Lovedale vs Haut Brion Blanc et al!
Hunter Valley Semillon is a profoundly beautiful Australian wine style with a compelling history and heritage. It has a unique voice in the world of wine, yet it has struggled to achieve universal acceptance from wine collectors. The Sydney basin is the market heartland. Although the wine is sold throughout Australia and abroad, it is regarded by many as a vinous cul-de-sac with a similar attraction to a garden gnome, a plate of jellied eels or a bag of wombat-flavoured potato chips. Hunter Valley Semillon is considered an acquired taste. Winemakers and wine aficionados love the wines, but the general commercial market has spurned this ugly duckling in favour of truly horrid concoctions like Pinot Gris or half of the so-called “alternative” grape varieties currently on the market. Fashionistas and style-merchants have filled up restaurant wine lists with the latest and hippest wine elixirs from albarino to zinfandel. Only passing interest is these days given to the once highly fashionable Hunter Valley Semillon of the 1960s and 1970s.
The last legendary Hunter Valley Semillons were the long lasting Lindemans Bin 3875 Chablis and its shorter-living counter part Lindemans Bin 3870 White Burgundy. Rothbury Estate Semillon picked up the baton during the 1970s and early 1980s and was included in the first Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine in 1990; the 1979 was a famous wine for its time. McWilliam’s Elizabeth Semillon was (and still is) a perennial show wine, picking up a swag of medals for its classicism. Released with bottle-age, collectors have long admired this wine for its complexity, richness and freshness. It is a rich man’s wine at a pauper’s price. Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon and McWilliam’s Mount pleasant Lovedale Semillon vie with each other as the regional champion; both are hugely admired for their loveliness and longevity. Even more recently a few romantics with a penchant for rejection have thrown in their hearts to revive this genre. The beautifully pitched and phenomenally balanced 2008 (and 2009) Andrew Thomas Braemore Vineyard Semillon is a particularly outstanding example of contemporary style.
It was some years back when I first visited Chateau Haut Brion at Pessac; one of the few urban vineyards of the world and classified in 1855 as a First Growth. I was treated to an extraordinary vertical tasting which finished off – as is custom in Bordeaux – with a white wine. Chateau Haut Brion Blanc is one of the world’s most expensive and rarest wines with a production of around 500 cases. Notwithstanding the nuances of vintage, it is singularly the most impressive of all Bordeaux’s dry white wines when compared to the overall genre in the same year. It is also one of the region’s most expensive white wines. Stable mate Laville Haut Brion – the white wine of Chateau La Mission Haut Brion – and Pavillon Blanc du Chateau Margaux are comparable, but largely the dry white wines of Pessac-Leognan and Graves are a sea of spearmint, herb and lemon zest. Only Domaine de Chevalier (blanc), and a few other estates each year, seem to rise above this ocean of ordinariness.
The tiny old fashioned tasting room in one of Chateau Haut Brion’s turrets can be accessed by a creaking old lift or by several flights of stairs. The visit is usually quite brief, as there are hundreds of appointments during the annual primeur pilgrimage. The final wines are always Chateau Haut Brion Blanc and Chateau Laville Haut Brion, both substantially Semillon wines with a relatively small percentage of Sauvignon Blanc and 100% barrel-fermented in new oak. As young wines they are gloriously fresh with lovely extract and viscosity. They retail for around $1000 and $500 a bottle. I have always wondered how our best Hunter Valley Semillons would stack up against these wines. I know they are completely different in style but instrinsically there is a common varietal thread and a reputation for longevity.
For many years I have been badgering away at George Wahby, the ceo of McWilliam’s and winemaker Phil Ryan to put on a media and trade tasting to compare McWilliam’s Lovedale Semillon with some of Bordeaux’s top dry white wines. The chance finally came with the launch of McWilliam’s “The Spirit of O’Shea Annual Flagship release ands a small horizontal tasting of 2005 Lovedale against five diffrenet Bordeaux whites. I was not disappointed.
As a prelude to this tasting, it is probably worth quickly talking about cork and screw cap closures. Classic Hunter Valley Semillon has a remarkable capacity for longevity. When young it is fragrant, lean and tight. As it develops an extraordinary metamorphosis takes place; the colour deepens to gold and toasty/lanolin/oilskin characters, richness and flavour complexity emerge. Unfortunately, under cork, the aging trajection has been variable. The losses through oxidation have been disastrous with up to 40% of an entire vintage thrown out. During the 1990s and 2000s McWilliam’s used a “light-box” to sort the good bottles from the bad. Although this was generally successful from a commercial sense, the overall bottle development or rate of oxidation across each vintage was still relatively inconsistent. This random-oxidation experience was not unique. It has been a huge problem with fine white wine generally. Australia has been at the forefront of screw cap innovation, yet considering the huge oxidation problems, it is astonishing that McWilliam’s only adopted screw cap closures with the 2004 Lovedale vintage. It has made a huge difference. The freshness and vibrancy of the young wine is very impactful. Although the wines may develop more slowly, I feel confident that the Lovedale style is a beneficiary.
Two bottles (out of six) of 2005 Haut Brion Blanc were cork-tainted. That was $2000 down the gurgler.
Classic Hunter Valley Semillon is one of the world’s lowest alcohol wines. The wine is generally vinified in stainless steel; the style does not suit barrel aging. Conversely many of the top Bordeaux whites, particularly from around Graves (including sub-region Pessac-Leognan) are vinified in oak. Stainless steel is also used. The percentage of new oak depends on the producer. Stylistically the wine genres are completely polarized. Young Hunter Valley Semillon is fragrant with lemony aromas and lean tight acidities. Some of the more modern styles show some yeasty richness, but generally these wines need a little time in bottle to gain more complexity and weight. Young Graves will typically have mint/ spearmint/ lemon curd aromas, minerally acidity and varying oak complexity (or none at all). They are generally weightier when young and more alcoholic (13-14.5%). Semillon is the predominant variety, although Sauvignon Blanc can account for up to 40% of the blend. Muscadelle is a bit player and can add a musky fruitiness.
2005 was a strong vintage in Bordeaux with long sunny days and cool nights. The Hunter Valley experienced a warm rather than hot summer, with unusually cool nights and intermittent rainfall. This was an above average season with some very fine wines being made.
2005 McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon (Hunter Valley - 11.5%), under screw cap was a gorgeously fresh wine with intense herbgarden/ lemon curd/ camomile aromas, excellent volume, some yeasty notes, clear cutting acidity and plenty of flavour length. Over time it will begin to develop toasty/ lime/ honey notes and more richness on the palate. At only 11.5% alcohol it is much lighter in style than the more alcoholic 2005 Bordeaux whites. (93 Points)
2005 ‘S’ de Suduiraut Blanc (Bordeaux AC – 14.5%), the dry white wine of celebrated Sauternes producer Chateau Suduiraut (Sauternes 1er Cru) was fresh with strong lemon curd aromas and flavours, strong hard acidity and plenty of new cedar-wood/ malty oak. This is a relative newcomer to the dry white Bordeaux scene. It’s a completely over barrel-worked wine with no chance of aging. The vineyards are located just down the hill from Chateau d’Yquem. This region, famous for its sweet botrytised dessert wines, occasionally makes dry table wines’; “Y’ Ygrec of Chateau d’Yquem is an other example; the wines are bottled under a general Bordeaux AC to avoid confusion. The ‘S’ de Suduiraut is definitely a work in progress and is difficult to like. (82 Points)
2005 Larrivet Haut Brion Blanc (Pessac-Leogan – 14.5%) is an odd ball wine. With around 5% Muscadelle in the blend (Semillon around 60-65%), the wine was quite musky with the lychee nuances associated with gewürztraminer. At 14.5% alcohol it seemed quite hot and disjointed. (80 Points)
2005 Domaine de Chevalier (Pessac Leognan – 13%) is a top white Graves with intense lemon curd/ pearskin/ slatey aromas and flavours, strong clear acidity, chalky texture and underlying savoury oak. This was the closest in style to the McWilliam’s Lovedale Semillon, but definitely more weightier and chewier. (93 Points)
2005 Chateau Laville Haut Brion (Pessac- Leognan – 13.5%) , the white wine of Chateau La Mission Haut Brion is a beautiful wine with lemon/ honey/ herb garden aromas and toasty oak nuances. The palate is fresh and lively with deep-set lemon curd/ toasty notes, fine indelible acidity, plenty of richness and flavour length. At around $300 a bottle, this wine sits on the cusp of value. It’s a lovely wine but it’s also expensive. (94 Points)
2005 Chateau Haut Brion Blanc (Pessac- Leognan – 14.0%), is a superb wine, but at $1000 a bottle, it is really verging on the edge of fantasy. It has lovely intense fruit definition with verbena/ lemon/ honeysuckle aromas, plenty of sweet fruit, savoury/ toasty/ grilled almond notes, long fine acidity and chalky textures. The barrel fermentation characters and new oak nuances bring superb complexity of flavour. (95 Points)
It is difficult to directly compare these two genres, but the contrast of McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Lovedale against these five top Bordeaux Blancs amplified the instrinsic quality of a potentially great Hunter Valley Semillon. The 1998 Lovedale was another interesting foil, largely because of the weight and richness gained from age. This wine was more comparable in texture and fruit complexity, but offered a uniquely Australian experience.
Overall I am optimistic about Hunter Valley Semillon. Although it’s not particularly fashionable, it has an inherent quality and compelling story. The variety was probably brought out in the early 19th century by James Busby. Some of his collection was planted at his brother-in-law’s property at Kirkton in the Hunter Valley. Many of the early Hunter Valley Vineyards were planted with material derived from this original source. Semillon was also known as Shepherd’s Riesling in the Hunter Valley. It was named after the nurseryman who sold cuttings to local vignerons including James King who planted Irrawang near Raymond Terrace in 1832. Over time the variety became known as Hunter Valley Riesling. This term was still being used in the early 1980s! Maurice O’Shea at Mount Pleasant, Lindeman’s and Tyrrell’s established great reputations for their long lived white wines during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Although there are some memorable vintages during the 1980s and 1990s, Hunter Valley Semillon is today enjoying a renaissance that could bring more international attention to this important and historical regional style. Andrew Thomas Braemore Vineyard Semillon (one of the most exciting wines I have seen all year) is for instance a strong contemporary foil to the region’s first growths Tyrrell’s Vat 1 and McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Lovedale. This quirky, but interesting tasting, perhaps shows that fine wine appreciation is a real estate game of the mind. Although some wine people may enjoy possessing baubles of wealth like Haut Brion Blanc, the very best Hunter Valley Semillons have a strong, interesting and hugely individual voice; particularly if bottled under screw cap.
Andrew Caillard MW, Langton's
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