Wine Opinion

Semillon winemakers who keep the torch burning for unfashionable classic

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 February, 2015, 6:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 4:36pm

Bruce Tyrrell's description of Hunter Valley semillon as "our gift to the world" may sound too close to "God's gift to the world" for some, but for Tyrrell it's simply an honest statement of what it means to carry the torch for a classic style of wine that's deliciously unique, yet doesn't quite resonate with consumers.

Tyrrell's is one of the few companies that have made Hunter Valley semillon such an intrinsic part of their brand that their version has traction in an unwelcoming market. The risk they face is a more insidious change from within: young winemakers trying to put their stamp on this clean, unadorned style with (gasp) oak or by (shudder) stirring the lees (that is, dead yeast cells) to make the wine feel plusher. Tyrrell grittily guards against change.

Happily he's not alone. A handful of other properties have succeeded with semillon, mostly with subtle tweaks. Mount Pleasant makes one of my favourite examples from the locally renowned Lovedale Vineyard, at once lean and waxy like an elegant white taper. Brokenwood are making a more approachable version with limes, lemon grass and iodine even in youth that may just help hook a few new consumers.

The classic Hunter style is too austere for most drinkers. We're used to the punchy fruit of sauvignon blanc, the buttered toast of chardonnay or the pleasant blandness of pinot grigio. Young Hunter Valley semillon tastes aggressively of nothing. It is sharp, thin (only about 11 per cent alcohol) and, frankly, unpleasant. Knowing this, most producers make the huge capital investment of holding bottles three to four years before release.

This is fortunate, because only later does the wine show itself. Like a house packed in a briefcase it slowly unfolds until what was a tiny wine becomes almost overwhelming. It is smoke and lemons then grass and seashells then beeswax, burned toast and funkier, less obviously attractive things such as wet wool and a struck match. Many will be put off, the rest become addicted.

Rutherglen is another pocket of Australia home to a disappearing treasure. Rutherglen "stickies" muscat and Topaque (a new name for "Tokay" adopted to appease the EU) are untrendy on so many counts: they are fortified, lusciously sweet and entirely unlike the wildly popular moscato made from the same grape family. If Hunter semillon is somewhat forbidding, stickies are the opposite. They're almost too generous, like an aged relative who foists so many sweets on you that you visit only rarely, always leaving with aching teeth and a bloated gut.

Stickies are made from grapes raisined directly on the vine to gooey perfection. The next steps vary depending on which of the six remaining producers you ask, but generally the raisins are crushed and fermented briefly before neutral spirit is added (fortification). Next, some form of barrel-based blending system (solera) is used to achieve a consistent mix of older and younger wines, classified by age as Rutherglen (average three to five years), Classic (10), Grand (15) or Rare (20). At the old-school All Saints, the barrels live for years in their traditional spot under hot tin roofs, literally simmering the wines into greatness.

With high sugar levels, this is no health drink, but it is a grand one. Like all aged fortifieds, Rutherglen stickies have a complexity that is hard to describe. "Elixir-like" features on Campbell's Rare Muscat tasting sheet, with cold tea and fish oil (also dark chocolate and malt biscuits).

Still, wineries are businesses and can't be held hostage by styles few want to buy. Semillon needs years we no longer have to rise from its slumber; stickies, with their decades-long ageing process, are as alien to our modern drinking culture as a sphinx padding down Wyndham Street.

Yet a few producers have found a way to keep the torch burning. They've instinctively grasped the need for a little magic in an increasingly homogenous wine world.

Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer