Saturday, May 2, 2009

McWilliams titillates with Lovedale Semillon

McWilliam winemaker Phillip Ryan

Any list of the 100 wines to drink before you die should surely include the McWilliams Mount Pleasant Hunter Lovedale Sémillon – ideally the 1998 vintage, the Library vintage currently on release.

The bad news is that the only examples of any Lovedale Sémillon in Canada appear to be samples brought here recently by McWilliam winemaker Phillip Ryan, the chief winemaker at the company’s Mount Pleasant winery.

The good news is that there are a few other Hunter Valley Sémillons in wine stores. These should also show off the variety’s ability to become quite wonderful with age.

Sémillon is one of the few white varieties (Riesling is the other) with a spectacular ability to age. It is no accident that this is the variety grown in Sauternes in France when there are other varieties that might handle that region’s climate a little better.

This is a grape that has lots of acid at maturity (like Riesling). Young Sémillon wines taste very much of lemon and lime, as Phillip illustrated with a 2009 Lovedale. (Lovedale is the name of the vineyard.) The acid is an excellent preservative which, as the wine ages, becomes less aggressive while maintaining the freshness of the wine.

The Sémillon vine came to Australia in the 1800s by way of cuttings from South Africa (which, in turn, secured the vines from France). For many years, it was the backbone of Australian white wine production until, about 30 years ago, serious acreages of Chardonnay were planted. Chardonnay swept aside most other varieties as the most popular white variety.

Chardonnays also age but not nearly as long as Sémillon, which explains why Sémillon did not completely get swamped. The best examples have always come from the Hunter Valley, a valley north of Sidney where vineyards and coal mines manage to co-exist. For a long time, the variety was called Hunter Riesling; some wineries still hang on to the name. However, viticultural research several decades ago established that the vine was not at all related to Riesling.

At McWilliam, and no doubt elsewhere in the Hunter, winemakers produce Sémillon with minimal intervention. The Lovedale Vineyard’s grapes are hand picked and, to absolutely avoid oxidation, go into bins with dry ice. More carbon dioxide is introduced when the whole clusters are pressed and when the juice is stored in tank at very low temperatures. There it is allowed to settle until the juice is crystal clear. Then it ferments for several weeks and remains in stainless steel, again with a cap of CO2, for a few months, when the wine is bottled. The quick passage from grape to bottle keeps the wine as fresh as possible.

The bottles (all under screw cap these days) are put away to age gracefully. The current vintage of Lovedale Sémillon in the Australian market is 2003, although you can buy the 2006 at the cellar door.

When Hunter Sémillon ages, it develops honeyed flavours of tangerine and nuts, with a rich, dry finish. It is a robust food wine but, really, it is best enjoyed with good friends on a quiet evening. There is something profoundly contemplative about an older Hunter Sémillon.

In Australia, one hears of legendary bottles. Phillip rhapsodized about a 1953 Lovedale Sémillon he enjoyed a few years ago with the late, great Australian wine personality, Len Evans. I would be surprised if there were many stashes, if any, of old Sémillon in North America.

Phillip has been titillating tasting events with Lovedale Sémillon, of which he makes only 2,000 to 3,000 cases, in order to draw attention to the McWilliams wines that are in the market. Here, the winery’s strongest brand is Hanwood (named for another of that company’s wineries.)

The Hanwood wines include an excellent Chardonnay, a spicy Shiraz, a soft Merlot and a solid Cabernet Sauvignon, all selling for either $15 or $16 a bottle. These are well-made wines showing considerably more individuality than one usually gets from Australia these days in this price range.

With any luck, McWilliams, which is 25% owned by Gallo, will soon bring more of its Shiraz wines into this market. The top of the line the Maurice O’Shea Hunter Valley Shiraz, named a legendary winemaker who preceded Philip at the Mount Pleasant winery. This is a rich, elegant wine from vines planted in 1890.

Since there is no Lovedale Sémillon in our wine stores, the option is to explore the few other Sémillon wines that are available.

Everything Wine has a few bottles of a Hunter Sémillon from Poole’s Rock ($26). This is a 21-year-old winery with a rising reputation. It makes its Sémillon much the same way as Phillip makes his.

In the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch, the Hunter Valley Sémillon offerings include a 2005 from Bimbadgen Estate ($17 for a half bottle); and a Wyndham Estate 2003 Sémillon (only three bottles remaining in the province!). There are two other Australian Sémillons – 30 bottles of Burge Family 2004 ($40) and 790 bottles of Peter Lehman Sémillon 2005 and 2006. The later two are from other regions but should show good aging potential as well.

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