Featured Wine: Tyrrell’s Vat 1, Hunter Semillon “Aged Release” 1994, Hunter Valley, Australia
This is – or, I should say, the bottle now being empty in front of me, was – by any measures, a unique wine. Semillon, to the extent that the layman knows anything about it, is considered the province of white Bordeaux wines along with Sauvignon Blanc – and especially, when it’s undergone botyritis, as the winning ingredient of arguably the world’s greatest sweet wine, Sauternes. Elsewhere, it is regarded as little more than a high-yielding grape good for bulk blending… Except in the Hunter Valley, a couple of hours north of Sydney where, aside from producing some cheap and cheerful light quaffers, it is also capable of delivering some of the world’s longer-lived and more esoteric white wines – of which the benchmark is the Hunter region pioneer Murray Tyrrell’s “Vat 1.”
But even the Australians know little about this – or if they do, they don’t seem to care that much for it. Despite its global reputation among wine geeks, we picked this bottle up, at the winery, in January 2000 for what I recall as being significantly less than US$20 dollars. It had only just been released to the public (Tyrrell’s do us the service of storing it in bottle for four years) and, I was assured, would not likely come into its own until it had a good decade on it. A couple of years later, I met Len Evans, another of Australia’s 20th Century wine greats, in New York, and asked him about this Vat 1; he assured me that, assuming a decent cork, the 1994 would see out the decade. It did more than that: it saw him out, too. (Evans died in 2006.)
So, what gives? What’s so special about Vat 1 that some of us would want to put it down for such a long time? The answer, of course, is in the glass. Having hoarded this wine in the States for almost a full decade, Posie and I finally opened it at a dinner at a local restaurant, the Peekamoose, on Monday February 16th, the 19th anniversary of the night that we met. (I paid $15 corkage for the privilege, and while my wife noted that in the process I had doubled the cost of the wine, I preferred to point out that we couldn’t have had two glasses of restaurant swill for that price, and so I had in fact saved us money. As far as I’m concerned, the glass is always half-full.)
Anyway, after some initial reticence, the golden-colored wine began to erupt with the anticipated aromas of honey and nuts, which were equally prevalent on a palate that was surprisingly full-bodied, and came complete with a lip-smacking, lemon-lime tinge that followed through to the lengthy finish. My wife referred to it as “pleasantly serious,” which seemed succinctly apt. For my part, preferring verbosity, I noticed that the longer it remained on the table, the more pronounced became its acidity – suggesting that its still had many more years left in it – and that its initially steely mid-palate gradually gave way to an incredible balance of body, fruit and texture, of citrus, cream, nuts, and honey and that zesty spriteness both at front and back end, along with a deceptive hint of sweetness in what is, in fact, a bone-dry wine.
Posie asked me if there was any French wine I could compare this to, and I got side-tracked on the fact that the Australians initially thought their Hunter Valley Semillon to be the predominantly German grape Riesling – presumably because of that searing acidity – and named it accordingly. Then I considered the wines of the Loire, those long-lasting Chenin Blancs from Vouvray and Savennieres, along with the better aged examples of Melon de Bourgogne in neighboring Muscadet. Those are all acquired tastes: they lack the richness of Chardonnay, tend to be relatively light in alcohol, and have an almost metallic minerality that some consider nectar of the gods, and others consider a fault. Likewise, it took at least a couple of mouthfuls to familiarize ourselves with the unfamiliarity of this aged Semillon – but once we did, we fell in love. (With the wine, stupid!) The Tyrrell’s Vat 1 was none so ethereal as an aged Burgundy, not as subtle as a perfectly mature German Riesling, and none so pronounced as a well-stored Loire Chenin Blanc, yet it was so idiosyncratic, so distinctive, so giving and yet commanding, so perfectly all in balance and yet still kicking around like a precocious teenager that it paid back its paltry purchase price and its decade in the cellar several times over.
Clearly, Semillon has found itself a unique piece of terroir in the Hunter Valley, something of a modern mystery that even the scientists can’t quite figure out. As writer Oz Clarke notes, himself bemused, “it is far too warm there to produce dry Semillon, and indeed far too humid.” Yet the hot summers are tempered by afternoon cloud that diffuses the sunlight and keeps the sugar level down, while the perpetual humidity keeps the acidity high – and rain around harvest seems to bring out the best in Hunter Valley Semillon, even as (or, in fact, because) it keeps alcohol levels as low as 10%. (This 1994 clocked in at a modest 10.5%.) In essence, wet vintages that are considered a disappointment for other Hunter Valley grapes, especially the Shiraz, are typically considered a boon for the Semillon. 1994 was just such a year, long hailed as a classic for the Semillon in general, and Vat 1 in particular.
Karl Stockhausen, from whose Hunter Valley winery we also brought back a bottle of Semillon in 2000, tells a story of someone returning a case of the 1991 vintage complaining that “You said it would last for ten years… now look at it.” Stockhausen did just that: he opened a bottle, felt that it was “absolutely magnificent” and happily swapped out the case for one of the most recent vintage. “It kept us both happy,” he said, noting generously of the dissatisfied customer, “Not everyone likes the same thing.”
That’s the beauty of wine. And for as long as people expect their wines to be as rich, sweet, and dolled up as Jayne Mansfield on a bender, the likes of the Hunter Valley Semillons will remain cellar-door bargains. Unfortunately, in this case, the wine not being readily available in stores around the globe, that cellar door is one of the only ways to get it. There may be exceptions, and if you see one, grab at it. The wine won’t set the bank balance back to any extent that you’ll feel disappointed. And who knows: let it sit a while longer, take it out for a romantic dinner, and you might just fall in love. (With the wine, stupid!)