Semillon hunting

Clare & Keith Mugford of Moss Wood Wines (Photo: Moss Wood Wines)

While I’m a great lover of Hunter Valley semillon I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with Western Australia’s efforts. Cooler and wetter Hunter seasons result in grassy, herbal semillons and these are not highly regarded locally. But in Margaret River it seems to have become acceptable for semillon to be green and grassy.

There are few wines better suited to summer, and seafood, than delicate, well-chilled semillon.

These wines often have unripe phenolics (tannins) that make the wine texturally questionable. I frankly find it difficult to enjoy drinking them. Sometimes they’re both high in alcohol as well as green, as if the winemaker was waiting and waiting for the grapes to ripen properly, and they never did. This combination is especially unappealing. When oak from barrel-fermentation is added into the equation, insult is added to injury. If the grapes are ripe, though, this bigger, barrel-fermented style can be very enjoyable.

Fast-forward to the 2018 Moss Wood Semillon, which was in my latest tasting of semillons, sauvignon blancs and blends. It was delicious. And the label read 14% alcohol, which is high for semillon, but it didn’t taste unbalanced.

Having followed Moss Wood closely for over 30 years, I was keen to read winemaker/proprietor Keith Mugford’s take on semillon. Keith has no secrets, he’s very frank, and his website reveals a lot about his methods and thinking.

To summarise, he prefers warmer seasons because the grapes get riper. For white wines, this is almost counter-intuitive, because Margaret River is not a cold region. Hence, you might expect chardonnay, semillon and sauvignon blanc to “show their brightest and most delicate characters in cooler years,” to quote Mugford. But the fact is, “they all look a bit on the green side unless we’ve had a warmer summer.” This might explain why Moss Wood semillon is usually fairly high in alcohol.

He adds that following the relatively cool, wet 2016-17 season Moss Wood was pleased to enjoy a more normal season in 2017-18.

He describes the 2018 semillon thus:

“An absolutely classic semillon combination of green apples and figs but with the added complexity of stewed pears and cinnamon. As always, there’s a touch of earthiness suggesting barrel ageing, but this is definitely not the case.”

It is a lovely wine: one of the most enjoyable Moss Wood semillons that I can remember.

There were some other excellent non-Hunter semillons in my tasting.

From Mudgee, Petersons 2012 Semillon was outstanding and is currently in that lovely stage half-way between youth and maturity. Generous complex lemon essence and lemon curd flavours. It’s a long time since I’d tried a Petersons Mudgee wine and this was a nice surprise. And just AUD $26.

Yarra Yering is one of the heavy–hitters of the wine world but isn’t known for semillon. However, winemaker Sarah Crowe, who previously worked in the Hunter, couldn’t put a foot wrong if she tried, and her 2017 (AUD $55) is fresh, creamy, crunchy and delicate; not woody – or grassy, although it’s just 11.5% alcohol. You can take the girl out of the Hunter… etc, etc.

Charlotte Dalton plies her trade in the Adelaide Hills: again, not a classic semillon region, but her 2017 Charlotte Dalton Aerkeengel Semillon (AUD $42, 11.3% alcohol) is an appropriately delicate, refined wine, its point of difference being its subtle touches of spice and vanilla derived from oak.

Back in the Hunter, two other wines of special interest:

Usher Tinkler’s 9th Fable 2018 is an extraordinary bargain at just AUD $17 (by the dozen), but you have to buy it from Cellarmasters.

Gundog Estate’s 2018 Indomitus Albus (AUD $40) is a special bottling, a subtly different take on Hunter semillon: 30% of it was wild-fermented on skins, then left on lees and skins for five months. And it has 5 grams/litre of residual sweetness. It’s a little more herbal than usual, and has a little more grip, but is a delicious drink and has the backbone to go with stronger foods than a more traditional, ultra-refined Hunter semillon.

There are few wines better suited to summer, and seafood, than delicate, well-chilled semillon.

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