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Discovering the Ageability of Semillon

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In its native France, semillon is the backbone of Bordeaux blanc and the star of Sauternes, arguably the world’s greatest sweet wine. But closer to home, the golden-skinned grape excels as a dry wine, both in traditional styles and increasingly in the hands of minimal intervention winemakers who let its natural characteristics shine.

With thanks to Liebherr wine cabinets, we followed Charlotte Hardy of Charlotte Dalton Wines for a day, at her new base in Port Elliott, to make a video that touches on her approach to semillon and chat about where she sees the variety in South Australia.

Semillon is a highly versatile grape that produces age-worthy white wines. Its skins are susceptible to botrytis, which give characters of lemon curd, honey and tea. If picked early, it produces lemony, low-alcohol and bracingly acidic wines. If left to hang on the vine, expect more body, with citrus and apple flavours. Allow it to overproduce, and you get a wine that tastes like not much at all, with it something of a neutral workhorse for white blends around the world.

“Youthful ‘sems’ are bright, acid driven and full of citrus. When aged, they tend toward a more toasty, vanilla and hay flavoured wine. I am always so intrigued that aged semillon seems to have barrel characters – even in those that have never seen any oak!” says Hardy.

“I’m a total acid head, and acid really helps aged semillons keep their elegance. It’s just magic.”
“I am always so intrigued that aged semillon seems to have barrel characters – even in those that have never seen any oak!”

Outside of France, we’re one of the largest producers of semillon-based wines, and despite the variety falling in and out fashion, our winemakers are still set on exploring its boundaries.

The Hunter Valley, for example, excels at crunchy bone-dry, low-alcohol examples. In the warmer Margaret River region, semillon is richer, rounder and often blended with sauvignon blanc. The vast majority of semillon (nearly 85 per cent) is grown along the Murray, mainly being absorbed anonymously for bulk production, although De Bortoli’s iconic ‘Noble One’ sticky is from the same region.

South Australia’s Adelaide Hills region is not particularly well known for semillon, but that’s not going to stop Charlotte Hardy, who makes two styles from a single block in Balhannah. “I am so very aware that I am not in the Hunter Valley, so I don’t try to make Hunter semillon,” Hardy says. “I try to make semillon that works with grapes I make it from; that changes every year, and I am still learning.”

Hardy’s fruit comes from a cool-climate block on an elevated part of the Deanery Vineyard. “It is very resilient – nice thick skins, which makes one breathe a little easier on those humid, sticky days during ripening.” The differences between her two semillons develop during maturation — both wines are naturally fermented and aged on lees, then bottled unfiltered and un-fined.

“I am so very aware that I am not in the Hunter Valley, so I don’t try to make Hunter semillon. I try to make semillon that works with grapes I make it from.”

“My ‘Love You Love Me’ Semillon is all about brightness and acid,” Hardy says. “It is barrel fermented and left on ferment lees for a few months prior to bottling. It’s picked lean, the alcohol tends to be around 11.5% and it rarely goes through malolactic fermentation,”

Her ‘Ærkeengel’ Semillon, Danish for “archangel”, spends an extra year in barrel as well as going through full malo. The result is a more textural wine that varies greatly vintage on vintage, occasionally even pushing into sherry-like flavours. “I love watching the ‘Ærkeengel’ change in barrel — it’s fascinating to observe,” Hardy says.

She’s interested to see how the two wines mature, given a few more years in bottle. As a relative newcomer to the grape, having made her first semillon in 2015 with Phil Broderick of Basket Range (he happened to be her next-door neighbour at the time), Hardy has to play the waiting game like everyone else.

In the meantime, Hardy is looking to build South Australia’s reputation for the grape. “It makes me sad there are not more single-variety semillons coming out of the Adelaide Hills,” she says. “I love it — I find it very versatile, very forgiving and full of personality. And I’m a total acid head, and acid really helps aged semillons keep their elegance. It’s just magic.”

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