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Anne Krebiehl on the McGuigan Bin Series 9000

Published:  10 May, 2013

Rarely have food and wine been so well matched as on Tuesday evening at Alyn Williams at the Westbury Hotel for the Neil McGuigan dinner, which presented 10 vintages of Hunter Valley Semillon from 2003 to 2012.

All the wines were from the McGuigan Bin Series 9000 and were presented by Neil McGuigan to kick off a series of museum releases of older vintages in the UK later in the year. So why Semillon? Julian Dyer, general manager UK/Europe for Australian Vintage answered very promptly: "Because we are notorious for our Semillon. The original winery is still based in the Hunter Valley [he means McGuigan's, part of the larger Australian Vintage Ltd stable]. We've got some unique styles, and need to remind people of how good Australian wine can be."

However, convincing people of the quality of aged Hunter Valley Semillon is a tall order: the tertiary flavours usually found in mature wines are acquired tastes. Nonetheless, at the cellar door in Australia, where up to five mature vintages are available alongside young Semillon, Neil McGuigan, chief executive of Australian Vintage, reports, Semillon is now the second most popular variety after Shiraz.

For McGuigan it's all about putting Semillon in the spotlight: As one of the wines that Australia has truly made its own - where else can you harvest Semillon at potential abvs of 10.5% and produce a wine with such depth and longevity - it has never caught on in the same way as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, and the figures say it all. According to the Winemakers' Federation of Australia, in 2012 375,249 tonnes of Chardonnay were crushed vis-à-vis 86,711 tonnes of Sauvignon Blanc and 80,224 tonnes of Semillon - which makes Semillon Australia's third-most planted white grape variety. But how often do you see a bottle on the shelf?

In order to popularise Semillon, McGuigan has produced a "Semillon Blanc", which is an "extrovert, floral, citric style" of youthful Semillon, so Dyer, chiefly designed to be an alternative to fresh-tasting, fragrant Sauvignon Blanc and the attendant "Sauvalanche" of Kiwi imports to Australia. Here in the UK, Australian Vintage sells roughly 60,000 cases of Semillon Blanc versus 250,000 cases of similarly priced Chardonnay, according to Dyer.

Neil MacGuigan explains that Semillon works well in this form: on certain rootstocks and working with different yeasts, Semillon can indeed produce wines that are very enticing and fragrant in their youth to rival Sauvignon Blanc, but he is adamant that: "Semillon is an A-grade variety: it has flavour, lightness and longevity. Sauvignon Blanc is a B-grade variety: it has flavour but not longevity." He believes that people will move on from Sauvignon Blanc and thus, he wants to make Semillon more approachable. The McGuigan Semillon Blanc style is the result. Market-tested in the UK in 2010 it did extremely well, selling at an attractive £6.99, but it is not at all designed for ageing.

The Bin Series 900 Semillon, however, can and does age. "When Semillon is first made, it's really got this lime flavour, these lifted citrus notes, a little bit of lanolin," McGuigan explains. "Then after 12 months, it falls into a little hole for one to two years, then it comes out of it with that lovely hay flavour." Drawing a rounded arc with his hands to suggest the life-cycle of a wine, McGuigan continued: "You talk about this flavour of wine but when you look at Semillon it goes up in steps." For him, Semillon simply does not get beyond drinking age. Low pH allows the flavours to develop for decades, attaining ever greater heights. He also believes that eventually, varietal character will prevail over any distinct vintage character.

The vertical of Bin Series 9000 Semillon, which unlike most other Hunter Semillon, contains just a few grammes of residual sugar (around 4g/l) illustrated this and was matched exceptionally well by Alyn Williams' specially devised menu. The first flight, vintages 2012 to 2008, was served with a starter of seared scallops with green asparagus, oyster mayonnaise and spiced almonds: the weight of food and wine chimed well and the roasted almonds tuned in to the just-appearing tertiary aromas of the 2008 vintage which was the favourite of the flight. The main course of salmon fillet with beach vegetables, cucumber, smoked eel and, curiously, lemon curd was paired with the vintages 2007 to 2003. The citrus-scented salmon with the added creamy sweetness of the lemon curd really sang with the developed flavours of the wines, the smoky eel echoing some of the toasty overtones of the wines. Most convincing was the linear, clean-cut slenderness of the 2006 vintage. As a special treat the 1999 vintage of Bin Series 9000 Semillon was served and exhibited an even more ethereal take on this slender variety.

The fact that some of these museum releases will be available in the UK later in the year is a reason for creative chefs, home cooks and wine lovers to rejoice. And who knows, perhaps Semillon will have its time in the limelight: Wine Australia in its Viticulture at a Glance Report 2010 shows that 24% of Chardonnay had been grubbed up, versus 5% of Sauvignon Blanc and just 4% of Semillon...