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The ultimate tasting of Australian Semillon

This blind tasting, put on by Wine magazine, was a brilliant (and rare) chance to try 44 different Australian Semillons in a comparative setting. My full notes, as written, are reproduced below. Those of you with a copy of February’s Wine magazine will probably be interested in comparing my scores with the averaged panel scores. (Regular wineanorak readers will know that I’m a little suspicious of averaged scores: I think the verdict of just one palate is probably more useful, because of biological, cultural and experiential differences between different tasters. But that’s a separate story.)

Compared with Semillon, Chardonnay is a relative latecomer in Australia. There was hardly any of it planted until the 1980s, when it took off explosively. Somewhat perversely, dry white wines that commonly used to be sold under the (now outlawed) generic names of 'Chablis' and 'White Burgundy' -- which in France are made from the Chardonnay grape -- were actually Aussie Semillon. Semillon held pole position among white varieties in Australia until relatively recently.

Semillon lacks the rich texture and up-front appeal of Chardonnay, and now lives in the shadow of its sexier, more glamorous peer. But it makes one of Australia’s classic wine styles: unoaked Hunter Semillon. It’s a legend. Picked at low natural alcohol, Hunter Semillon is lean and rather austere in its youth, but with a decade’s bottle age it puts on weight and character, eventually resulting in a rich, savoury toasty wine of some complexity -- a true ‘ugly ducking’ transformation. In fact, looking at my notes I see that I was convinced that the 1995 Tyrells Vat 1 Semillon, a classic unoaked Hunter wine, had actually seen new oak. It’s an easy mistake to make.

I was quite surprised by this tasting. Initially, being faced with 44 Semillons seemed a rather horrific prospect. It wasn’t. The quality of these wines was pretty good: while there weren’t many that grabbed me in a sensual sort of way, there were plenty that were savoury and balanced, with good acidity. Aussie Semillons tend to be better food wines than Chardonnays, and they’re often cheaper too. And they offer a surprising diversity of styles.

Of course, there were few aged Hunter Semillons on show, the oldest pair being from 1995. It would have been interesting to have had some venerable old examples in with their newer peers.

I scored the wines here along the guidelines given by Wine magazine. I’m not a fan of the 100 point scale, but it can be useful in this sort of scenario where a large group of wines of similar style are being assessed. Don’t get hung up on them, but I’d say that 85 is a very good score, and 90+ is verging on brilliant.

92 Vasse Felix Semillon 2000, Margaret River
Super nose: complex, aromatic and spicy with a lifted, limey character. Delicious, crisp palate with complex limey fruit and some new oak. 92/100 (£11.45 Lay & Wheeler)
92 The Willows Vineyard Semillon 1998, Barossa Valley
Deep yellow coloured. Arresting limey nose shows great intensity. Rich, concentrated, high-acid palate. A classy win but very tight knit and youthful: needs time. A young classic from the Hunter Valley? 92/100 (£8.50 Australian Wine Club, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack)
90 Bethany Barrel Fermented Semillon 2000, Barossa Valley
Forward expressive nose with lots of lemony, herby fruit and a spicy edge. Rich, full flavoured palate with creamy new oak influence. Delicious in a full-on style. 90/100 (£7.99 D&D Wines)

Ballandean Estate Semillon 1996, Queensland
Highly evolved, creamy toasty nose leads to a deliciously rich, nutty palate. Savoury and very tasty. Older Hunter Valley? 90/100 (£6.49)

88 Grant Burge Semillon 1999, Barossa
Deep yellow/gold. Attractive savoury nose shows good balance and a toasty edge. Tasty. Nicely complex palate with some well integrated new oak. 88/100 (£7.99 Andrew Chapman, Unwins)
88 Milbrovale Seven Stones Reserve Semillon 1998, Hunter Valley
Deep yellow/gold colour. Slightly muted, honeyed nutty nose. Palate is savoury and fresh with high acid. Beginning to open out. Hunter Valley? 88/100 (£8.99 McKinley Vintners)
88 Annie’s Lane Semillon 2000, Clare Valley
Full yellow/gold colour. Lovely floral, lemony edge to the nose, which is showing some toastiness too. Really crisp acid on palate and lots of dense, savoury herbal fruit. 88/100 (£6.99 Safeway)

St Hallett Semillon Select 1998, Barossa
Very deep golden colour. Complex, herby evolved nose is rich and spicy. Palate is complex and herby with soft rounded, herby fruit. Weird but nice. 88/100 (£6.99 D&D Wines)

87 Fern Hill Estate Semillon 1998, South Australia
Yellow/gold colour. Interesting herby/nutty nose leads to a savoury, dense palate. Quite a serious effort. 87/100 (£9.35 Friarwood, Virgin Wines)
87 Knappstein Lenswood Semillon 1999, South Australia
Rich, herb-tinged nose. Rich, full-flavoured style with a savoury finish. Nice. 87/100 (£10.49 Berkmann Wine Cellars)
87 Wyndham Estate Bin 777 Semillon 1999, SE Australia
Quite evolved, savoury, waxy nose with good complexity. Palate is rich and full with a slightly herbaceous edge. 87/100 (£5.99 Peake Wine Assocs)
86 Grant Burge ‘Zerk’ Old Vine Semillon 2000, Barossa Valley
Deep coloured with a striking nose: toasty, herby with a touch of spice. Lovely savoury, toasty nutty palate. This is tasty, and has probably seen some new oak. 86/100 (£7.99 Andrew Chapman, Unwins)

Henschke ‘Louis’ Eden Valley Semillon 1998
Deep yellow/gold colour, with a herby, waxy nose. Chunky, dense, savoury palate: tasty and rich. 86/100 (£12.95 Lay & Wheeler)


Xanadu Semillon 2000, Margaret River
Floral, citrus nose with some nutty, toasty notes. Palate is rich and full with attractive, herbal, nutty character and good acid. 86/100 (£8.99 Oddbins)


Glenguin 'The Old Broke Block' Semillon 1999, Hunter Valley
Lovely expressive nose with an edge of lime and crystallized fruits. Palate shows good flavour and a lemony core. Good balance; drinking well now. 85/100 (£8.49 Bibendum)


Meerea Park ‘Epoch’ Semillon 2000, Hunter Valley
Quite a full yellow colour. Toasty edge to the lemony nose and bright, full-flavoured palate. Oaked? 84/100 (£9.95 Australian Wine Club, Vin Du Vin, Wine Society)

84 Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon 1995, Hunter Valley
Deep yellow colour, with what seems to be classy, toasty new oak on the nose. Palate is lean, savoury and herbal with high acidity. Youthful. 84/100 (£19.99 Oddbins, Tanners)
84 Tim Adams Semillon 1998, Clare Valley
Quite an evolved nutty, toasty nose with a pronounced herbal edge. Savoury, high acid palate. This is quite chunky and may have seen some oak. 84/100 (£7.99 Tesco)

Simon Hackett Brightview Semillon 2000, Barossa
Interesting nose with some butterscotch notes and a touch of oxidation character. Rich, nutty palate. This is quite evolved. 83/100 (£7.49 Alexander Wines, Connolly’s, Christopher Piper)

82 Margan Semillon 2000, Hunter Valley
Racy, lemony floral nose. Nice herb-tinged fruit on the palate. Quite youthful. 82/100 (£8.99 Virgin Wines)
82 Brokenwood Semillon 1995 Aged Reserve, Hunter Valley
Deep yellow coloured with a slightly green tint. Striking herby, vegetal nose with a limey edge. Rich, savoury high-acid palate with great density of vegetal-edged fruit. Youthful and ambitious. 82/100 (£13.99 Bennets, Liberty Wines)

Tyrrell’s Old Winery Semillon 2001, Hunter Valley
Youthful aromatic, boiled sweets character to the nose. Lively, crisp but quite commercial palate. Tastes a little bit like a young Clare Valley Riesling. 82/100 (£6.99 Marco’s)


Brokenwood Semillon 2000, Hunter Valley
Crisp, lemony nose leads to a youthful lemony palate with high acid. Clean. 80/100 (£8.99 Andrew Chapman, La Reserve, Vin Du Van)


Allanmere Semillon 1999, Hunter Valley
Nutty, slightly oxidised nose with some honeyed, butterscotch notes. Rich, savoury, lean palate.  80/100 (£9.49 Arthur Rackham, Beaconsfield Wine Cellars, Great Northern Wine)


Reynolds Yarraman Semillon 1999, Hunter Valley
Deeper colour. Crisp lemony edge to the nose. Full, savoury, herby palate with a slightly off-putting vegetal note. A powerful wine. 80/100 (£7.45 Lay & Wheeler)


Rosemount Semillon 2000 SE Australia
Juicy lemon fruit with a rounded herbal edge. Commercial style. 80/100 (£6.99 Majestic)

80 Rosemount Show Reserve 1998 Hunter Valley
Rounded lemony fruit in a modern, commercial style. 80/100 (£9.99 Château Online)
78 Crabtree Watervale Semillon 1998, South Australia
Attractive honeyed limey nose with a touch of caramel. Softly fruited palate with a savoury kick on the finish. Oaky? 78/10 (£8.23 Bibendum)

Maglieri Semillon 2001, McLaren Vale
Aromatic, fresh lemony nose. Rich fruit and high acidity on the palate. Quite commercial. 77/100  (£6.99 Eldridge Pope)


Voyager Estate Semillon 1999, Margaret River
Pronounced herbal edge to the fresh nose. Ripe, rounded palate is smooth textured. Western Australia?  77/100  (£8.95 Justerini & Brooks) 

75 Glaetzer Bush Vine Semillon 1997, Barossa
Herb-tinged fruit on the nose. Crisp, lemony palate. Quite ripe but a bit dull. 75/100 (£10.45 Great Western Wine)
74 Allandale Semillon 1998, Hunter Valley
Fresh, lemony nose. Crisp, almost austere high-acid palate. Young Hunter Valley? 74/100 (£8.49 Australian Wine Club)

Coriole Lalla Rookh Semillon 1998, McLaren Vale
Pungent, herbal/vegetal edge to the nose. Crisp, lemony high-acid palate. Good density but odd. Western Australia? 74/100 (£10 Bacchanalia, Grog Blossom, Hedley Wright)


Fermoy Estate Semillon 2000, Margaret River
Youthful, slightly confected boiled sweets nose with a lemony edge. Modern, rounded, fruity palate. A commercial style. 74/100 (£7.35 Great Western Wine)


Horshoe Vineyard Semillon 1999, Hunter Valley
Unusual nose. Very herby with a waxy edge. Palate is a bit disjointed with high acidity. Strongly flavoured. 72/100 (£6.99 Charles Hawkins)


Peter Lehmann Semillon 2001, Barossa Valley
Aromatic, boiled sweets nose. Palate is rounded and a bit confected. An easy drinker. 72/100 (£5.99 Widely available)


Cranswick Estate Semillon 2001 SE Australia
Youthful commercial nose with a boiled sweets edge. Full flavoured, rounded confected palate. 70/100 (£4.99 Australian Wineries UK Ltd)


Tyrrell’s Lost Block Semillon 2000, Hunter Valley
There’s a herbal, vegetal edge to the nose. A bit of tinned pea character. Fresh, high acid palate and more of that off-putting herbal thing. 70/100 (£9.99 Connolly’s)


Millfield Semillon 1999, Hunter Valley
Unusual pungent smoky, herby nose. Crisp, high-acid style. Full flavoured but very odd. Vegetal. 65/100 (£11.99 Corney & Barrow)

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May 2002