More Than Chardonnay
Australia, a vibrant and innovative wine country, is constantly resetting the bar. This is as true for whites and dessert wines as it is for its celebrated reds. Besides Chardonnay, white plantings today embrace everything from Riesling and Gewürztraminer to Viognier, Marsanne and Muscat and many others besides.
Ask most people, though, what first comes to mind when they think of Australian wines a and the answer inevitably involves two varietals: Shiraz, of course, and the ever-present Chardonnay. This white grape has been widely planted throughout Australia (not to mention the rest of the world), and is especially dominant in the vast irrigated vineyards of the southeast.
From the earliest days of its viticulture, Shiraz has set the pace for Australian reds and never looked back. Chardonnay, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer. People seem to have mostly forgotten that the first great white to thrive in Australia was Sémillon (pronounced semilon down under). This Bordeaux variety almost completely fell off the radar until it was resurrected in the now ubiquitous Sémillon/Chardonnay blends. The wines that we typically see are attractive, inexpensive quaffers, but otherwise of no great distinction.
Before Chardonnay, there was Sémillon: the Hunter Valley
Sémillon’s relegation to the sidelines is something that really needs to be put right. At its best, Australian Sémillon can stand tall among the great white wines of the world. The finest examples come from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. These are wines that can age for immensely long periods and develop great complexity over time. Be prepared for a surprise the first time you taste one. Totally different in style from more familiar Aussie fruit bombs, Hunter Valley Sémillons tend to be picked early and often achieve only around 11 per cent alcohol. In youth, they are extremely crisp and sometimes forbiddingly austere. With time, however, fat, buttery and smoky qualities develop that you would swear have come from oak, although most of the wines never see so much as a splinter.
My benchmark for top Hunter Valley Sémillon is the venerable Tyrell’s Wines. The winery lies nestled in the shadow of the nearby Brokenback range; one of the legendary names of the valley, it is a must-visit if you ever go to the area. The firm continues to make sturdy and impressive wines, especially its traditional Hunter Sémillon and its Shiraz. Until recently, no irrigation was used in the main Hunter vineyard, resulting in smaller grapes but intense, concentrated flavours. The rich soil that overlays a bed of limestone adds mineral complexity.
Tyrell’s 2000 Lost Block Sémillon is grassy, with citrus, peach and mineral character that really expands on the palate. It has the zing of a good Riesling but is more food-friendly. In Canada, this lovely wine would be priced in the low-$20 range. Its 1997 Reserve Stevens Sémillon reveals how interestingly this grape can age. When tasted, it was deep gold in the glass, and the bouquet showed great complexity. Flavours were toasty and buttery, with a delectable honey–lemon character and a lingering subtle finish.
The 1999 Reserve Stevens Sémillon is smoky, with light buttery, lemon and citrus notes and still-very-high acidity. It tastes quite young and has many years to go before reaching its peak. The 1997 Vat 1 Hunter Semillon, a Tyrrell’s signature wine, showed more developed toasty and buttery citrus character than the Stevens, but it too has a long way to go. One would expect to pay $55+ for this extraordinary drop. Obviously, these are not inexpensive wines but real treasures for those with the patience to age them properly.
Keeping cool in the Granite Belt
The Granite Belt, which straddles the Queensland/New South Wales border, is still a very-well-kept secret. Part of the reason for the secret is that it is a cool-climate region — because it is in Queensland, most people simply assume that it must be hot and therefore suitable only for heavy dessert-style wines. In fact, the opposite is true. Despite its closer proximity to the tropics, the climate is cooler than many wine regions in South Australia. Summer temperatures rarely exceed 29˚C and frost is common during the winter. The best wines show delicacy and finesse entirely derived from these cool conditions.
Ballandean Estate Wines, one of the largest wineries in the area, has really begun to establish its reputation. Robin Bradley’s respected Australian and New Zealand Wine Vintages, 2000 Edition gives four out of a possible five stars to two of its wines, the Estate Shiraz and the Estate Sylvaner Late Harvest. I tasted both of these and found them excellent. It is noteworthy that this obscure region is one of the few places in the world to have achieved some distinction with Sylvaner. The winery also makes fine Chardonnay and Sémillon.
The 14-acre Bungawarra Estate has real finesse. Their Unwooded Chardonnay 2000 had crisp minerally character with lively apple fruit. The Reserve Chardonnay from the same vintage, aged in French oak, displayed definite Burgundy style. Bungawarra’s 1998 Shiraz, aged in American oak, showed lovely soft raspberry with a piquant hint of peppery spice. At only 11.7 per cent alcohol, it appears delicate when compared with typical blockbuster Aussie Shiraz.
Since my visit to the region a few years ago, the number of wineries has more than doubled; it now stands at forty-three. Still, winemakers in the established Australian regions are not going to lose much sleep over competition from the Granite Belt any time soon. Nonetheless, the area is good evidence of Australia’s capacity to produce atypically delicate whites (as well as reds).
The valleys of South Australia: Clare, Eden, Barossa
Clare Valley in South Australia has long been noted for its distinctive Rieslings. The compact Eden Valley, an offshoot of the Barossa, also does very well with this grape. (Barossa was largely settled by Germans who were quick to recognize that Eden’s cooler conditions offered good potential for growing Riesling — the prized variety of their homeland.) Eden Rieslings bear a closer resemblance to European versions than do the weightier, more tropical fruit-influenced Clare versions. The Eden Valley Rieslings I’ve tasted in the past have exhibited great mineral character, with lemon and lime notes and a hint of petrol on the nose. The palate, too, shows complex fruity crisp peach and green-apple flavours.
Barossa’s warmer climate produces Sémillons with intense lime, tropical fruit and crisp mineral on the nose. Flavours are fresh and lively, showing zesty citrus, melon and kiwi fruit, a bracing touch of mineral and a fresh clean finish with lingering tropical-fruit overtones. They can be drunk young to enjoy the fruity vigour or held for several years. With time, they will also develop a honeyed, toasty, buttery complexity. The Barossa Rieslings show a similar fruity intensity to the Sémillons, often with ripe grapefruit, hints of mango and other aromatic tropical fruits on the nose. Expect piquant lime/citrus on the mid-palate with bright acidity and flinty mineral. They finish with pink grapefruit and hints of peach. These are probably the plushest examples of the Aussie style.
A word or two about Chardonnay
Chardonnay’s extraordinary success in Australia is, of course, fully merited. Readers are probably aware of many first-rate bottles. As Australian winemakers gain a better understanding of their terroirs, interesting developments continue to unfold. A knowledgeable expert, Matt Lane, director of wine education for Foster’s Wine Estates America, told me that the crowded Adelaide Hills region, on the eastern outskirts of Adelaide, South Australia, is rapidly taking over from the Yarra Valley in Victoria as the best Australian site for growing Chardonnay. These will be wines to watch in the near future.
90 Cartwheel Sémillon Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Western Australia ($16)
The fragrant floral, ripe grapefruit with tropical notes and a hint of mineral yielded to superbly balanced, excitingly racy flavours in the mouth. Semillon predominated here, showing yet again how good the variety can be in Australia. Another standout!
89 Wolf Blass Gold Label Riesling 2005, South Australia ($19.95)
Made using both Eden Valley and Clare Valley fruit. 2005 was a highly celebrated vintage for Riesling and this one was more deeply coloured and demonstrated more characteristic Australian floral and tropical-fruit bouquet, backed by crisp mineral and ripe green citrus. Sappy green fruit also came through on the palate with peach, hints of mineral and a trace of petrol. It combined the weight of Clare with the lighter, fresher style of Eden.
89 Rosemount Show Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Hunter Valley ($25.95)
Demonstrates that the Hunter is no slouch when it comes to this variety. The bouquet had delicacy and finesse, with elegant citrus, lightly toasty and hazelnut notes. Very attractive lemon-citrus flavour and softly muted leesy buttery flavours play on the palate, finishing with subtle nutty and toasty character.
88 Annie’s Lane Riesling 2006, Clare Valley ($17.95)
Showed pure fruit, simultaneously crisp and fresh, yet fully ripe, with citrus and tropical aromatics and more apricot flavour evident on the palate.
88 Tyrell’s Old Winery Semillon 2004, Hunter Valley ($20)
This one, from Tyrell’s modestly priced range reveals melon, crisp lemon citrus and some steely mineral notes on the nose. Similar melon and grapefruit citrus shows up on the palate, with zesty acidity and clean fresh-citrus tartness on the finish. Drinking well now with shellfish and other light seafood. Three to five years in the cellar will add further complexity.
88 Penfold’s Reserve Riesling 2005, Eden Valley ($21.75)
Had plenty of perfumey floral and ripe tropical-fruit character with lush, mouth-filling flavour. Once again, more stone-fruit peach and apricot were evident on the palate.