Thomas Wines Braemore beauties

Andrew Thomas poured a 12-year retrospective of his outstanding Braemore vineyard semillon recently. Hunter Valley semillon is one of Australia’s few unique wines, and Thomas Braemore is, simply, one of the best.

The wine has always been sourced from Ken Bray’s Braemore vineyard, on Hermitage Road, Pokolbin. This is a hallowed patch of land, shared by Tyrrell’s HVD, Keith Tulloch and Casuarina, among others. Says Thomas:

“There’s a 2km strip of deep alluvial sandy loam soil, which starts at Broke Road and ends at Deasy’s Road. It’s an old water course. It’s pretty well all planted up to semillon. About 10 properties. The nearest vineyard to Braemore is Tyrrells’ HVD.”

“Braemore was planted in 1969 and has been producing top quality for nearly 50 years. Each year, it’s the best fruit we have. It’s our Grand Cru. You can taste it in the vineyard: great flavour; an intangible X-factor; amazing purity, vibrancy, depth. It has concentration of fruit within a delicate, featherweight framework, and that’s what makes Hunter Valley semillon great.”

Thomas poured Braemore semillons from 2017* (unbottled, and therefore not yet reviewed on the website) back to 2007, with 2002 as a curio. This was the last cork-sealed wine, and the bottle was sadly suffering from a less-than-perfect cork. (Thomas’s first Braemore was 2000.)

Every other wine was superb, my scores ranging in a very tight band between 95 and 97.

The 2016 back to 2011 vintages were labelled Cellar Reserve. Most Braemore is sold as a young wine, but the Cellar Reserve is a delayed release which is sold after six years: the 2011 will be released in August this year.

Somewhat curiously, the Cellar Reserve is not exactly the same wine as the early release.

“We pick 15 acres of semillon in three blocks. The 50 tonnes isn’t all picked in a day: it’s picked over one or two weeks, and there are a number of individual fermentations. I’ll have a favourite tank, and I’ll dedicate that to be the Cellar Reserve.”

Thomas estimates 80% of Braemore sold in the first 12 months is destined for current drinking.

“We are focused on-premise. Top restaurants. And it sells through fairly quickly. I bottle between 1,000 and 1,500 dozen a year, and hold back 200-300 dozen for six years.”

Thomas has some interesting ideas about the modern style of Hunter semillon.

“The idea that Hunter Valley semillon must be aged before you can look at it, is well and truly gone.

“In the past, they made lean, acidic, old-style ‘battery-acid’ semillons. They needed age to move into a stage that was approachable.”

And the modern style?

“The vineyard is paramount: you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It’s about preserving the potential quality from vine to bottle. That’s the task. No oak, no malolactic. There’s not a lot of winemaking input. We can play around with lees contact. There are little one-percenters we can use to make it acceptable young without compromising its ageing potential. Other one-percenters are cold-settling (fermenting filter-bright juice) or leaving a touch of solids as it goes into fermentation; stop it fermenting completely dry, leaving say 1-3 grams/litre of residual sugar. That sweetness is not noticeable but can help add a little generosity. But most important is post-fermentation lees contact. Yeast in suspension is what builds extra texture. We do it for 8-10 weeks. We’re trying to produce a wine that has texture that people enjoy drinking young.”

The alcohols are always at the low end, and vary little: from 10.0% to 11.5%.

“You pick when they’re ripe. That may be 10 (degrees Baumé) one year, 11 the next. You want to avoid grassiness. In the old days, they’d pick early: they didn’t have to wait because they were going to age the wine. Now, we have to think more about (how it tastes) young.”

He also said the Hunter doesn’t have the challenging seasonal conditions that it used to have regularly. And regarding ageing, he said the screw-cap had resulted in aged semillons showing less of the butter and honeycomb aged characters they use to develop under cork.

The Braemore 2002-2016 tasting notes are on the website now.

*The 2017 Braemore was about to be bottled, and the sample I saw was very much in the style and quality expected. It should be on sale by the end of this month.

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