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Almost so long to Semillon


As he checks out the Esto Wines Adelaide Hills Semillon, Whitey wonders why we almost forgot a rare white pioneering premium.

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It’s got a solid, convincing sort of aroma, this wine.

Solid? There are two generations of wine operatives out there now who’d call it “mineral”, without ever considering which mineral they mean. Like sulphur, salt, arsenic and even frozen dihydrogen monoxide are minerals. Strangely, melted H2O – same thing – is not a mineral. But mercury, which has no solid state, is. Like a mineral, I mean. Quicksilver. Just sayin’.

If all those back-label writers and semi-industrial wine reviewers with blogs and somms checked, they’d pretty quickly find “mineral” ranges from “a solid inorganic substance of natural occurrence, such as copper and silicon”, through to “an inorganic substance needed by the human body for good health, such as calcium and iron” or “a substance obtained by mining”, by which time you’d reckon they’d drop it. From wine description, I mean. Like none of ’em consider the most obvious meaning; the one winos forget: “fizzy soft drinks”.

Before I write any more, just a sec … ah nope, the Dean brothers haven’t called this Semillon “minerally” on their Esto Wines website, either. Whew.

But I reckon they could have. And got away with it.

In the instance of their 2016 Esto Adelaide Hills Semillon, from their parents’ vineyard on Greenhill Road near Oakbank, “mineral” probably would have covered it. It’s “minerally” like expensive bone china tea sets ground to powder. Like extremely dense, pure, heavy chalk. Which leads me toward barite, which is another mineral again.

There is another aroma in the glass, mind you, a secondary, less obvious one, which seems for all the world like petiols, the stems that attach vine leaves to their trunk. Machine harvesters pick them. Maybe it’s bunch stalks. A greengrocer smell. Peas and beans.

Together, these aromas present very firmly.

Before I get round to Semillon as I learned it, let’s check their 2017 model.

Yum-O. Wind the chalk and china back, hold the stalks and stems, and let that little Semi put its shoulders back and sing and I have the waft I was looking for: the gentlest insinuation of butter. In this instance, real damn good butter, like the Elle & Vire Beurre Gastronomique unsalted churned butter I get from Normandy when I’m being unfaithful to Paris Creek.

It’s in the 2016 jobbie, mind you, hidden until you let that punk breathe for an hour or two and edge up a couple of Celsiuses. But as it does, those greens rise too. Gooseberry. Bitter melon. Bacchus only knows whether they’ll fade in the cellar.

It doesn’t have to be rich, like the syrupy golden butter dumplings you might find with the remnants of lemon marmalade in a legendary Lindemans Hunter Semillon from 1965 or 1972. Back when they were sold as, well, just about any name you like.

Hunter Riesling, Hunter River Riesling, Shepherd’s Riesling, Shepherd’s White, Hock, Champagne, Porphyry, Burgundy, Chablis and Sauternes all ended up on Semillon bottles and the great thing that held all those best Hunters together was that lovely lemon butter that got more intense as the best ones aged.

Because the Hunter’s really sub-tropical and humid at vintage, they pick early when they can, so the wines are lower in sugar, thus lower in eventual alcohol, and higher in steely natural acidity, which gives the finest of them incredible longevity. Whether they want it or not.

This year, it seems, the Hunter grape farmers are having a triffic vintage because all the other farmers there are having a drought.

Semillon was type #60 in the seminal collection James Busby had planted near Sydney in 1831. When those first white invaders came to Australia they’d pick up all sorts of cuttings from Cape Town. These better survived the voyage than any they’d haul across the Equator from France and Spain; even Madeira and the Canaries. Both Captain Arthur Phillip and Captain Charles Sturt bought vine cuttings from the Cape at a time when the majority of the white wine vines there were Semillon.

After somebody’s hat was passed around a roomful of landed gentlemen in Adelaide in 1840, Sturt was sent back to South Africa to buy more white varieties: most of the 60,000 cuttings he returned with were various types of Groendruif (greengrape) and Windruif (winegrape), which were common Cape colloquialisms for Semillon.

Some found its way into the Barossa, where for awhile it was called Clare Riesling.

Infuriatingly, in Clare, they called Crouchen Clare Riesling.

Edmund Barton Gleeson took some Semillon to Clare, where it became grand dry whites like Quelltaler Hock. While Semillon spread all over Clare, I believe the best South Australia ever did with it was the Quelltaler Wood-aged Semillons Michel Dietrich made there for Remy-Martin in the ’80s. Those stunning wines – ’82, ’84 and ’86 – were still hitting their straps a decade later when Fosters bought the joint and got Vic Patrick to bulldoze the ancient dry-grown bush vines there in the chalk and instead plant industrial Merlot.

Various Clare producers still make Semillons, with varying amounts of oak.

While Michel Dietrich makes beauties to this day in Bordeaux, right across the river from Sauternes and Barsac, I never saw a sparkling Semillon made in South Australia. It probably happened: I should ask Norm Walker. The crafty Sydney blokes had it rockin’ really early on. Napoleon III’s sompter served him James King’s methode champenoise Hunter Semillon at the big banquet at the 1855 Paris Exhibition. This went down so well as to scandalise the Champenoise. To them, Semillon was the thin-skinned white that went rotten in Sauternes and Barsac and became sinfully sweet and sticky if you were lucky.

Inspired by this, some Bordelaise tried hiring winemakers from Champagne to make fizz from Semillon picked so early as to avoid the noble rot, and its regular cardre of not-so-noble moulds and funguses. By 1878, for example, Normandium and Lermat-Robert were both selling dry sparkling wines from Sauternes and Barsac.

Like nearly every wine I’ve mentioned above, these probably also contained some Sauvignon blanc.

While it’s elegant, stroppy, tight-witted and yep, punkish, this 2017 Esto Semillon ($30) is glorious for the burnished gilt glimmer that lights up its bouquet and gives its bony dry tannin and brittle citric acidity a reason to live. It’s not so much a colour as an enlightenment. It’s the golden hint of butter giving it that gleam. Like when the onion starts to gold up in the pan. Things change.

I’d been meaning to track this vineyard down since I first tasted it last year in a zippy Charlotte Hardy wine that got me wondering why so much great Semillon has been pulled and torched. Now I look down the back of this Esto, down past all that nonsense about a tortoise shell and some old dead bloke, down below the 11.9% alcohol (yum), and notice Charlotte gets a credit for making it, too.

Only then do I realise it doesn’t say “Minerally”. The temptation must have been mighty.

Should be more of it. South Australian Semillon like this, I mean. Maybe we should send Cap’n Sturt for more cuttings.

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