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05.04.2010

2004 St. Hallett Semillon, Barossa Valley, Australia

st_hallett_semillon.jpgI'll tell you right off the bat that if you live in the United States, you can't buy this wine. It's currently not imported. Those of you who live in Europe or Asia may be able to get your hands on it, but not much leaves Australia.

What is the point, you may ask, of reviewing a wine that most will not be able to buy?

Firstly, the wine is delicious, and worthy of a review on its own merits alone. But more importantly, the wine represents a very under-appreciated Australian contribution to the world of wine: old vine Semillon.

Australia's Barossa Valley, of course, offers a treasure trove of ancient vines of all kinds, but especially Shiraz, for which it has become quite famous. Originally settled by mostly German Lutherans fleeing religious persecution in the middle of the 19th century, the valley was divided up into small townships, and within those, large individual family plots of land which were inevitably planted to a whole lot of things, including wine grapes.

Originally, most of those grapes went to make fortified wines, like most of the country produced for many years, and consequently among other things, the settlers planted Semillon. This was all but a requirement, given that it was among the most widely planted grapes in the world at the time. While the oldest and most celebrated of Australia's Semillon can be found in the Hunter Valley outside of Sydney, Barossa has slowly been rediscovering pockets of its old Semillon, as well as planting new ones.

Eclipsed by the monstrous attention paid to the old vine Shiraz in the region, Barossa Semillon has largely escaped the notice of the broader wine drinking world outside of Australia. While I had personally tasted a Barossa Sauvignon Blanc or two with some Semillon blended in, before my recent press trip to Australia I hadn't paid much attention to the white wines of the Barossa, assuming that the heat that made for such ripe and juicy Shiraz might not be so beneficial for white varieties, especially those with thinner skins like Semillon.

But then I tried this wine and some fireworks went off.

In point of fact, after Shiraz, the two most widely planted grape varieties in the Barossa are Riesling and Semillon, and thanks to the hills and various microclimates around the valley it is possible (though not necessarily easy) to make high quality white wines. Barossa is not really as hot as it might seem, and some of its whites are hidden gems.

St. Hallett Winery was started in the 1940's by a good Lutheran family of butchers, who like so many of their fellow farmsteaders grew grapes on their property. The Lindner family decided to name their winery after one of the early land surveyors in Australia's history, but why the "St." prefix was added to the name is not entirely clear. Originally St. Hallet made some red table wine that they used in their sausages and other meat products, but primarily focused on Port-style fortified wines that they would sell in bulk to traders who would ship them off to slake the never-ending thirst of Europe at the time.

Starting in about 1970 the Lindner's decided to start making some Shiraz and Cabernet table wines, as Australian consumers had begun to transition away from the sweeter wines that made up the bulk of consumption up until that point. Encouraged by their successes, the family modernized the winery in 1989 for full commercial production. Despite now being on the larger side, the winery continues to produce most of its wines in small, open top fermentation tanks.

While the winery produces its share of red wines, St. Hallett has become known for its white wines, and in particular for its Semillon and Riesling. The wines are currently made by the young Toby Barlow, with help from senior winemaker Stuart Blackwell. Barlow made his way to winemaking via a degree in Philosophy and some philosophical wanderings that took him "back to the land" where one day he woke up and realized he wanted to be a farmer more than he wanted to be an academic (or a government agent -- another career he flirted with for a time).

St. Hallet, like many Barossa wineries both big and small, doesn't own much vineyard land itself. Instead it sources grapes from a total of 63 different growers, and from those sites, makes about 140 different lots of wine each harvest. While many of these lots are combined to make the winery's higher production wines, the focus on making different vineyard blocks separately seems to be a sort of insanity that passes for tradition at St. Hallett.

But to the extent that such incredible efforts can yield wines like this one, with its main-line of electric lemonade, there may be method to the madness.

This wine was the first of many Barossa Semillons I tried on my recent trip, and it was among the best of them. Utterly unique in character, it represents a side of the Barossa I had never seen before, and a side that all but the greatest fans of Australian wines have probably never seen.

So while my American readers can't buy this wine, I offer it up at the very least as encouragement to keep your eyes open for bottles with the words Barossa Semillon on them, with the hopes that you'll latch onto a good one someday and thank me.


Tasting Notes:
Pale green in the glass with a yellowish cast, this wine has an utterly fantastic nose of waxy, sappy lemon verbena and crazy floral notes. In the mouth the wine is beautifully juicy with an almost tannic structure surrounding electric flavors of mineral, lemon zest, verbena, and lemongrass. Wonderful delicacy characterizes the palate, thanks to good acids, and a fresh chamomile aroma lingers in the finish. Sadly not available for sale in the US.

Food Pairing:
I would love to have tried this wine with the sole meuniere I made the other night, as I think the flavors would have been a wonderful match for the browned butter and lemon in the sauce.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $18

This wine is currently unavailable in the United States.

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