A Guide to Australia’s Best Semillons

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The wine that put the Hunter Valley on the map is enjoying success from east to west. Drink pure or blended. 

Think of semillon and chances are you’ll think of the Hunter Valley. After all, semillon has been grown in the region for more than 180 years and Hunter semillon has a character and personality all of its own: lean and lemony in its youth, rich and toasty in maturity (with the best ageing gracefully for 10, 20 or more years, especially under screw cap). The Hunter winegrowers got lucky with semillon in the 1830s and they’ve been refining it ever since.

Pure semillon is rare in its homeland of Bordeaux, where it’s generally blended with sauvignon blanc – be it as a crisp, dry white Bordeaux or a lush, sweet Sauternes.

Dessert wines made from semillon were a rarity in Australia before a young winemaker discovered a patch of mouldy semillon grapes near Griffith in NSW.

Darren De Bortoli recognised the mould as Botrytis cinerea, otherwise known as “noble rot”, which turns late-harvested riesling in Germany and semillon sauvignon blanc blends in Bordeaux into an exotic nectar. 

Using unwanted grapes and with the aid of a French winemaking book, De Bortoli made a rich, complex dessert wine in the mould of Sauternes in 1982. The result was the much-awarded and lauded Noble One. Since then, other Riverina winegrowers have hopped on the botrytis semillon bandwagon.

South Australia grows a lot of semillon, although it keeps a modest profile. Half a century ago, it was called “white Burgundy” and sold like hotcakes. Stephanie Toole makes her Mount Horrocks Semillon much like a white Bordeaux, with oak building its structure, depth and length. The Peter Lehmann Margaret Semillon takes the Hunter approach (sans oak) and has been known to snatch the semillon trophy from the Hunter mob on their home turf at the Sydney Royal Wine Show. 

Over in the west, semillon is reunited with its Bordeaux sibling in the form of Margaret River semillon sauvignon blanc (with or without some oak influences) – the Australian benchmark. A few brave winegrowers in the west allow semillon to fly solo: Ashbrook, Lenton Brae and Moss Wood, to name a few.

Rather than the austerity of the Hunter semillons, the Margaret River style is richer, with an unctuous texture, as the grapes are picked at full maturity and boast abundant flavour, high sugars and correspondingly higher alcohol. In fact, Hunter semillons weigh in at between 10.5 and 11.5 per cent, compared to around 14 per cent in semillons from the west. But, then again, everything is bigger in the west. 

2013 De Bortoli Noble One
Botrytis Semillon Riverina, NSW, $40 (375ml)

Yet another trophy at the 2016 Sydney Royal Wine Show for this intense pineapple-and apricot-perfumed icon. Meringue and lemon curd flavours are counterpoised with a rapier-like acidity. Perfect with crème brûlée.

2015 Silkman Reserve Semillon
Hunter Valley, NSW, $35 

Liz Silkman (née Jackson) has won many accolades; most recently, Winemaker of the Year at the 2016 Hunter Valley Legends Awards. This semillon is lean and lemony, with apple-fresh flavours and the zest of acidity. Serve with oysters – but hold the lemon.

2015 Moss Wood Semillon
Margaret River, WA, $39 

Winemaker Keith Mugford ferments in stainless steel and bottles early to enshrine the fresh quince, honeysuckle and pink grapefruit aromas of this semillon. Its lanolin-like texture and lemon pith flavours are just right to pair with baked snapper 

2015 Mount Horrocks Semillon
Clare Valley, SA, $33 

Fermentation in French oak (one-third new) brings a vanillin aroma and a creamy texture to the wine’s white nectarine and grapefruit flavours. Nervy acidity dances with mild-mannered tannins to sustain the finish. Enjoy with chicken Kiev (yes, really).

SEE ALSO: A Cheat’s Guide to Choosing Wine

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