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March 2, 2023updated 02 Jun 2023 12:42pm

The great white wines of Australia: Semillon

By Ken Gargett

Ken Gargett makes the case for the singular appeal of the long-lived dry Semillons of the Hunter Valley.

Australia—terrific reds, but the whites are a bit of an afterthought. That seems to be the conventional wisdom, offshore at least. All schoolchildren, of my generation anyway, knew of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem “My Country.” It was almost a second national anthem:

I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains,

Of ragged mountain ranges,

Of droughts and flooding rains.

It hardly inspires visions of immaculate vineyards, full of grapes, especially whites. (Len Evans, in his 1968 Cellarmaster Says…, paraphrased this to “I love a sunburnt white burgundy.”) And yet Chardonnay is not far short of the national drink. In Semillon, we have one of the world’s unsung superstar wines. As recently as the 1970s, 50 percent of the famous terra rossa in Coonawarra was planted to Riesling. White wine is far more important in Australia than an outsider might realize.

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The white-wine boom of the 1970s made reds the curiosities. White wine was huge. Australia was discovering table wine—and it was white. Television ads showed long-haired, flares-wearing youths in skin-tight shirts with gold chains, hiding their casks (bag-in-the-box) of white wines from their friends. Other campaigns insisted that wine would make you happy: The famous “Smile, Dr Lindeman” jingle was written by the Australian Booker Prize-winning author Peter Carey. They were not singing about reds.

Times change, pendula swing. Aussie reds moved from the greener, wannabe-Bordeaux imitations of that era, to rich, ripe, full-flavored wines with which the world fell in love. Cooler regions established themselves as sources of world-class Pinot Noir. Grenache moved from workhorse to the flavor of the month, following the example set by Shiraz several decades earlier. A far-distant, isolated surfing village called Margaret River discovered it could make world-class Cabernet. The old favorites, like Traminer/Riesling blends, became a thing of the past. Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends from the west, their “Classic Dry Whites,” have been swept away by the Kiwi Sauvalanche. The much-touted Riesling renaissance is located as firmly on the horizon as it has been for years. Semillon is one of those grape varieties far more often written about than drunk. Chardonnay is an exception, emerging in the 1970s and ’80s and establishing itself as our leading white, even if the style has changed as often as a politician’s principles.

Great whites. For most living beyond these shores, the mere mention conjures images of vicious teeth, gaping jaws, and large fins. Understandable, but when it comes to wine, Australia offers three great whites: Semillon, Riesling, and Chardonnay.

Tyrrell’s Winery in the Hunter Valley. Photography by Shutterstock.

Semillon in Australia

If it were not for the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Semillon would be little more than a footnote. As it is, it rarely attracts the attention and respect it deserves. When Jancis Robinson MW calls it “Australia’s gift to the world,” one would think that it would be on everyone’s radar. But not so—not even in Australia. Here it is very popular in New South Wales, slightly less so in Queensland, and little more than an oddity in the other states. Semillon has some offshore recognition. The UK has been a good export market, while Tyrrell’s has had some success with it in the USA.

Aside from the Hunter Valley, it is grown in many wine districts—36 of our 65 designated regions (and I’d be very surprised if many of those other regions didn’t have the odd patch or two). The Adelaide Hills in South Australia offers examples, but they tend to the pea pod, lean and green in style and flavor. The west usually blends it with Sauvignon Blanc, but that market was smashed by New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The Barossa does wooded versions (a generalization regarding the styles, of course) that were extremely popular for a while, but the vast majority of these swim in the commercial end of the pool.

At its peak, Semillon from Peter Lehmann was selling by the tanker. Not quite so much these days. Lehmann also offers a premium (unoaked) version, the Margaret, a tribute to Peter’s wife, which can age impressively, but such wines tend to be the exception. The Riverina grows more than half of all of Australia’s Semillon but does so with little fanfare, with the minor exception of the wonderfully luscious, botrytis-infected Semillons, de Bortoli’s Noble One leading the field. These, however, are a curiosity. Other regions usually offer a few examples, but it is the Hunter that is inextricably linked with Semillon in Australia.

Thanks to the generosity so typical throughout the wine industry at all levels—from maker, to consumer—when I first became interested in wine, good friends opened their cellars and I was able to see some of the long-distant, classic wines of Australia—including the Penfolds Special Bins and Lindeman’s Hunter reds from such stellar vintages as 1965. Whites were less prevalent, but I remember amazing bottles of Lindeman’s from the late 1960s and early ’70s—their so-called white Burgundies, Chablis, Riesling, and something with the curious name of Porphyry (usually, Porphyry Sauternes). There was the legendary Lindeman’s Hunter River Chablis 1970 Bin 3875, with its 18 trophies and 24 gold medals, its Hunter River White Burgundy 1968 Bin 3470, Hunter River Riesling 1968 Bin 3455, and the Hunter River Porphyry 1956 Bin 1270. The naming was somewhat misleading.

In the early days, before federation (January 1, 1901), Semillon in Australia was known as Shepherd’s Riesling. For decades after, labeling laws were not just lax but nonexistent. None of those wines I mentioned above contained a drop of Riesling or Chardonnay, despite being called “Riesling,” “Chablis,” or “white Burgundy.” (Hock was another popular name.) They were simply variations on the theme of Semillon, though I do wonder if anyone knows what exactly went into the Porphyry, and there may have been contributions from Verdelho and/or Traminer, in some of the others.

The Lindeman family purchased the Ben Ean Winery in the Hunter in 1912, after founder Dr Lindeman had passed away. The attached vineyards had been planted in 1870. These days, the oldest Semillon vines in the region are estimated to have been planted around 1900, and Lindeman’s no longer holds the vineyard gems it once did.

The problem was selling something named Semillon, hence the appropriation of European regions. (It was the red version of Grenache—putting the name on the bottle was marketing suicide.) Porphyry was named for a local vineyard that was in operation as far back as the mid-1800s. While it eventually became part of the Lindeman’s empire around the time of World War I, authorities suggest that its fruit never made its way into that wine, though records from this era are always a touch blurry. Reports also suggest that Lindeman’s eventually abandoned the vineyard.

Semillon is believed to have originated in Sauternes, where it combines with Sauvignon Blanc (and occasionally a dollop of Muscadelle) to make some of the world’s greatest sweet wines. It also features in the neighboring dry whites from Pessac-Léognan, but few places allow it more than a cameo, and then mostly in combination with Sauvignon Blanc. As a varietal, the inevitably less complex and less interesting Sauvignon Blanc gets all the love. Semillon, which can resemble it if picked before fully ripe in cooler regions, is largely ignored—a support act at best.

Australia, and in particular the Hunter Valley, took a different view. Winemakers in the Hunter valued it above all other whites. Most still do. The secret is that the Hunter is a warm region, and when Semillon is picked early, usually at between 10% and 10.5% potential alcohol, with a high level acidity still present, and then made without any oak influence at all, it becomes a bit special. While this might sound like a recipe for early drinking, Hunter Semillon can age and improve, becoming astonishingly complex—more so than almost any other white variety. In the longevity stakes, it sits right up there with Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Good vintages, especially now that they are bottled under screwcap, can last decades if well cellared. The transformation is Cinderella-like.

There was a time when it was almost ugly-duckling-to-glorious-swan stuff, but woe betide anyone suggesting that young Semillon today is a neutral, uninspiring style. I made that mistake in front of some Hunter winemakers not so long ago. Never again. The trend is very much to imbue flavor at an earlier stage, without robbing it of its longevity.

It is easy to understand why. Going up against the flood of Savvy from New Zealand, especially, means that a wine giving nothing young, no matter how much promise it has and what it might deliver in a decade, will sit on the shelves, unloved and unsold, except by and to a tiny band of aficionados. It seems that the old joke about the man who claims that he once met a bloke whose uncle’s cousin’s brother-in-law reckons he once found a Semillon that was ready to drink might be a thing of the past. Think of today’s Hunter winemakers as the Rebel Alliance up against the Sauvignon Stormtroopers.

True believers know that while younger versions might be able to offer freshness, balance, crispness, and an intriguing mix of delicacy and intensity, with gentle notes of dried herbs, lanolin, straw, and citrus, it is the aged Semillons that contend for greatness. Four to six years—though they can go for decades and are vintage dependent, of course—normally sees a transformation to a richly flavored, complex wine, often appearing to have seen oak. (It won’t have.) There will be flavors of toast, lemon butter, honey, nuts, and vanilla. The freshness and ethereal delicacy will be replaced by complexity, weight (though still well short of that from a top Chardonnay, for example), length, and depth of flavor, yet the bright, often vibrant, though soft acidity remains. An extraordinary evolution.

The restaurant and cellar door at leading Hunter Valley Semillon producer, Brokenwood. Photography courtesy of Brokenwood.

The impression that aged examples of Hunter Semillon have seen oak is a curious one. Many look for all the world as if they have, but oak just does not work here. It is age that gives that oaked impression. James Halliday tells the story of how the famous English wine expert Edmund Penning-Rowsell simply refused to believe him when he insisted that a Semillon had seen no wood. The lack of a need for oak has benefited the grape in that it has eased the cost of production, meaning that the wines can be offered at a much lower price in comparison with, say, an equivalent Chardonnay. In addition, the advent of screwcap has ensured that the wines can now age as intended rather than having to rely on the vagaries of cork. Bruce Tyrrell once told me that screwcap was going to cost him dearly—by which he meant that people would no longer need to buy a second bottle due to a first that had been oxidized or tainted.

Yet another reason why Semillon is an ideal variety for today’s wine lovers is that it can exquisitely reflect its terroir. We are seeing more and more single-vineyard Sems. The simplicity in the winemaking—no oak, for example—ensures that the wine is unencumbered by artifice and all the more representative of its site.

How Semillon took over Hunter

So, how on earth did this unlikely grape variety become the leading white in the Hunter Valley? According to Max Lake in Hunter Wine, written in 1964, Semillon seems to have arrived in Australia from two sources: in the James Busby collection via Luxembourg and from vineyards in South Africa’s Cape region. Semillon was No.60 in Busby’s catalog. Busby had provided advice supporting the planting of Semillon in the ratio of two thirds Semillon to one third of a blend of the other five Bordeaux whites—“Sauvignon, Rochalin, Blanc-Doux, Pruneras and Muscade.”

While Busby is responsible for so many of the grapes in Australia, it does seem that with Semillon, the Cape also played a major role. In the early days of that colony, Semillon was referred to as Greengrape, or Groendruif. Some of the first Cape wines were made from it, back in the mid-1600s. Jan van Riebeeck, the man considered the founder of Capetown on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, landed there in 1652, and by the end of the decade he had established vineyards, ostensibly to fight scurvy. Iain Riggs of Brokenwood kindly sent me copies of some photographed pages from a friend’s history books (although name of book and author escape) detailing life in South Africa in the late 1600s. The vines, at the time, were described as rather unsuccessful, providing “wine of a crab-like taste.” (I’ll confess that left me more than intrigued, until I realized that the reference to “crab” is to small, bitter apples.) Greengrape did, however, occupy the vast majority of the vineyards of the day.

Those who support the theory that Semillon arrived from the Cape—and personally, I agree with Riggs here, because the First Fleet picking up vines on their stopover at the Cape makes perfect sense—have Governor Phillip delivering the vines to the new settlement in 1788. It is known that many cuttings planted at Sydney Cove did not survive their first summer, but some of those that did were moved to Parramatta, where they had more success.

When Greengrape or Busby’s Semillon (whichever source one prefers, and there are supporters of both) arrived in Australia, it soon became known as Shepherd’s Riesling. Around one third of the cuttings Busby brought to Australia in the 1820s/30s went to a botanist who had established a 28-acre (11ha) nursery near what is now Sydney University (appropriately, near Vine Street). Thomas Shepherd had received the grant of land from Governor Darling (wisely naming his nursery, the Darling Nursery). It did not take him long to note the suitability of Semillon in its new surrounds and how it suffered less from disease than other varieties, despite its thin skin and large bunches. It quickly became known as Shepherd’s Riesling, or even Shepherd’s White. It is worth noting that Busby and Shepherd worked on projects together, and Shepherd was known to extol the “perseverance and indefatigable exertions of Mr James Busby.”

So, why “Riesling”? Iain Riggs believes that this is because Riesling at the time was considered the premium white grape in the world and was attracting the highest prices—so, why not? No one was particularly fussed about accuracy in labeling.

It is believed by some sources that James King, one of the Hunter’s pioneers, may first have brought Semillon to the region. He first produced wine in 1836, though whether this was from Semillon is unknown. Others suggested that it was not until 1840 that the grape made its way to the Hunter via George Wyndham, although since Shepherd passed away in 1836, this seems unlikely. Given Wyndham took grapes from Shepherd’s nursery to the Hunter in 1831 (and also purchased from the Busby plantings during the 1830s), it seems very likely that Semillon was planted in the Hunter by the early 1830s. Riggs believes that the plantings began in 1828. Exactly when is something that will never receive accord from all, but whenever it was, it did not take long before the “Shepherd” was dropped and replaced with “Hunter Valley” or “Hunter River.”

This form of lax naming lasted far longer than many realize. A few years ago, I was a last-minute addition on my uncle’s annual skiing trip when one of his friends pulled out. The first evening, around 20 of us gathered for dinner, and since some knew of my interest in wine, I was tossed the wine list. As almost everyone else on the trip was a senior surgeon or doctor of some kind, I knew that I needed to be very careful with the selection, because it would be scrutinized closely. The list was a shocker. I struggled to find a single wine anyone would want to drink. But there was one, listed as McWilliam’s Anne Riesling. (At this time, the labels had been changed to Lovedale Semillon, but the list was still years behind.) I was saved, so I thought.

Immediately, a cry went up: “I don’t like Riesling.” I had to explain that this was not Riesling—not easy, when the list contradicted that. Eventually, I got over that hurdle. Then another: “I don’t like sweet wines,” the assumption being that all Rieslings were sweet. Again, not Riesling and not sweet. I was losing the battle, so I suggested we try a bottle. After all, it was just one bottle, and we were there all week. If anyone didn’t like it, we’d find something else.

Out came the bottle, but sadly this was back in the days of cork, and McWilliam’s had more issues with dead tree bark than most. When the cork was pulled, the room was filled with the most dreadful cork taint you could imagine. Eyes were watering. Those that weren’t were staring at me, my credibility completely in tatters. I started to explain cork taint and how this was not the fault of the wine, but it was clear I was getting nowhere. I conceded defeat, tossed back the wine list, and drank beer for the week.

Back in the Hunter, we had the era of Hunter River Riesling. Or hock, Chablis, white Burgundy and more. Some even disputed that these were versions of Semillon. It might seem crazy, in these days of DNA and advanced ampelographers, that there could be such confusion, but it was simply not something that was a high priority. Winemakers were far more interested in making the best wine they could, whatever the grape variety. Supposedly, the names were given to wines according to which style they most closely resembled—but when we see wines named hock, for example, winning the medals in the white Burgundy classes in wine shows, and vice versa, it is obvious that this never really worked. These days, accuracy in labeling is essential. The confusion was perpetuated by the bottling of these wines—they were just as likely to be in what we see as the traditional Riesling bottle as those used for white Burgundies. Bottle supplies meant winemakers could not be fussy.

The standard procedure for making a classic Hunter Semillon is for harvesting to take place in late January or early February, when sugar concentration equates to around 10–11.5% ABV—far less than for other varieties, at least in Australia. Usually, skin contact is kept to an absolute minimum—the exception is if a winemaker is seeking a version more suited to early drinking. It is not uncommon to see whole-bunch pressing. Then follows clarification and, if deemed desirable or necessary, minor acid adjustment. Fermentation is to dryness, in stainless steel. This usually takes around ten days at about 55°F (13°C)—a far lower temperature than during all the years, not so long ago, when there was no refrigeration. Of course, every winemaker will have his/her variation on the theme. Filtering and fining follow, again dependent on the winemaker’s requirements. Bottling will usually occur in May/June. This does not mean that the wine will always be immediately released. Some wines may be kept in the cellar for many years before hitting the shelves.

Semillon stars

Over the history of the Hunter, many—indeed, most—producers have offered superb Semillons, but a few have stood out. In the early days, Lindeman’s, Tyrrell’s (Vat 1), and McWilliam’s (Elizabeth/Lovedale) ruled. The legendary Maurice O’Shea had purchased the Lovedale Vineyard, from the Love family and in 1946 planted Semillon there, while Tyrrell’s Vat 1 was first made in 1963. Those with experience extending well beyond my own, into the dark and distant past, also speak glowingly of wines from Drayton’s, Tulloch, and Elliott’s.

After Len Evans established Rothbury in the late 1960s, it did not take long for its Semillons to join the elite. Evans’s strength of personality was always going to ensure that happened, but the quality was certainly there—I recall the 1979s as wonderful examples. Once Riggs joined Brokenwood in 1983, it too was headed for greater things.

Riggs arrived in the Hunter from McLaren Vale, having just won their most prestigious award, the Bushing King—not for a red wine, as one would expect, but for a McLaren Vale Chardonnay, the 1982 Hazelmere Estate. 1983 was the first Brokenwood Semillon, the estate having been started some years earlier by a group of friends headed by James Halliday. The fruit was chilled, and they incorporated the use of sulfur dioxide and skin contact. And kept this up for the following three vintages. The style was “grassy and approachable.” Murray Tyrrell, with typical bluntness, pronounced that these wines would not age. As Riggs ruefully admits, “He was correct.” The style saw the wines go vegetal.

By the early 1990s, Brokenwood had conceded defeat and moved to the traditional Hunter style for the Reserve Semillon (which later became the ILR). Sadly, as Riggs says, while some really good wines were made, it was not until 2002 that they moved to screwcap, and he finds that pretty much everything before that is “stuffed.” Their procedure was to make around four Reserves a year, from their various sources. Then in time, a decision would be made as to which was the best, and it would be the released Reserve. In some years, none made the grade.

There is a constant changing of the guard. The last time I stuck my head into the Lindeman’s winery, they were promoting Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc (the joy of being part of a mega-empire, but surely an act of treachery sufficient to see their Semillon-makers card revoked immediately). McWilliam’s seems to have taken such a corporate battering of late that who knows what is happening, but there is no doubt that when it gets its act together, it has the vineyards to make truly great Semillon. (In fairness, the company was divided and sold in two parts, to the Calabria family and the Medich Family Investment Company, the latter with the Hunter assets, which have been renamed Mount Pleasant. It is perhaps too early to see where this will lead, though in a very positive sign, McWilliam’s has picked up a number of top medals in recent NSW shows and seems to be active on the Internet with a strong wine club, including a range of Semillons.) Rothbury became Hope Estate, and its focus seems to be as much on entertainment and great outdoor concerts as wine.

These days, Tyrrell’s and Brokenwood stand out as the exceptional producers, but many are nipping at their heels. Personally, I think that Andrew Thomas has done more than enough over the past 20 years to rank alongside them. Young guns are emerging, while others have perfected their craft—Gundog Estate, Usher Tinkler, de Iulius, Scarborough, Peppertree, Audrey Wilkinson, Margan, and others.

Young Semillon is ideal for delicate seafood dishes, oysters, grilled whiting, lighter Asian dishes, and more. As the wines get richer, they can accompany more complex dishes involving chicken, veal, roasts, certain cheeses, and even game.

Tomorrow will publish a selection of Ken Gargett’s favorite Australian Semillons.

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