I have a soft spot for the Hunter Valley wine region north of Sydney.
During the 1990s and 2000s, my in-laws owned a vineyard and winery in the Hunter and many family holidays were spent drinking, feasting, visiting cellar doors and watching our kids grow up there.
As a result, I became very fond of the two great gifts the Hunter has given to the world of wine: crisp, dry white semillon and earthy, medium-bodied red shiraz, both deliciously approachable when young but also with the capacity to age for decades in the cellar, developing flavours that aren't found in any other wines on Earth.
So when the regional wine and tourism association invited me to attend the annual Hunter Valley Legends Awards Gala and a couple of tastings – Hunter semillons from the 2017 vintage, and a vertical of Thomas Wines' great single vineyard Braemore semillon going back to 2007 – I didn't hesitate.
First Creek Wines' Liz Jackson, named Winemaker of the Year at the 2016 awards, introduced the tasting of 2017 semillons – some finished, in bottle and already on the market, some still unfinished, cloudy tank samples – by giving an overview of the vintage.
"It was a bit of a saviour for us," she said, as "2016 had brought many winemakers to their knees – there was a lot of rain that year and although we were quite impressed with how some of the great old vineyards held up, it was very difficult."
Ripe and warm
By contrast, Jackson said 2017 was easier: "We had hot dry days and the whites made themselves. You had to be careful about alcohols, though – there are some bigger flavoured wines out there."
As I tasted through the three dozen wines on offer, I was kind of glad this was a riper, warmer vintage. Riper fruit means lower acidity and less of an all-out assault on the teeth and gums: remember, these semillons were only a few months' old and still quite raw.
Despite their gangly youth, a few really stood out from the pack.
Some – such as the two reviewed below plus the De iuliis, Gundog Estate's The Chase and the Tyrrell's Hunter Valley semillon – are available, or soon will be, and are drinking well, full of the mouth-watering fish-friendly freshness and apple/citrus/chalk flavours you'd expect to find.
I can also report that the region's well-known "grand cru" wines – Tyrrell's Vat 1, Brokenwood ILR, Margan Aged Release – displayed an exciting intensity of flavour and restrained power at this tasting. When they finally hit the market in a few years' time, they should be snapped up by anyone who appreciates cellar-worthy Hunter semillon.
Talking of cellar worthy, we then sat down to taste 11 vintages of Andrew Thomas' top semillon, the Braemore, sourced from a vineyard on deep alluvial sandy loam on Hermitage Road, first planted in 1969.
"The fruit from this vineyard always has an amazing, intangible X-factor to it," said Thomas. "It's planted on an ancient watercourse and pretty much the whole strip of land that runs up the road is planted to semillon. Some of the best vineyards in the Hunter are there. Tyrrell's get their HVD semillon from this strip.
"The grapes have this purity and vibrancy – a depth and concentration of flavour within a delicate, featherweight frame."
Vibrant and pure
That vibrancy and purity is on full glorious display in the youngest wine we tasted, the 2017 (see review, below). It's irresistibly delicious and extremely hard not to let some trickle down the back of my throat rather than spitting it out (it is a mid-morning tasting, after all, and I need to keep myself relatively nice).
The vibrancy dips a little as we go back in time, as you'd expect with bottle-aged Hunter semillon. The 2015 is still taut, minerally and lively, but the 2014 and 2013 seem a little muted. The 2012, on the other hand, is just coming out of its shell and is super eager to please the taster, with spicy flavours and a crisp and crunchy texture. The 2009 and 2008 are both settling in for the long haul, exhibiting hints of golden citrus and gently buttered toast.
Yes, I love these flavours of bottle-aged Hunter semillon. They're familiar. They come wrapped up in so many happy memories. But the wine I wanted to take home and drink was the youngest one.
First taste: 2017 Hunter whites
2017 Thomas Braemore Semillon (Hunter Valley, NSW)
One of the best of the young 2017 semillons tasted in the Hunter; certainly one of the most approachable and thirst-quenchingly delicious. Crisp, lifted lime and lemon juiciness; zesty and refreshing on the tongue. Drink with oysters. Yum. $30 thomaswines.com.au
2017 Tulloch Julia Limited Release Semillon (Hunter Valley, NSW)
This wine is available and is utterly wonderful now if you like young Hunter semillon. It's pretty and perfumed with lots of Granny Smith crunch in the mouth but it will also develop wonderfully well in the cellar if you have the willpower. $30 tullochwines.com
2017 Margan Breaking Ground Albarino (Hunter Valley, NSW)
It wasn't all semillon on my trip. I also tasted other varieties, including this terrific example of a grape originally from Spain, now thriving in the Hunter. It has spicy, almost traminer-like aromatics and a satisfying grape-pulpy texture on the tongue. $30 BUY NOW