Hunter Valley Semillon from Tyrrells

Understanding Semillon with Chief Operating Officer Chris Tyrrell of Tyrrell's Wines


Semillon is an age worthy and affordable white grape variety. Those of you interested to try, should turn your attention to the wine region of Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia, which is the new world’s spiritual home for this wonderful grape. However lesser known than many international varieties, it really has left it’s mark over in Australia. It’s origins however do lye in Bordeaux, France, where as an example, Semillon is part of the blend which makes the famous Sauternes wine Château d’Yquem, the one and only superior first growth of the 1855 Bordeaux classification. Put in context, this specific dessert wine is known as the greatest sweet wine of the world. But putting dessert wine aside and looking at Semillon as a dry wine and as a single variety and not as a blend, it’s the winery Tyrrells that leads the field.

Answering a few questions on the flagship grape of Hunter Valley is Chris Tyrrell, fifth generation of Tyrrell family wines. Currently Chief Operating Officer, overseeing all production, in 2012, Chris was named Rising Star at the Hunter Valley Wine Industry Association Legends Awards. 

Fun fact: Over in Europe we tend to pronounce the grape variety SEM-E-YON but over in the Hunter Valley, they say SEM-I-LON

Q. Semillon has had several names changes in Australia over the years, can you tell us the story?

A. I’m sure you’ve heard of James Busby, who was I guess the Godfather of Australian wine. So he got sent back to Europe and came back with all the different grape varieties and cuttings. There was a bloke in Sydney called Thomas Shepherd, who was the great Botanist of the time. If Busby was the academics, Thomas Shepherd was the practical, the green thumb. And it had come through South Africa and it was called Green Grape originally and then Shepherds Riesling. So Shepherd is Thomas Shepherd, and he was the man who had a big nursery right near Sydney Uni, but he was also the guy who taught people how to grow grapes and had connections to the Hunter. But it was also called Riesling as well because at the time, Riesling was the most expensive variety, ‘the stuff Southern Germany and whatnot’. So to make it, it was good. So it was called Shepherds Riesling for a long time. And then Hunter River Riesling, and everyone knew it to be Semillon, but it was marketed as Riesling. Quite strange, isn’t it?

Tyrrells Semillon Grapes

Q. Having had Semillon planted since right at the beginning of the 1900s, what have you guys learned about this grape variety?

A. It’s a really curious variety. And it works really well here, almost to, in spite of itself in many ways. And I think it’s one of these truly weird and unique situations where a grape variety and a region are so connected. And, you know, no one makes Semillon in this style anywhere in the world, not even in Australia. And it ripens differently here. We don’t get searing hot weather, but it’s Australia, we get pretty hot. In the afternoons we get this cloud cover and the humidity raises and a cool southerly breeze. So what happens is we don’t get a lot of shrivel because you get that humidity in the afternoon and it cools down a bit. But also because the humidity is a bit higher, the ripening window is actually a bit smaller, however as you get towards harvest, ripening really speeds up. So even though I think one of the big misconceptions is you pick Semillon really early because you want it to age, that’s incorrect. We pick it at lower sugars than other regions that variety is known for, but because in this region, that’s when it’s ready. So when we get to 10 and a half, 11 and a half Baumé, all of those green characters have gone in the juice. Whereas if we had this conversation in, say, the Barossa, if you looked at it at 11 Baumé, it would still be quite herbal, grassy and asparagus. The same in Margaret River and probably the same in Bordeaux. But here, the way that it ripens with more speed towards the end of harvest with that humidity you get these wonderful ripe flavors with just lower sugar levels. 

Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon
tyrrells 2016 single vineyard semillon

Q. How would you describe to somebody who doesn't know what Semillon is, what does it taste like? 

A. It’s a wine of two lives. So firstly, the most important thing to probably mention is that it’s un wooded. So all stainless steel fermentation and maturation and we bottle it pretty quickly, after about six months. And when they’re young, Hunter Valley Semillon’s are not as say aromatic as a Riesling for instance, but they’re still very much in that citrus (between lime and lemon) spectrum. And then depending on the vintage, we get things like lanolin and sometimes straw characters, If it’s a bit cooler you can get ginger and into a bit of the top end of grass as opposed to green grass. It has really vibrant acidity, with a tightly coiled pallet. It’s not too dissimilar to say an Aussie Riesling to be honest but just a bit less aromatic. The beauty of it is when we re-release them. So most of our Semillon we sell with a minimum of five years age and at which point they become super rich, super complex and one of the few wines in the world that actually takes on complexity and takes on weight as it gets older. Many wines are big and bold in your face and then fade and fade from there. Semillon is very much the other way. And that acidity mellows out a bit. And then you are talking about lemon curd and honey and all these richer waxy, toasty characters and they’re just great. You get a really powerful wine full of flavor and complexity at 11% alcohol that will give for 20, 30, keep going. Additionally they’re cheap relatively when comparing to what’s going on in White Burgundy at the moment or Chablis.

This was taken from my much longer chat and interview with Chris, featured on the Eat Sleep Wine Repeat Podcast – Episode 114. See below to have a listen, or you can find the podcast on all podcast platforms such as Apple and Spotify.

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