Team Canada arrived in Sydney feeling shockingly fresh after 24 solid hours of travel, though down one critical member. Our ace, vice World Sommelier Champion Véronique Rivest from Gatineau, Québec, never even made it out of the country. Spectacular storms in the Midwest led to flight cancellations, and Rivest’s Chicago to LA routing left her grounded in Ottawa. Desperate efforts by Wine Australia and Wine & Spirits Magazine to find alternative routing (even through Europe) were to no avail. Véro was permanently grounded. Speculation on the twittersphere stormed around a possible #American #conspiracy aimed at derailing Canada before the Hunt had even begun, but we brushed that off and got about the business of getting to the Hunter to begin our scavenging.
Sensibly, we traded in our pre-arranged minivan rental for a dashing silver Veloster sports coup with sunroof (same price), and with Brad’s sage advice of, “guy, stay left”, headed north from Sydney airport along the M1 towards Cessnock, gateway to the Hunter Valley. After an improbably good lunch of tender squid and steak sandwiches at the roadside Kearsley Hotel and Pub, we made our way to the first official stop of the Scavenger Hunt, Brokenwood wines, for a benchmark tasting.
What awaited us was not remotely anticipated; we thought perhaps a dozen or so bottles would be laid out on the table. Instead, we found 48 foil-wrapped bottles, numbered and lined up in the Brokenwood kitchen above the winery’s tasting room, representing pretty much every winery and wine of note in the Hunter Valley. What a perfect way to start. Wines of all prices and ranging in age from 2002 to 2015 were randomly distributed in the lineup.
Anticipation was high. Would the established classics show up? What surprises would we find? Which vintages would shine?
Left alone in our deep semillon immersion by the accommodating Brokenwood staff, we set to work. Brad suggested we come up with our top six, and tuck those bottles in the back of our Veloster for further investigation. I agreed. The first wine was excellent. The second one, too. I said to Brad, “Ah, this might not be so easy.” And long before we’re through the first dozen, we realized it’s going to be a tough day. With a sigh, Brad suggested we pick our top 12 instead.
In the end, exactly 18 bottles were packed into the boot of the car. Fully one-third of the wines presented were worth at least a second look, and that was after some difficult triage, discussion, argument and negotiation. Had Véronique been there, no doubt we would have packed up the entire lot and started again on the following day.
Without giving up our top picks just yet, here are some general observations about Hunter Valley Semillon gleaned from this remarkable tasting:
– #1: How unremarkable young semillon is, and how similar they all are. The young vintages (2015s, mostly), smell and taste like neutral white wine, straight out of the fermentation tank (which they were), pleasant enough, but not riveting. Discussion swirled more around basic things like residual sugar and particular yeast strains, hardly riveting conversation. Based on young wines alone semillon would surely never have garnered any kind of reputation outside of their valley of origin. You have to look very deep indeed to try to differentiate wines at this embryonic state.
– #2: How remarkable old semillon is, and how widely the wines diverge after a few years in bottle. For an unoaked, light white wine, the range of aromas and flavors that develop after seven to ten years in bottle is nothing short of improbable, and amazing – my tasting vocabulary was stretched to the edge of credulity in an effort to fully capture the nuanced rainbow of expressions. The same cuvée turns from ordinary caterpillar to glorious butterfly in a few short years. And also, unusually, despite the differences virtually all were still identifiable as Hunter Valley Semillon—it’s a broad family of flavors, but a family all the same.
– #3: How pure the best expressions are. If you value purity in wine, laser sharp, precise flavors, finely etched and perfectly chiseled, then Hunter Valley semillon is for you.
We dropped our homework off at the Scarborough Wine cottage, and made our way to Botanica restaurant at Spicers Retreat on Hermitage road, a simple right-left-right (nothing in the Hunter is more than three turns away). We ordered the bugs and the red emperor. If you’re not sure what those are, well, neither were we. They were the only two things on the menu we didn’t recognize; both were excellent. —John Szabo, MS
This story appears in the print issue of jan 2019.
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