Idiosyncratic or idiotic? — Hunter semillon

At Len Evans’ wake a few months it was inevitable that in the kick-on party venerable old bottles of Hunter shiraz and semillon appeared. Served on Len’s home turf these regional specialties hit the spot. But to the unconverted they remain idiosyncrasies.

Idiosyncratic is a key word here for each is as eccentric as it is great and long-lived. Despite global appreciation of the pair as significant, unique Australian wine styles, the quality is barely perceived beyond the world of experts, aficionados and wine nuts in the Hunter’s neighbouring Sydney market.

But all that means for those who love the styles are lower prices than might otherwise be expected for wines of this dimension.

The idiosyncrasies begin with a paradox. How can two comparatively elegant, delicate wine styles emerge from such a warm, humid and wet climate? Haven’t we been told for decades that elegant wines come from cool regions?

The answer appears to lie, say McWilliams – one of the great protagonists of the styles — in “the humidity, afternoon cloud cover and gentle sea breezes [that] temper the summer and afford excellent ripening conditions”.

Unquestionably, semillon is the more peculiar of the two beasts. So often, warm-climate semillon makes clumsy wines smelling and tasting of wet hessian.

But the peculiarities of the lower Hunter allow vignerons to harvest semillon at very low sugar ripeness without suffering the sour, unripe flavours that generally accompany such early harvesting.

True, the young wines have an austere acid edge, but the ‘lemongrass’ and ‘lemon’ fruit flavours underlying the acidity have a sweet, delicious core. While the bone-dry austerity of young semillon appears to be at odds with prevailing Aussie wine styles, some makers, like Brokenwood and Margan have succeeded in tempering the austerity without losing the distinctive regional flavours.

Others, like McWilliams Mount Pleasant and Tyrrell Vat 1, persist with the more austere styles that age so beautifully. This style emerged close to its present from in the 1960s. (The late Murray Tyrrell credited Ray Kidd of Lindemans for putting modern Hunter semillon firmly on track with the introduction of protective technologies, principally refrigerated ferments, during this period).

Thus, McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth, at one time one of the biggest selling table wine in Australia, appeared in 1967, labelled as ‘Hunter Riesling’ — a misnomer almost universally applied at the time.

These days its labelled varietally and because it’s released at four to five years’ age, has begun the transformation from austerity to toasty, nutty, honeyed complexity by the time it comes to market. But that doesn’t stop it being idiosyncratic – and, hence, loved or reviled, depending on the beholder.

At Chateau Shanahan it’s a much-loved style and we have a Tyrrell’s Vat 1 and Distinguished Vineyards Series (sourced by Len from the Howard family Somerset vineyard for Vintage Cellars) earmarked for lunch tomorrow. These are really a perfect wine for a hot Aussie Christmas thanks to their intense flavour, delicacy, freshness (despite the age) and low alcohol content.

The traditional low-oak Hunter shiraz style is another peculiar beast with its pale colour, earthy flavours and soft, tender tannins. It’s at its best with considerable age (Lindemans Bin 1590 1959 vintage, for example, is a legend). And that’s a style that Tyrrells continues to make. And you can even find the odd bottle or magnum of Lindemans 1983 at auction – another great example of the style.

WINE REVIEWS

Hardys SHUTTLE Chardonnay 187ml $4.95
Last July, at Wine Australia – the Aussie industry’s massive showcase for consumers — Hardy boss, David Woods, enthused about the upcoming SHUTTLE launch. It’s a neat little 187ml PET plastic wine bottle with an inverted PET plastic glass acting as seal. A few twists and the glass unscrews, then you flip it over, pour the wine in and the party’s started. The press release says, unhelpfully, that it’s available throughout ‘select states’ of Australia, wherever or whatever they may be. But they will eventually be rolled out. And they strike me as very practical for picnics, concerts and other outdoor venues. The 2006 chardonnay is bright, fresh and peachy, if a little sweet. The shiraz, not tasted.

Fox Gordon Barossa Valley By George Cabernet Tempranillo 2004 $20
The number of small brands in the Barossa seems to be growing exponentially as grape growers, some with long roots to the valley, team up with talented winemakers to produce single vineyard wines of tremendous character. This wonderful example combines chocolaty rich Barossa cabernet sauvignon with more restrained Adelaide Hills tempranillo (a Spanish variety) to delicious effect. The tempranillo tempers the Barossa richness, lifting the perfume and adding to the smooth, fine tannin structure. It’s a wine that slips down oh so easily and has a flavour unlike any other wine in memory. Has some retail distribution and may be ordered at www.foxgordon.com.au

Pikes Clare Valley The Merle Riesling 2006 $35, Traditionale Riesling 2006 $21
Up in the Clare Valley Neil Pike produces two rieslings – Traditonale, a blend from various sub-regions of the Valley, and The Merle, sourced entirely from the Pike family’s estate in the Clare’s Polish Hill River sub region. Traditionale is the classic Clare blend with its lovely citrus-like varietal flavour, fine structure and refreshing acidity – a wine to enjoy as it evolves over the next five or six years. The Merle shows the steel of its origins with very pure and intense varietal character teasingly held in check by bracing, minerally acidity. A superb aperitif style in its youth, it should evolve well for a decade or more.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

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