‘Godfather of Semillon’ says the variety can now age for 50 years
Bruce Tyrrell spills the beans on taking the Hunter Valley from a “primitive little area” to the global epicentre of Semillon.
Tyrrell’s Semillon Vat 1 is Australia’s most awarded white wine, but its Hunter Valley home was perilously slow in adopting modern technologies, meaning the region has been on a 115-year-long journey to express Semillon’s full potential.
Despite electricity supply arriving in Australia from around 1880, according to Australia’s Institute of Electrical Engineers, astonishingly it did not reach the Hunter Valley until 1958.
“It was a very primitive little area,” Bruce Tyrrell said at a London lunch ahead of the Fell’s portfolio tasting last week. “There’s coal under us, but it’s a long, long way down so the majority of the local economy comes from wine.”
With Tyrrell’s oldest block of Semillon planted in 1908 (Hunter Valley never saw a hint of phylloxera), the producer had a good half century of making wines from the variety without the benefit of tech that other producers worldwide, and indeed across Australia, had at their fingertips. All of which makes it more remarkable that Tyrrell’s has carved out a reputation for being “the godfather” of Semillon.
With no electricity almost up to the 1960s, Tyrrell’s winery team “worked under kerosene lamps and used to put ice in the ferment to control the temperature. This is before we had proper refrigeration,” says the MD.
A special type of paint used in the cellar also helped to keep temperatures down, with areas covered in the paint registering around 20 degrees cooler than areas without the paint.
These milestones all played an important role in Tyrrell’s journey to becoming one of the world’s foremost Semillon producers.
“With Semillon we realised we had something no one else had,” says Tyrrell.
“We used to make a lot of it at 9.5%-10% ABV but I’ve taken it up a notch now. We took the decision a while back that while Semillon is young, it’s not that attractive. It needs a minimum of five years ageing. Someone said to me once ‘Jesus, there’s enough bloody acid in this to take the enamel off your teeth.’ And there was!”
Today, Hunter Valley Semillon is a different prospect all together. “We’re making wines with the ability to age for 30, 40, 50 years,” says Tyrrell, who adds that he began adding a touch of Trebbiano, or ‘Trebbi’, as he calls it, to the ferment for balance.
He bristles at any suggestion of a ‘recent’ resurgence of Semillon, however. “Yes there has been a resurgence, but a lot of work has gone into that. We’ve worked it and worked it and reworked it.”
According to Tyrrell, one of the biggest game changers for the variety has been the choice of bottle closure.
“The impact of screwcaps has been massive for Semillon. You only need a little bit of cork taint for it to be undrinkable,” claims Tyrrell.
“In 1983 I did an experiment with 10 dozen cases of Semillon under screwcap and 10 dozen cases under cork. I stored them side by side and didn’t touch them for years. When I eventually opened six dozen of each, one screwcap had gone rusty, and the rest were in brilliant condition. With the corks, about a dozen were undrinkable and the palates of the wines were a bit scalped out….
“There was nothing under cork that was better than under screwcap.”
Despite the implications of the results, Tyrrell says “we were frightened of change” and didn’t end up converting over entirely to screwcap until 2004 when he finally “bit the bullet and did it.”
“We were paying AU$2 per cork and a screwcap was 80 cents,” he says, adding that Tyrrell’s hasn’t returned to cork since.
Tyrrell’s may have taken time to get up to speed with modern innovations, but its managing director is adamant that not all modern advances are better.
“We used to have a lunatic Vietnam-vet chopper pilot who would fly just above the vines spraying fungicide, and he managed better vine coverage than the modern day drone-spraying technology,” he insists. “These young guys will have eight drones up in the air at the same time, all controlled by one person, and they can’t achieve the same results he did. But I must say they make less noise.”
The producer’s aforementioned Vat 1 Semillon has thus far racked up 5,475 medals and 332 trophies, which goes to show that slow and steady changes in winemaking approach can best serve a variety.
“Semillon runs in my bloodstream,” Tyrrell says. “My whole life has been about recognising it for what it can do and not what people think it should do.”