946.

We did the tasting at Pier, Sydney's spectacularly-situated seafood restaurant, looking out over bobbing sailboats on Rose Bay. I relished the thought of tasting the wines with some of the most pristine and elaborately-prepared seafood I've had anywhere, but mostly I hoped for an epiphany, an "aha" moment when I would finally figure out why Hunter Sémillon has such a hold on the Australian wine world.

For one near-"aha" moment, check out my video, which I shot on the deck of the restaurant.

The history of Hunter Sémillon goes back to the 1830s, when the first vines were planted in the broad valley north of Sydney. Today's wines use basically the same process as always, Ryan said, except that technology can make things go smoother and keep the wine spanking clean.

"It's hand-picked, and we only use the free-run juice," he explained. "We crush the grapes through must chillers to prevent oxidation and to keep as much of the fruit character as possible. After that pristine first draining, we let it settle in stainless steel for two to four days, then rack to fermentation vats. When it's done, we let it sit on the fine lees for a few days, and put it right into the bottle. The first time the wine sees air is when you open the bottle."

Mount Pleasant has used only twist-offs since 2004.

When young, Hunter Sémillon is a tart little sucker. The pH is usually below 3.0, when most dry white wines are in the 3.3 to 3.5 range, but the alcohol levels are always around 11 percent, often less. The wines gain some flesh with time in the bottle, so large quantities of Elizabeth and Lovedale are released with at least five years of bottle age.

"At any given time, there are three vintages on the market," Ryan noted. "A young release, a five-year and a museum release." Currently, Mount Pleasant is selling 2007, 2003, 1999 and 1993. Visitors to the winery's cellar door can taste all four in a flight. "At nine years it has all the development character we look for, the nuts, the toast, the honey."

The young wine, Ryan suggests, is for oysters. Middle-aged wines go with prawns, and older wines can handle more complex food. We tasted 15 vintages of Elizabeth before lunch and I took several vintages to the table with me. I found the 1997 cracking good with a prawn carpaccio, dressed with a touch of soy sauce and ginger. It had the freshness to match textures perfectly. But 1981 came a cropper with servings of abalone and lobster, losing its smoothness. I would have preferred Chardonnay with either one.

I liked both wines, though. At just over 10 percent alcohol, the 1997 was supple, silky, generous with pineapple and hints of lime flowers, lingering enticingly. I rated it 91 points, non blind. The 1981 was the oldest Elizabeth, quite concentrated, very silky, with lots of honey and walnut, lingering on the finish, with enough phenolics to give it some added texture. 90 points, non-blind.

My favorite in the Elizabeth range was the 1994. Slightly smoky, it had a minty edge to the fig and pineapple fruit, with appreciable length and finesse, complexity and depth without sacrificing elegance. 92 points, non-blind. I rated most of the other Elizabeths in the mid to high 80s. The wines sell for under $20 in Australia. Though 40,000 cases typically are made, not much gets to the U.S.

The wine that came closest to making me a convert was the Lovedale 1979. From the biggest vintage ever in the Hunter, it was silky and still fresh, with subtle layers of pineapple, honey, wax and oatmeal cookie flavors, deftly balanced, very long and generous. 94 points, non-blind. When I later mentioned this wine to Australian wine collectors, they all widened their eyes and pronounced it a classic. I can see why.

But the 15 Lovedale wines were all over the board for me, from terrific ones that smelled like old Sauternes (1995, 1986), to others that felt disjointed and not too friendly (1997, 1998), but mostly they showed their power by feeling younger and fresher and more minerally than the Elizabeths. These wines sell for $40 to $45 in Australia. Even less gets to the U.S. than of the Elizabeth.

One thing that flummoxes me is how winemakers can know what to look for in young wines that taste more or less alike to me. Nothing in the 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and 2004 wines I tried indicated what they're going to become. It's like predicting how good an athlete a baby will be.

"You start tasting the grapes," Ryan explained patiently. "If the fruit is sound and clean, you can taste the flavors in the vineyard, how the wine will develop. Then it becomes a test of nerves to see who gets it right. I think you can get it in the fermentation tank better than you can once it's bottled."

For consumers, it's pretty much about track record, which is fine since the best ones have been at it awhile. There aren't very many start-up wineries specializing in Hunter Sémillon. These Mount Pleasant wines, and the Tyrrell's Vat 1s I addressed in my previous blog, are good starting points.

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