Our alphabetical tour of the wine world continues with a trip Down Under to find a hidden gem in Hunter Valley
What’s this then?
A bit of a niche area this week, because it turns out that when you commit to the rigid structure of an alphabet-themed series there’s always one letter that throws a spanner in the works. You’d think it would be X, wouldn’t you? But hey, wine’s weird and X is no problem at all.
So let’s take a deep dive into a part of Australia that often flies under the radar over here, despite occupying roughly the same area as the whole of Wales (that renowned international standard of measurement).
Geographically it’s much, much larger than its better known compatriot to the south, Barossa, and yet has less than a fifth of the vineyard area planted – mainly because it’s a bit of a nightmare to grow grapes there due to rampant humidity and Pacific storms. And yet, out of great struggle comes great art – and the wines are undoubtedly great. That’ll be the Hunter Valley, then.
Why does it matter?
A little history first. The Hunter Valley is considered to be the birthplace of viticulture within Australia, thanks in part to the pioneering work of James Busby – a Scottish engineer who bought some of the first vines to Australia in the 1830s.
It was the first large scale winegrowing area to be planted, and many of the iconic old vines (in some cases, pushing 150 years old) that are a hallmark of New South Wales and South Australia can be traced back to James Busby’s imports; whilst the area also boasts the oldest estate (Wyndham’s) in Australia. You want historical pedigree? It’s here.
More importantly, Hunter is home to a truly unique wine style. Shiraz thrives here, as does Chardonnay, but it’s the whites made from the Semillon grape in particular that put HV on the map the world over. In an age where grape varieties, winemaking methods and styles merge across the globe, it’s refreshing to encounter something that remains decidedly different.
What does it taste like?
Semillon is an odd variety. Vigorous and thin skinned, like an irritable marathon runner, it’s best known for playing a key role in Sauternes production due to its susceptibility to botrytis, the so-called noble rot that produces lusciously indulgent sweet wines.
But it’s also used for dry whites, usually in conjunction with Sauvignon Blanc, with which it shares many a stylistic crossover. In Hunter it’s made as a single varietal and in its youth it’s piercingly taut – think fresh lime, grapefruit and livewire acidity – and checks in at a naturally lower ABV level around 11%. The fact that it’s historically mis-labelled as both Riesling (close, but no cigar) and Chablis (cue Gallic seething) gives you an idea of the stylistic area we’re in.
HV Semillon gets really fun though when it’s had some time to mature in bottle, at which point it develops a honeyed, toasty character that’ll have you swearing blind that the wines have been aged in oak.
In reality this is rarely the case – it’s just a curious, delicious quirk of the variety – but it’s not hard to see why it led to a spate of wines being mis-labelled (again!) as White Burgundy. As with aged Chenin Blanc, there’s often also a distinct lanolin note that calls to mind the peaty whiskies of the Scottish Islands.
What do I buy?
Start with Brokenwood’s Thompson’s Road Semillon, which is a great introduction to the youthful side of Semillon – and frankly, a steal at £6.99 from Waitrose. If that tickles your fancy, then Brokenwood’s ILR Reserve is a step up and can usually be found with some bottle age (CRU World Wine, £37 for 2015) to showcase the honeyed development.
Alternatively, one of the finest expressions of HV Semillon is Tyrell’s Vat 1 (Soho Wine, £38) which perfectly demonstrates the variety’s ability to taste so definitively of oak – but without ever seeing the inside of a barrel.
Pound for pound, these deliver some frankly ridiculous value for money, especially when you consider that these are wines capable of delivering drinking pleasure for years – decades, even – to come.
It’s not all Semillon here though. Those who find southern Australian Shiraz (such as those from Barossa) just a bit too bombastic may well welcome the lighter, fresher style that Hunter produces. The wines from the De Iuliis estate rarely crop up over here, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for them – or Hunting them down on your next Antipodean trip.