Of all the noble white wine grapes, none is more polarising amongst consumers than semillon.
For those who enjoy Sauternes and Barsac, and the more esoteric dry white Pessac-Léognan and Graves it represents the epitome of fine white wine with extraordinary ageing capabilities, albeit at indulgent prices.
On the other hand, semillon seemingly suffers from a global vinous leprosy and largely blended away by commercial wineries in the Riverina and Barossa Valley in Australia and even in its native home in south west France.
In Australia, the factions are clearly defined by State, or city for that matter, where Sydneysiders defend their Hunter Valley semillon with fervent patriotic zeal that only serves to exacerbate interstate rivalry with Victoria and Melbournians where semillon has little interest and further prejudiced because it does not ripen at all well there.
There is no question that Hunter Valley semillon is one of the most unique and phenomenal white wines, even if idiosyncratic and painfully slow to age (and taste) requiring as many years to reach optimum drinking that it makes for the perfect birth-year cellar white wine. Indeed, I recently tried the 2003 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon which was so exhilarating in its acidity and rapier infusion of lemon it prompted me to put another case down for my daughters 21st birthday, or maybe even 40th birthday!
I know there is a lot of new young blood and upbeat noise on semillon coming from the Hunter Valley these days that has seen a resurgence in Sydney restaurant and sommelier enthusiasm, and I have always admired the approachability of Brokenwood Semillon and even more impressed with the age-ability and complexity of Brokenwood IR Reserve.
However, I have to say, when it comes to both approachability and an absolute delight to drink in its youth and yet the ability to metamorphosis into the most extraordinarily complex white wine within 8 years or more bottle age, Mount Horrocks Watervale Semillon from the Clare Valley is in a league of its own. This is in my opinion, the most refined, polished, vivaciously striking semillon in all Australia, and at A$23 a bottle from the cellar door, arguably one of the world’s greatest white wine bargains.
Curiously, there is no mention of semillon in the Clare Valley or Mount Horrocks in the Oxford Wine Dictionary with even the excruciatingly thorough Jancis Robinson MW omitting any reference. The fact is semillon ripens far more evenly and the acidities much more balanced in the Clare Valley than anywhere in Australia.
That said I am at odds to name any other Clare Valley producer that makes truly outstanding semillon and the reality is Mount Horrocks is touchstone and unparalleled; it is truly idiosyncratic in that marvellous way where a wines personality is a direct reflection of the winemaker. It’s like the analogy where a dog is characteristic of its owner; wines of great character are often like their winemaker, like the capricious pinot noir grape where producers are usually eccentric and somewhat mad, in a nice way.
Semillon is the antithesis of this (pinot noir) and needs fastidious discipline and acute orderliness, a person that is super-organised with intuitive attention to detail and self-restraint; qualities that are manifest in woman winemakers. Whoa! I can hear the outcry from the other genre, but that does not negate from the fact that Mount Horrocks proprietor and winemaker, Stephanie Toole, is your consummate perfectionist and meticulous in her approach – in her vineyards and her wines.
A New Zealander, Toole is most certainly one dynamic lady, indeed the respected Decanter magazine listed her and partner, Jeffrey Grosset, whom she shares winemaking facilities, as the number 4 wine power couple in the world, adding to the Australian wine industries worst kept secret that Grosset’s wines showed a noticeable uplift in vibrancy and finesse when she came on the scene.
I tend to think of Toole more as a dynamo with her inexhaustible energy and somewhat forbidding nature which I liken to the commanding mettle of a drill Sergeant-Major; you simply don’t want to mess with this lady, she calls a spade a shovel and does not suffer fools. But she also has a razor sharp sense of humour and light-speed wit with her neural ganglion operating at a higher level than most of us requiring both intellectual stamina and an athletic ability to have fun if you want to keep up with her.
Throwing another grenade in the winery, I believe women winemakers have far more appreciation for the subtleties and intricacies of wine and an intrinsic sense of restraint in winemaking which is transparent in the tangible purity and refined energy in Toole’s semillon. There’s not only precision and clarity in Mount Horrocks Semillon but a consistency of pristine pureness in the fruit, as displayed in this 10 vintage vertical. I felt like a jeweller grading flawless diamonds looking for the slightest inclusion or blemish knowing that human nature demands there be winners and losers in such comparatives.
Frankly, the wines seemed impossibly consistent to me and whilst there were visible differences in terms of vintage nuances and a progression of bottle ageing, I could only award a preference based on the development of secondary complexities with the 2004, 2003 and 2002 just starting to show how you will be substantially rewarded for cellaring these wines for around 8 years and beyond.
Such consistency in a vertical tastings will result in somewhat repetitious tasting notes however it is the thread of such defined characteristics that is conclusive evidence of both the wines unwavering style and its expression of terroir, or its ‘sense of place’.
Whilst there was an ever-present powerful backbone of freshly squeezed lemon in all the wines, perhaps more obvious in the younger vintages, there is also an alluring richness in this lemon profile – like lemon tart or lemon meringue – and at times augmented by a vanilla custard nuance adding to the sense of richness and creaminess.
Equally prevalent in all the wines is a subtle nuance of summer straw fields and the aromas of being in a hay barn on a warm day, which in part could be attributed to varietal complexity but also something that I recognise as distinctly Clare Valley and a characteristic derived from the terroir and more pronounced in warmer vintages with varying degrees of herbal complexity – more dried herbs in the warmer years and fresh herbs in the cooler years.
Further intricacies of the vintage and climatic conditions show in the variance of citrus aromas and flavours and where there was less lemon and more accents on mandarin or orange my logic is these are warmer, riper vintages and have a corresponding succulence and juiciness in the fruit both in texture and flavour.
Another thread in Mount Horrocks Semillon is spiciness, or more specifically Indian spices, like walking into an Indian restaurant scented with hedonistic curry aromas. There is no scientific explanation of how grapes that have no intrinsic spice characters whatsoever become redolent in all number of spices once fermented and it becomes even more abstract with an imaginative writer like me – but I tell you, there’s intriguing scents of cardamom, turmeric, coriander seed in the bouquet and a fresh ginger flavour and spice-warmth on long and persistent finish.
There is was a redolent echo of chalky minerality throughout the line-up and sometimes a very subtle talc-like nuance. Such chalkiness is characteristic of the Watervale vineyard with its soft limestone and red loam top-soils with almost all the rock in the Clare Valley of sedimentary origin, from a period between 800 and 500 million years ago, during the Neoproterozoic era.
This ancient metamorphic crust has eroded over the passage of time with tectonic plate movements creating mountains and ranges, such as Mount Horrocks, with the receding oceans and glacial movements that linked Australia with Antarctica depositing silt, sand and carbonate in a largely marine sedimentary basin, forming chalk, limestone, sandstone and shale with top-soils rich in minerals – the core ingredient for vines and why the Clare Valley is such a distinctive winegrowing region.
In terms of structure and texture, all the wines showed a degree of viscosity juxtaposed by racy, powerful acidity; this roundness and softness coming from being fermented in French oak barrels, all from the Vosges forest, yet the oak so subtle it is hardly perceptible with suggestive hints of almond and vanilla, and a bees wax nuance that I am attributing to oak-fermentation as it appeared to be present in both young and older wines.
It is the textural gentleness and the taming of its naturally high acidities that makes Mount Horrocks Semillon such a balanced wine and so approachable in its youth moreover, it works so well on a restaurant wine list with impressive versatility in almost any imaginable cuisine and without stating the obvious, a perfect accompaniment to seafood and fish. Actually, it is my consummate wine for Curry Laksa – yes here I go again with the turmeric and coriander seed – but I have to say the combination of the wines spicy complexities, viscous texture and powerful tangy citrus is in complete simpatico with this dish. (Note to winemaker, send bottle to Mel Gibson who is a big fan of Curry Laksa).
Then there are the rewards of patience; if you can cellar this wine, and I would say regardless of vintage given the unwavering consistency of quality, for around 8 to 10 years when it seems to turn the corner and build more flesh, it develops a wonderful buttery, oily richness in texture along with extraordinary secondary complexities not unlike white burgundy with evocative scents of grilled nuts, honey and caramel, truffle oils and yes, even more pronounced (Indian) spices. It becomes a wine that is the centrepiece of conversation – with or without food – although I can smell that roast pork belly and the Époisses de Bourgogne to follow.
Most importantly, Mount Horrocks is bottled under screwcap so you can be assured what you are drinking is how the winemaker intended you to enjoy it, and will safely develop in the bottle well beyond 10 years; actually in good cellaring conditions I am sure certain vintages will travel up to 20 years.
Mount Horrocks Semillon is handmade in tiny quantities and like all Toole’s wines, has a cult following among sommeliers and snapped up by restaurateurs all over the world – from Tetsuya Wakuda, Jamie Oliver to Charlie Trotter – even Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has a taste for her wines, Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling being served at Her Royal Highness official 80th lunch celebration.
You will find Mount Horrocks in the UK through well-respected London wine merchant David Gleave MW at Liberty Wines www.libertywine.co.uk, in Singapore through The Wine Route Pte Ltd www.thewineroute.com.sg, and in Indonesia, New Zealand, Canada, Belgium, Denmark and Turkey to which contact details are at http://www.mounthorrocks.com/contact/international-agents/
You can also source the winery direct and join the mailing list through the website at www.mounthorrocks.com
I tasted this 10 vintage vertical with Stephanie Toole in Singapore over two mornings; that is re-visiting the wines in two tastings. I think she was as happy with the line-up as I was impressed. Further to this, the wines were preserved under winesave www.winesave.com and placed in my fridge where I revisited them over the next 2 months, giving me the opportunity to write the comprehensive notes below and enjoy them with many different foods.
2010 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Pronounced lemon zest and lemon tart, a sense of creaminess, hints of vanilla, bees wax, subtle almond nougat, an attractive spiciness like baked apple-cinnamon with hints of spice – cardamom, turmeric – with straw nuances in the background. Racy, tangy, freshly-squeezed lemon, rapier acidity accentuates the lemon tartness although there is plenty of mid-palate succulence, grilled pineapple and passion fruit juiciness and textural build-up; overall mouthwatering juiciness, racy vitality, with a long farewell of intense lemon. Exhilarating stuff!
2009 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Lemon scented with a touch of tropical lime and hints of straw-grass, not as rich as the 2010 in its first impression, appears tighter in profile with fresh apple and kiwifruit nuances – perhaps just closing up after being bottle for a couple of years. That said it does have that attractive lemon custard/tart nuance and subtle nougat and the spiciness seems even more pronounced a young ginger, Laksa leaf and white pepper. Tangy, razor sharp palate entry, again exhilarating stuff with a laser of lemon, quite bony and chalky, tighter palate as the nose suggests although there is sufficient flesh in the middle palate, impossibly concentrated lemon that goes on forever with a wasabi like glow – all indicates a long life ahead of it.
2008 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Lemon scents with a little tangerine and mandarin citrus, textbook custard and lemon tart showing noticeable richness and more nougat scented and alluring spiciness – Indian spices – turmeric, cumin and cardamom – and notes of fresh ginger. More flesh and obvious weight in this wine with a subtle phenolic texture, plenty of freshly-squeezed lemon vibrancy, tightly bound and Granny Smith apple crispness building in power with formidable acidity and carry of tangy flavours with a incredibly long farewell – seemingly has a decade or more ahead of it.
2007 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Attractive scents of bees wax and citrus, the citrus more accented on mandarin and orange, there’s a degree of ginger spiciness yet overall the bouquet seems a little muted with a talc-like nuance. Quite fleshy and much more forward that previous wines in the line-up, has a discernible weight and stone fruit succulence that sets it apart from the other wines and perhaps not as powerful in it lemon tanginess and is a touch drying and mouth-puckering on the finish – perhaps not as polished amongst these 10 diamonds and maybe the result of a warmer year.
2006 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Powerful scents of lemon and freshly cut Golden Delicious apple, seems more fruit orientated without the custard nuances, yet scents of baking like pastries and shortbread, building in lemon-incense amongst a gingery-white pepper spiciness, as it breaths out becoming increasingly complex with secondary nuances but still has a youthful lift and floral aspect – lively and giving. Palate is equally juicy and refreshing with a lively gush of fresh cut apple and squeezed lemon, and yet light and crunchy structured – almost sauvignon blanc in its weight and texture, and there lemon-edge seems to be subdued, with a touch of nougat on the farewell, otherwise still appears youthful.
2005 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Immediately strikes you in its rich, orange-rind, marmalade and honey scents, baked apple/caramel Tarte Tatin like, with hot vanilla custard, also shortbread nuances – actually reminds me of the Hong Kong egg tarts – the secondary complexities build as it breaths with poached peaches and cinnamon spice, very alluring and draws one to the wine. Palate is considerably more restrained with the intrinsic lemon-edged and apply vibrancy, very linear and focused, if not somewhat locked away and quite bony and chalky, seemingly a ways of fleshing out yet; curious in its bouquet showing considerable secondary complexity and yet the palate diametrically youthful.
2004 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Again immediately showing wonderful secondary complexities with scents of bees wax, dry grasses, wallflower – like a hay barn on a hot summers day – building in richness with a alluring melange of cone honey, apple Tarte Tatin (like upside down apple cake or toffee apple), deeper nuances of Seville orange-rind-marmalade, candied lemon peel, almond short crust, with an extra-complexity of smoky pork fat which I find most attractive. Sublime palate texture, really notice the harmony and seamless, even texture in this wine, glides across the mouth yet bursting with stone fruit and citrus succulence, indeed gushing with a melange of citrus – marmalade flavours, Seville orange – delightful and generous wine, totally giving and incredibly powerful yet with a sense balance and total harmony. First wine in the line-up to look like it is reaching optimum drinking although nowhere near peaking with years ahead of it I am sure. Stand-out wine in the line-up.
2003 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Again deep-scented and showing alluring secondary complexities, perhaps a little more toffee and caramel butteriness than the 2004 with richer, peanut oil nuances and grilled nuts and a subtle white truffle oil scent – very attractive nuances – and a captivating spiciness, like walking into an Indian restaurant with the air permeated with coriander seed, cumin, turmeric curry scents, even has a that smell of ghee and tandoor bread. Immediately impressive on palate, buttery – like hot butter in a pan – infused with lemon and a discernible earth, terracotta clay-like minerality, drinking beautifully, lively and dances around the mouth with tantalizing tanginess, a gentle teasing phenolic, looks like it will continue to develop. Arguably on par with the 2004 (Note to self, track some down for my daughter’s birth year cellar as will definitely travel 20 years).
2002 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Tones of peach and apricot amongst honeyed, buttery, oily richness, bakery-pastry scents, has that reoccurring vanilla custard, nougat, roasted almond, bees wax complexity, a wonderful perfume in perfect harmony with the ever-present citrus background. Rich, toasty, vanilla custard and roasted almond nutty flavours, gorgeously textural, creamy-smooth palate, totally integrated and drinking superbly, still has vibrancy and tangy lemon zest with persistent carry and acidity; plenty of life ahead of it, another stunning wine.
2001 Mount Horrocks Semillon – Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Wonderful perfume, in much the same vein as the 2002 and 2003 showing excellent bottle development and secondary complexities of rich, buttery, toasty nuances, although appears to have an extra dimension of toasted almond and truffle oil scents and an intriguing marzipan icing nuance. Not as rich on the palate, indeed still crisp and lemon-edged with a bony, straw-hay flavour and overall leaner profile, certainly less giving on the palate than the nose and assume it still needs more time to develop.