When most people think of Australian wine, it’s the country’s rich and full-bodied red wine that first comes to mind. But not many people are aware that at the other end of the spectrum there is the crisp and light-bodied white wine made from 100% Semillon in Hunter Valley – it’s as underrated as it is unique.
Semillon is rich, with relatively low acidity when ripe. It’s typically blended with higher-acidity Sauvignon Blanc to create a dry, oaked white wine that is made in nearly every wine region of the world. It’s also synonymous with the world’s great Sauternes, a sweet wine made from botrytised Semillon grapes.
Just two hours’ drive north of Sydney, Hunter Valley is the oldest wine region in Australia, with Semillon growing there since the late 1800s. The region is warm and humid and experiences frequent summer rain.
Semillon is picked early to avoid the grapes turning mouldy. To preserve its delicate flavours, it’s fermented in neutral tanks or old barrels to yield a wine with naturally high acidity and only around 11% alcohol. The wine is austere when young but can develop in the bottle for more than 10 years. This is a very different style of Semillon compared to those made in other regions of Australia where the grapes are picked when they are riper and made with oak in order to produce more full-bodied, richer wine.
Because of the minimalist approach in winemaking, Hunter Valley Semillon is particularly expressive of the terroir. I recently visited Thomas Wines in Hunter Valley and was impressed by a tasting of young and aged Semillon grown in different soils.
The first two wines were from the 2022 vintage. Fordwich Hill Semillon is grown in red volcanic soil, resulting in a more generous wine with aromas of stone fruits and melon. The O.C. Semillon, on the other hand, has bright citrus, green apple and mineral notes from the sandy, loamy river soil. Both wines have vibrant acidity that complement deep-fried dishes and fresh seafood. The latter in particular pairs well with fresh oysters.
We then compared the 2022 and 2016 Braemore Semillon. Planted in 1969, Braemore is one of the three best vineyard sites in Hunter Valley, offering alluvial soil. The young 2022 wine is fresh, pure and intense, with incredible depth that guarantees it has a long life ahead. The aged 2016 has multilayered flavours of star fruit, plum, roasted nuts and herbs. The acidity is lively, with a softer edge because of its age; it drinks well now, but the wine can develop for a further 10 years in the bottle. This pair of wines perfectly showcases the longevity of Hunter Valley Semillon.
If Semillon is the star white wine of Hunter Valley, Shiraz is the standout red wine. Thanks to the often cloudy but warm climate, Hunter Valley Shiraz is more structured, with vibrant aromas of red and black fruits and often a hint of pepper, compared to the big and jammy Shiraz from Barossa in South Australia.
Unfortunately, Thomas Wines are not available in Hong Kong. However, Tyrrell’s and Mount Pleasant – arguably the two most well-known wineries in Hunter Valley – are represented here. Look out for their aged Semillon in order to explore the other side of Australian wine.
And the next time you visit Sydney, spend a few days in Hunter Valley. There are over 100 big and small wineries offering cellar-door tasting experiences. Some also have cafés, restaurants and accommodation.