A historic Aussie original that keeps getting better.
From €33.45, 6,050 Japanese yen, AU$67.50, HK$380, £41.95, $52, SG$95, 2,480 Taiwan dollars
The Next Big Thing after Chardonnay won't be Semillon. It won't be Viognier, Assyrtiko or Picpoul either. If anything, it'll just be Chardonnay again. I know this, having trumpeted the virtues of Semillon for nearly 20 years to almost zero effect.
Even so, today I am recommending a Semillon to that most receptive of audiences, the learned readers of JancisRobinson.com. In fact, many of you will know it already: Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon from Australia's Hunter Valley.
The first vintage of this Australian legend was created in 1962, but perhaps the vital moment came in 1996, with the re-release of the 1989 vintage, spotlighting the outrageous complexity of top-tier, bottle-matured Hunter Valley Semillon. Tyrrell's Vat 1 is now apparently Australia's most awarded white (long-standing fans of this wine will remember the multiple gold-medal stickers that used to adorn the bottle).
The 2015 vintage exhibits all of that medal-winning capacity to age. When I first tasted it three years ago, I described it as an ugly duckling. Sure enough, the beautiful swan is now emerging, and when I tasted it again this month it is ascendant: honeyed, citric and pithy with the bizarre but irresistible woodsmoke and beeswax complexity that develops with bottle age.
Beyond that ageability and the deliciousness that comes with it, Hunter Valley Semillon has two more qualities to recommend it. The first is its unusually low alcohol. The second is its heritage as a style that is original to Australia.
Semillon in the Hunter Valley might date all the way back to the first vines planted by James Busby in the 1820s, although records aren't clear. But we do know that the vineyard responsible for Vat 1 still has Semillon that was planted in 1923 in the prosaically named Short Flat vineyard pictured above.
This terroir is just as valid as in any European appellation. In fact, with a soil originating from ancient sea fossils, it bears a resemblance to some of France's most hallowed regions, although the style being created is entirely different from the likes of Chablis or Sancerre. A combination of the Hunter Valley's high temperatures and humidity means that the flavours ripen quickly, and the grapes are picked early before rot can set in. The juice routinely contains only enough sugar to reach around 10% alcohol in the final wine, and young Semillon can seem similarly light in flavour. There's no winemaking trickery: cool temperatures, stainless steel and neutral yeasts are all that's needed.
But as Vat 1 demonstrates, something remarkable happens to the wine as it ages. Accordingly, this particular flagship of Semillon is not released until it reaches five years of age, and even then it is in its infancy. When Tim Jackson reviewed the 2015, he noted that fourth-generation Bruce Tyrrell (as pictured in the main photo above) thinks the wine is best at five years or 10–12 years. For me, right now, this vintage is showing the first glimpses of what is to come: when ascendance becomes transcendence.
As an aside, I have also discovered that it is a great match for pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup. The umami-rich beef broth and fragrant green vegetables have excellent affinity with the lemongrass and woodsmoke flavours of the wine, but it is the textural harmony that really makes it work, with the light body but waxy texture of the wine matching the soup pound for pound.
For an iconic white wine that gives such pleasure now but can easily be cellared for 10 years and more, the price is by no means excessive, although it may be beyond what most people expect to pay for Australian white. Learned readers of JancisRobinson.com will know better, of course, even if Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon might not be the Next Big Thing.
The 2015 vintage of Vat 1 Semillon is widely available around the world, and Californians should take swift advantage of the current discounted price of $52 courtesy of Cape Ardor.
Curious about Semillon (spelled Sémillon in its French homeland)? Our database has more than 700 tasting notes on wines made from this singular variety.