Griffith sweeties give semillon a sweet name

Winedrinkers associate premium wines with particular grape varieties from particular areas. Thus, in Australia, some of the natural doubles are cabernet and Coonawarra, semillon and the Hunter Valley, riesling and the Clare Valley, and shiraz and the Barossa Valley.

Our biggest source of grapes, long stretches of the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers, churn out thousands of tonnes of fat, juicy, sweet, grapes. These make everything from bubbly to fortified wine. But the district of origin seldom appears on labels for the simple reason that most of the tonnage, while capable of making sound wines, bears no distinguishing aromas or flavours.

Yet the ‘Riverland’ as this vast grape resource is called, is far from homogenous. A couple of degrees variation in latitude, as the system snakes its way westwards, creates many climatic – and, thus, quality differences. Seppelts, for example, grows broad acres of chardonnay at several points along the Murray. Far from being flung into one vat and branded ‘riverland’ the various batches head in different directions.

In an interview a few years back, Ian McKenzie, Seppelt’s Chief Winemaker, emphasized the two degree latitude difference between the company’s Qualco (South Australia) and Barooga (NSW) vineards, both on the Murray. As a result, grapes ripen several weeks later at cooler Barooga. And the fruit makes far superior wine.

Barooga, while not a exactly a household name like Coonawarra, Padthaway, or the Barossa Valley, is one of the few exceptions to anonymity along our major waterway.

Perhaps the most reviled of all stretches of the riverland’s grape growing districts was the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, with its centre at Griffith, N.S.W. Here is planted huge amounts of semillon and shiraz, both workhorses of the Australian wine industry.

A decade ago, wine quality from the area was seen as a joke within the industry. And having seen many extremely poor examples of bulk wine from there in the late seventies, I admit to a strong prejudice against MIA wines that lasted in my own mind until only recently.

Better vineyard management and the arrival of state-of-the-art winemaking equipment now means that much of the area’s output of bulk wine is as good as you’ll find anywhere. Taste, for example, McWilliams revamped Hanwood table wine range for a very pleasant surprise.

If the area does prove simply too hot, as seems likely, to make premium dry table wine, first de Bortolis and now others have exploited the hot, humid ripening conditions in developing fabulous sweet wines now winning the palates of consumers and show judges alike in recent years.

While not the first to make a ‘sauternes’ style in the district, De Bortoli elevated it to a higher level than anyone else before them, and paved the way for a little niche, both at home and abroad, for Griffith late-picked semillon.

De Bortolis achieved the impossible in having their botrytis semillon acknowledged so widely. The market for dessert table wines in Australia is small and very crowded as every winemaker nurtures a yearning to make the definitive Aussie sweet white. Indeed, there are so many late picked semillons and rieslings around, that few make any impression at all in the mind of the consumer.

The de Bortoli product, though, could not be ignored. Pick up a bottle, look at the back label, and you’ll see why: the list of trophies and gold medals seems longer than the original ACT ballot paper (more interesting, too).

De Bortoli’s success prompted a number of other Griffiths companies to blow the dust off slumbering brands or develop new ones, many of which already boast outstanding show successes. Stephen Chatterton’s Wilton Estate and the Miranda family are just two Griffith wine makers now winning impressive tallies of show medals for their sweeties.

What they have all done is to take one of the area’s most prolifically grown grape varieties, semillon, and exploited the warm, humid growing conditons to fashion a wine that towers above dry table wines made from the same variety. Before De Bortolis seized the opportunity, Griffith semillon was useful but undistinguished.

In Griffiths’ warm autumn semillon ripens to very high natural sugar levels. High humidity, thanks to some extent to all those irrigation channels, encourages the development on grape skins of ‘botrytis cinerea’, a parasitic fungus or mould. The mould (known also as ‘noble rot’, ‘edelfaule’ and ‘pourriture noble’) whithers the grape without breaking the skin, thus concentrating the juice (and adding its own lovely fGrGavour).