For the love of Semillon

I know what you’re thinking: Semillon is a classic blending varietal without much personality. Even Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent, who is clearly a fan, calls it ‘innocuous’.

But that is exactly why I love it. When treated with a bit of TLC Semillon can be rich, have a lovely linear acidity and take oak incredibly well. It is also partial to a bit of botrytis, leading to some of the world’s most sought-after sweet wines.

I heart Tyrells

Now, I love a lot of varieties, from Chardonnay to Roussanne and everything in between, provided the wines are made with a bit of love.

But from the moment I first tasted Tyrells Vat 1 Semillon early in my career, the grape has always been a favourite.

It one of the first wines that I tried from the new world that wasn’t Chardonnay (yes, this is a long time ago) and I remember it being rounded, smooth and flavourful, without being dominated by oak.

Brokenwood and De Bortoli Noble One became regular purchases of mine, while Keith Tullochs’s Field of Mars Semillon is still a personal favourite: smooth, waxy, rich and packed full of flavour.

Blender par excellence

I love the myriad ways Semillon can be used to provide a rich, slightly waxy/lanolin texture to Sauvignon Blanc blends.

In fact, maybe it’s because it is such a fabulous blender in Bordeaux blanc that it is often misunderstood and underestimated. Yes, it’s a vigorous varietal, but so is Cabernet Sauvignon, and when treated correctly it can be exceptional and age incredibly well.

In Bordeaux it encompasses both ends of the spectrum, used in easy drinking wines such as those from the Entre-Deux-Mers but also dominating the age-worthy and complex wines of Graves and Pessac-Léognan.

See Château Haut-Brion blanc or La Mission Haut-Brion blanc if you’re splashing out. Otherwise, Château Chantegrive’s Cuvée Caroline is a fabulous, more affordable alternative.

And of course, if you’re looking for super long-lived expressions of Semillon, the luscious botrytised versions from Barsac and Sauternes are undeniably five-star.

No marks for appearance, but botrytis is the wonder-mould behind the sweet Semillons of Bordeaux

From France to the world

Semillon is first recorded in Bordeaux in 1736, where it was known as Sémillon de St-Émilion. It travelled to Australia in the 19th century where it took up home in the Hunter Valley region and became used as a blender everywhere else both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay alike.

In South Africa it used to be one of the most planted varieties, under the name Semillon Gris – a mutation of a grape known as Groen Durif (literally ‘green grape’) that was thought to make up 80% of the Cape’s vineyards in the 1800s.

It is still the fifth most planted white grape in South Africa today, though its profile remains strangely low.

Adi Badenhorst has cultivated grapes from the oldest Semillon vineyard on record ‘La Colline’ in Franschhoek, dating back to 1902. Marc Kent also makes use of this vineyard for both his dry Semillon and his Noble Semillon, the unirrigated bush vines coping well with Franschhoek’s arid conditions.

If you haven’t tasted it, please make it your mission to do so. It nods more to Barsac than Sauternes but in all the best ways.

Marc Kent refers to Semillon as ‘sensitive, yet nice to work with’.

Maybe we should all be a little bit more like Semillon.

Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent: a fan of Semillon

Wine Recommendations

all wines tasted February 2021

Brokenwood Semillon 2018, Hunter Valley, Australia

A really lovely racy acidity and gorgeous waxy feel to this lighter, yet flavoursome style. White fruits and grapefruit notes surround a grassy centre, with just the merest hint of acacia honey. A fab everyday style that is just a bit too easy to drink!

Having checked trade price, this reviewer feels it is best drunk at home for the bargain price of £9.99 from Waitrose.

Brokenwood wines available from Bancroft Wines.

Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2018, Franschhoek, South Africa

A beautiful waxy lanolin feel and linear acidity is backed up with white fruits a plenty, firm structure, waxy orange peel and notes of thyme and rosemary. All these sit atop a soft oak base and wonderfully long length. A hint of Muscat d’Alexandre (approximately 2%) here adds just the right amount of perfume to the nose without detracting from the Semillon itself. Arguably a tad too young, this will benefit from 3-5 years age.

New Generation, £20.42 Ex VAT

Château de Chantegrive, Cuvée Caroline 2018, Graves, Bordeaux

A 50/50 blend with Sauvignon Blanc the Semillon beautifully shines through here with the Sauvignon providing a smattering of aromatic and supporting acidity. Honeysuckle, lemon peel and tangerine are just some of the glorious flavours here. All beautifully wrapped in vanilla tinged oak and an extremely long length to boot. Gorgeous and very drinkable now but will happily age.

Berry Brothers & Rudd, £18 Ex Vat

Discovery Tasting: Yalumba

There’s nothing that you guys like more than a bit of heritage, so it was no surprise that our Yalumba Discovery Tasting was hugely over-subscribed. Not only is it the oldest family-owned winery in Australia, but we were getting to taste the very top end of their portfolio, from the Rare and Fine collection of wines.

Yalumba began back in 1849, when Samuel Smith, a brewer, who had arrived in Australia from Dorset, came back to his family in the Barossa with $300 in his pocket from the Victoria gold rush – a small fortune back then. He rented 80 acres of land, bought a horse and put his first vines into the earth.

A mere 171 years later, we were privileged to have a sixth-generation family member, Jess Hill Smith, pouring the wines and giving us the stories, alongside veteran winemaker Louisa Rose, who will be starting work on her 30th vintage at the company any time now.

It quickly became obvious that this was a tasting of two halves – of in-depth winemaking and viticultural information, but also of stories. So whether you have customers who like to know about soil and altitude or people and history, there was something for everyone.

Highs and lows

The Barossa is made up of two valleys: The Barossa Valley – which is warmer, lower and fairly densely planted, and the Eden Valley, which despite its name is essentially up in the hills to the east. It’s here, in Angaston, where Yalumba are based.

Despite being next door to the Barossa Valley, the extra 300m of altitude has a big impact in the Eden Valley. It’s largely at 500m above sea level, compared to the Barossa Valley’s 200m, and it’s both damper, and cooler. Although the midday temperature in summer might be similar to the Barossa Valley, it takes longer to reach that temperature in the Eden Valley, and cools off faster.

Nights are cool – around 10 degrees is not uncommon in summer – giving big diurnal shifts. There are more whites planted in the Eden Valley (Chardonnay and Riesling are both popular) and the reds tend to be more perfumed and tauter in structure.

Asked to put the difference between the two in a European context, Louisa Rose said that ‘Eden Valley is not dissimilar to the northern Rhone, with the Barossa maybe more like the southern Rhone.’

As well as the family connection, there are maybe three other key elements that came through strongly in this tasting:

  • Sustainability – which runs through the whole business, but particularly in viticulture and winemaking.
  • Barrels – Yalumba are the only wine company in the southern hemisphere to have their own on-site cooperage. All of the wines tasted here had been aged in home-made barrels. ‘It’s a really important part of what we do,’ said Jess Hill Smith.
  • Old vines – Yalumba’s vineyards contain some spectacularly old vines – including some of the oldest Shiraz and Grenache vines anywhere in the world. Their influence on the wines was profound.

The Wines

The Virgilius 2016

The Virgilius is Yalumba’s top white wine – and one of the most famous Viognier’s anywhere in the world; certainly outside Condrieu. They were one of the first wineries to plant the variety, and have persevered with it to form an impressive reputation.

Key to the wine’s success is the minimal intervention and biodiverse vineyard, which, perhaps, is the difference between this wonderful wine and most underwhelming examples of the variety. ‘We couldn’t make this wine the way we do without having really healthy vineyards,’ says Louisa.

Interestingly, she says that the variety ‘behaves more like a Shiraz’ in the vineyard – and she sees parallels in the glass, too.

‘I’s got quite a lot of natural phenolics, a very low natural acidity and a moderately high alcohol,’ she says. ‘If you can’t see the colour, it’s not obvious that this is a white wine.’

All of which makes it a fascinating option for food matching. Louisa suggested trying it with red meat, but also richer, spicy food as well.

And certainly matching suggestions flooded in from our tasters. We had everything from Singapore chilli prawns and pad Thai to red duck curry, spicy crab with celeriac and tamarind chutney and fish stew with oriental spices.

Paul Robineau, from 110 de Taillevent, loved its ‘Great fruit profile of underipe tropical fruit with great savouriness – ginger, celery.’

Our tasters also noticed that, over the course of the hour, it opened up even further. Continuing the ‘white wine that thinks it’s a red’ line, Louisa recommended decanting it before serving.

‘I find it difficult to find a decent Viognier outside of Rhone valley and I think this one is really great,’ said Adam Michocki, from The Man Behind the Curtain

Tricentenary Grenache 2015

Fans of history loved this wine. It’s from a single block of 800 old vines, planted in 1889. The vines now are, Jess said, ‘enormous – they come up to my shoulder!’

‘We call this Barossa Valley Pinot,’ she continued. ‘It has the same weight to it. And Australian sommeliers use it the same way. They’re on by the glass, often on degustation menus. And they often chill it down.

‘As people are discovering these lighter bodied Barossa wines, they’re getting really excited by the concept of a light to medium bodied old vine Grenache.’

It’s a wine that has 41 days on the skins – something which Louisa says ‘gives it that silkiness on the palate’ – and time in old barrels that have no overt influence on the wine beyond letting it breathe.

It was another wine that attracted interesting food matches – often with an Asian influence; Peking duck, salt-aged beef tartare, and duck salad were all suggested.

Octavius Old Vine Shiraz 2016

This is a wine that owes its existence to the foresight of the government of South Australia, who had the foresight to quarantine the state from 1865 to the 1960s as a way of keeping phylloxera out. The result: vineyards with ancient vines that go into wines like this.

The average age of vines for the Octavius is 80 years old, but there are other key factors influencing the flavour. First of all, it’s a mix of 2/3 Barossa Valley and 1/3 Eden Valley Shiraz, with the latter adding ‘northern Rhone-like’ perfume and florals to the richness of Barossa Valley. But it’s also aged in unusual-sized 100-litre barrels – the ‘octaves’ that give it its name.

Our tasters enjoyed the lift from the Eden Valley fruit and wondered whether the winery might consider renaming it Syrah. The reaction from Jess and Louisa? Maybe not this specific wine, but watch this space…

The food matches here were more traditional. But the suggestion from Daniel Stojcic (Noble) of ‘Venison loin, parsnip, braised red cabbage, kale and pear’ a good example. Though Louisa rose’s suggestion of letting guests try it with a square of dark chocolate after the meal sparked debate.

‘It would have to be dark chocolate with no sweetness,’ said Blandford Comptoir’s Tanguy Martin. But our attendees could totally see it working.

The Signature 2015

This wine has been made by Yalumba since 1962 and it’s perhaps the wine that the company has the most affection for. For starters it’s a Cab/Shiraz blend ‘something you really don’t find outside Australia’ as Jess put it, and it’s from some of their top vineyards.

But it’s also got a great story behind it. When Jess’s Grandfather made this first ‘icon wine’ almost 60 years ago, he dedicated it to their founder, Samuel Smith. The process kicked off a tradition, and every release since has been dedicated to a member of the team at Yalumba.

‘It could be absolutely anybody. A sales rep, a vineyard worker, a family member…’

Jess Hill Smith

That year’s recipient is announced every year at the Christmas party. ‘Their names are etched into our history books for ever,’ says Jess. ‘Without them we wouldn’t be who we are today. Without them we wouldn’t have made it to 171 years.’

It was a story that our tasters loved. As well as enjoying the wine itself our sommeliers loved the story itself. ‘It gives the wine soul,’ said Wiltons’ Monica Bacchiocchi approvingly.

‘Approachable with very integrated oak. Blackfruit driven, great eucalyptus and herbal notes,’ said Paul Robineau.

The Caley 2013

The Caley is a relatively new addition to the Yalumba portfolio. The first wine was made in 2012 – a spectacularly good vintage – and the current stock in the UK is only the 2015 vintage.

It’s a blend of two regions – both with stellar reputations for their particular variety: Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Barossa Shiraz. The exact proportions change every year, though this particular vintage has the lowest percentage of Cabernet (55%) because Louisa felt it was ‘having an unusually strong influence’ on the blend. Interestingly, both Coonawarra and Barossa appear on the label.

Again, there is a good story. In 2012 the Yalumba team unearthed an old trunk full of letters that (third generation family member) Fred Caley Smith had written to his father while he travelled the world in the 1890s. It was a treasure trove of memories and impressions of the world from a 27 year-old Barossa lad, and one the family wanted to honour.

‘We were looking back to the past to come up with a wine for the future,’ explained Jess.

It was, Eden Locke Hotel’s Isobel Salamon said, a ‘beautiful story.’

‘Love the Caley 2013! So much dried herbs (thyme, rosemary) on the nose as well as tobacco and burnt vine trimmings.’ Rebecca Parker, Alchemilla

The Caley 2015

This wine had a higher (probably more typical) percentage of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon – 74%. So no surprise that it was significantly different to all the other wines tried in the tasting, which were more Barossa-like in style.

‘The terra rossa (in Coonawarra) is quite unique,’ said Louisa Rose. ‘With that incredible mass of white limestone underneath. If you look at the Caley you see that beautiful definition. It’s like a piece of silk.

‘Some tasters recently said it had great “lucidity”. I think that’s an amazing word to use describe a full-bodied red wine.’

Louisa describes the relationship between Cabernet and Shiraz as being that of a cool, poised variety (Cabernet) being ‘given a hug’ by its partner.

‘There’s a real purity and line to that 2015, which I think is delicious,’ said Louisa. ‘It has a higher percentage of Cabernet, so the Shiraz in the 2013 is maybe a bit more open and voluptuous. But the 2015 will definitely get there. I think structurally it’s spot on.’

Or, as Mana’s James Cameron put it, ‘A refreshing coolness with flavours of green olive and blackcurrant leaf, with dense black fruit and an intriguing spice. An elegant wine.’

left: Louisa Rose; right: Jess Hill-Smith

Winemaker Tasting Note Videos

If you missed the webinar you can watch the full session below or enjoy these bite-sized videos recorded by the winemaker, Louisa Rose, to learn a little more about the wines presented.

  1. The Virgilius Viognier 2017
  2. The Tri-Centurary Grenache 2015
  3. The Octavius Old Vine Shiraz 2016
  4. The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz 2015
  5. The Caley Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz 2015
  6. The Caley Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz 2013

Also included below are the tasting sheets for each wine that you can download.

Watch the full webinar

For more information about sourcing these wines contact UK importer: Fells

Australia’s king of Nebbiolo

Luke Lambert is a big believer in the potential of Italian and Spanish varieties in Australia, particularly Nebbiolo. The Sommelier Collective caught up with him to find out where he’s growing it, how he’s making it and why.

You’re a huge Nebbiolo fan. Why’s that?

I think Nebbiolo makes the best wines in the world. It’s unmatched for perfume and rustic savouriness and beauty. We spent a lot of time researching the micro-climates and soil types locally to figure on finally buying a block in Glenburn [north of the Yarra Valley] and finding the right site.

This is your new farm, right? Tell us what makes it special.

It’s slightly warmer day time temps and cooler nights means we’ll get plenty of muscle and skin tannin but still hold and show the prettiness of Nebbiolo. The soil is slightly more ferric – good rock and topsoil ratio. We’re at 350m and have a really nice steep slope in an amphitheatre that mostly faces east and shies away from our strong summer sun. Rainfall is on the low end but with the right farming and soil care I’m confident it’ll work out. We’ve now got three acres of a mix of Nebbiolo clones in and the vines are happy and healthy.

Luke Lambert with his dog Smudge, at Denton Wines in the Yarra Valley

And all low intervention, presumably?

It’s an unirrigated block, managed with organics and very gentle farming. We’re hand weeding and avoiding all chemicals other than a gentle sulphur/copper spray program. The vineyard is already full of worms and good soil biology and it feels right. It’ll be quite a few years before we make wine from the site but I’m confident we’ll get the farming right and the wine will speak of the variety and the site and we’ll have something in the glass with the right amount of bass and treble.

You’ve only just planted it, correct?

Yes. It’s still very early days. Realistically we’re ten years away from finding out what we’ve got but between now and then we’ll take no shortcuts and throw everything at it. Soil health is paramount.

Broadly, which other areas of Oz are looking promising for Nebbiolo?

I think there’s a lot of Australia that’s well suited to Italian varieties, especially in Victoria. There’s still a focus on French varieties in all regions here but climatically we’re much better suited to Italian varieties and rustic, durable Italian varieties. Nothing happens or changes quickly in the world of wine but I think the next generation of grape growers and winemakers will shift focus away from French towards Italian and maybe Spanish.

Stylistically, where do you think Australia should be aiming with the grape?

I think there’s only one way to handle Italian varieties, especially Nebbiolo, and that’s to make them “traditionally’ and let the savoury/rustic thing sing. So, wild ferment wild malo, no inert gas or sulphur early, then into old large oak. No filtration, no fining.

What does that do to the wine?

It lets the perfume lift and all you see in the glass is the soil, variety and perfume. I can’t say I’ve ever had an Italian or New World wine matured in small oak or small new oak that I liked. But that’s my personal view I guess.

I think when we met you mentioned Nerello Mascalese as something you’d like to work with. Any signs of that on the horizon?

Unfortunately there’s no vine material of Nerello available in Australia at the minute. I think it’s being worked on but a bit like Nebbiolo the right clones and material took years to come into the country. It’ll happen but may be a way off yet.

Luke Lambert Nebbiolo

Luke Lambert Chardonnay
Luke Lambert Syrah

Links

Luke Lambert’s wines are imported by Indigo Wine

See Clement Robert MW’s article on why he loves Nebbiolo here