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Hunter Sémillon, Part One

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 22, 2008 11:51am ET

"Enjoy your rusty rainwater," said the South Australian winemaker. I had just told him I was off to Sydney, where I was planning long vertical tastings with the two leading producers of Hunter Valley Sémillon. South Australia doesn't quite understand a wine like Hunter Sémillon, which is the polar opposite of South Australia's big Barossa Shiraz, heady McLaren Vale Grenache, vigorous Clare Valley Riesling and mouthfilling Adelaide Hills Chardonnay. And in truth, neither do I.

After the two tastings I'm still not sure I'm as big a fan as are some Australians, who venerate the wines. Hunter Sémillon is Australia's own, and when it's good it can deliver beautiful textures and distinctive flavors. There isn't anything else quite like them.

One of my tastings was with Bruce Tyrrell, whose family winery, Tyrrell's, makes the celebrated Vat 1 Sémillons. See my video for his take on the wines.

It's a reserve bottling that isn't released until it's five years old. That's when the wines start to taste like something.

In the warm, wet climate of Hunter Valley, a couple of hours' drive north of Sydney, the grapes must be picked relatively early to retain their acidity and freshness. Usually, they have about 11 percent alcohol, two or three degrees less than a typical Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. When they are young, they taste tart, often a bit green and grassy. They can seem thin. Good ones transform into something else in the bottle. Somewhere between age 5 and 10, they develop richer texture, they turn silky, almost creamy, and the flavors they pick up can include beeswax, honey, toast, some say lanolin. The green character subsides, and, most confoundingly, the wines can live for decades.

At dinner with an Australia wine collector I drank a 1970 Lindemans Hunter Chablis. In 1970, Lindemans hadn't yet become the mass-market brand it is now. The company was based in the Hunter, and it made what were traditional wines for Australia. It also followed the tradition of hiding the presence of the Sémillon grape under pseudonyms such as "Chablis" and "Hunter Riesling." It wasn't until the 1980s that those aliases were dropped.

At 38 years old, that 1970 still had a sense of freshness, balance and completeness. If they all did that, Hunter Sémillons would have won me over a long time ago. But most of them just make me scratch my head.

Going through 18 vintages, the oldest being 1973, I found plenty to like but only one or two to love. My favorite wine in the tasting, the 1992 (93 points, non blind) displayed great balance, completeness and integrity, harmoniously playing its pear, pineapple and lime fruit against maturing notes of wax and cashew, lingering very well on the finish.

I also liked the 1973 (91 points, non-blind), the oldest wine in the tasting, for its honeyed, spicy aromas and hints of cashew and macadamia. Soft and round, it layered those flavors with poached pear, spices and beeswax. But the 1974 (87 points) was more typical. I found it too soft, a bit flabby, with some honeyed poached apple flavors.

The younger Vat 1 wines tasted of pears, an unusual character to find in Hunter Sémillons, which are usually more about citrus and herbs. I was generally around 87 to 89 points on most of them, with about one-third poking into the 90-91 range. We're talking about wines that cost around $45-$50 a bottle these days, more than some of the better Aussie Chardonnays, so Vat 1 to me is not as good a value. But they do last longer; the best you can hope for from an Australian Chardonnay is eight to 10 years, which is about when Hunter Sémillon is just getting started.

To be sure, many Australian wine critics rate Hunter Sémillons much higher than I do, and the wines have their fans elsewhere as well. They are so unlike wines produced anywhere else in the world, and I believe that's why the fascination. It's the uniqueness, not the sheer quality of the wines.

Next: A walk through history with the other classic Hunter Sémillon producer: Mount Pleasant, maker of wines called Elizabeth and Lovedale.

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