An evening of Semillon, an underrated grape variety

Bruce Tyrrell

Yesterday evening I took part in a tasting at Australia house, focused on Semillon. It’s a variety that hides in the shadows, but which excels in Australia, and specifically in the Hunter Valley. Here, it makes tremendously long lived white wines that start out life crisp, fresh and lemony. Give them a decade or more of bottle age, and they go through a magical transformation, emerging rich, complex and toasty.

I was on a panel put together by Richard Hemming, which included the two of us plus legend of the Hunter Bruce Tyrrell, and ex-Ledbury sommelier Luke Robertson. The tasting was all blind, and included Semillons from all around Australia, of different ages.

In preparing for the session, I did a bit of head scratching. Where else, other than Australia, are world class varietal Semillons made? In Bordeaux, it is a blending variety. There are a few examples from the USA, I have heard, but the only other country that makes super Semillon is South Africa, albeit on a small scale – I’m thinking of Boekenhoutskloof, Steenberg and Cape Point. At the moment, Australia owns world-class Semillon.

Some of the wines I tasted last night really impressed, but two stood out in terms of value for money. The first is the Brokenwood 2011. This is already much more perfumed and exotic than you’d expect a typical Hunter Semillon to be, but it is still recognizably Hunter. The second is the McWilliams Elizabeth 2005: this is not an expensive wine, but it is complex and fresh, and is already beginning to display some of the warm toasty notes that come with age.

Away from the Hunter, we also tried impressive Semillons from the Clare Valley, Margaret River, Queensland’s South Burnett and the Barossa. This reinforced what an interesting variety Semillon can be. Must drink more.

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

3 comments to An evening of Semillon, an underrated grape variety

  • Great post, agree with you about Semillon.

  • Bob Parsons

    Would have been an interesting tasting, have tried Brokenwood in the past. Here in Canada, La Frenz of Okanagan fame make a very nice Semillon which can age for 5/6yrs.

  • Andrew Halliwell

    Good call Bob – I may be a bit biased working here, but there are one or two Semillons cropping up in the Okanagan with some potential, even if some of it is currently blended in with Sauvignon before release. We’re miles from Australia yet, but perhaps could be one to watch.

    Wouldn’t surprise me if the Chileans had a crack too, in San Antonio or Limari or even somewhere like Itata.

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