Hunter Semillon and the McWilliams Mount Pleasant contribution

The hot and humid lower Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, produces delicate, long-lived semillons. What a paradox. Shouldn’t the wines be high in alcohol, low in acid, soft and early maturing? That’s what the northerly latitude ought to dictate.

Whatever the cause (some say it’s because late-season cloud cover inhibits ripening) we get low-alcohol, austere-but-delicate young whites that age gracefully into soft, honeyed unique dry wines. And because semillon is unfashionable, and the flavours usually too delicate to cope with maturation in expensive oak barrels, it comes with a modest price tag as well.

McWilliams Elizabeth 1988, perhaps the biggest selling of the lower Hunter semillons, specials for less than $10 a bottle. It tastes terrific — the natural grape flavour having been enhanced greatly by six years’ bottle age. You won’t find that in the rieslings, sauvignon blancs, and chardonnays on offer at a comparable price.

The low price reflects consumer attitudes rather than McWilliam-family charity. Like Lindemans, the other big Hunter semillon producer, Mc Williams appears unable to ignite consumer passion for its great regional specialty. Hunter semillon has its followers. But they’re used to bargain-basement prices. Long may it be so.

The semillon grape adapted quickly to the Hunter Valley and appears to have been one of the best performing table-wine varieties by the middle of last century. Many varieties were tested and re-tested over 160 years and the experience of the last few decades confirms semillon, verdelho and chardonnay as the best suited whites – the same conclusion reached by last century’s growers.

McWilliam’s Hunter winery sprawls at the foot of Mount Pleasant, flanked by rolling vineyards. It’s one of the prettier Hunter locations, perhaps not quite as spectacular as Tyrrells but not dissimilar either with the pure-Aussie, eucalypt-clad ranges as backdrop.

The property was established by the legendary Maurice O’Shea in 1921 after completing viticultural and oenological studies in France. His mother (a French woman) bought the property and he planted it , named it, and began making wine there when he was 24 years old.

Although McWilliams bought a share in Mount Pleasant in 1932 and took full control in 1941, O’Shea stayed on as manager and wine maker until his death at the age 58 in 1956.

O’Shea developed phenomenal skills as a table-wine maker at a time when few Australians were interested in drinking them. Red wines he made in the forties and fifties still drink well today: I have fond memories of a 1945 consumed in 1990 and of a magnificent 1954 Richard Hermitage drunk at Mount Pleasant with wine maker Phil Ryan just a few weeks back.

Unfortunately, I’ve not tried any O’Shea whites, although semillon vines he planted in the 1940s still contribute to McWilliams Hunter wines today.

On the visit to Mount Pleasant, Ryan organised a tasting of various young reds and whites from tank, barrel, and bottle. There’s a lot at Mount Pleasant to look forward to: ‘Mount Pleasant’ and ‘Maurice O’Shea’ (McWilliams’ top Hunter label) chardonnays of exceptional quality — wines showing beautiful fruit flavours combined perfectly with oak; and shirazes of stunning quality under both those labels from the 1991 vintage.

But again, the wines that stood out to me for individuality were the semillons. The young wines showed promise, and the older ones delivered it.

It was particularly exciting to taste at lunch, after the formal tasting of young wines, six vintages of older semillons: two from the 1975 vintage and one each from 1979, 1981, 1984, and 1989. It was exciting because here was a line up of great wines within the budget of most wine drinkers. All too often these events are fun but futile because you know the pleasure cannot be repeated.

Three of the wines were commercially-released ‘Elizabeths’ — the 1975 fully mature and lovely, the 1981 honeyed and full, and the 1989 more mature than I’d expected but good nevertheless (I prefer the current-release 1988).

And for those who’ve followed the odd release of Mount Pleasant ‘Anne’, there are more on the way. But future releases will be under the ‘Lovedale’ label. As it turns out ‘Anne’ was always sourced from the Lovedale vineyard (near Cessnock airport) planted by O’Shea back in 1946 and still bearing fruit for today’s wines.

I found the Lovedale wines finer and more intensely flavoured than the Elizabeths. The 1984, to be released later this year, strikes me as a perfect example of aged Hunter semillon with the strength and freshness to thrill drinkers for another decade or more.

To get an inkling of what a great Aussie specialty is about, try a bottle of Elizabeth 1988. To taste the same thing at its very best, taste Lovedale 1984.