Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Sémillon 1998-2019

Australia, Hunter Valley

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Sémillon 1998-2019

"Sémillon is regarded in many places as a middle-of-the-road variety, but in Hunter Valley, we see it as something extraordinary."


- Bruce Tyrrell

The Anti-Hedonist

Hunter Valley Sémillon is one of the wine world’s most polarizing styles. When it’s first bottled and made in the classic style, it is so watery-textured, acidic, and neutral in aromatic profile, it’s been described as battery acid even by some of its greatest proponents. Labeled in the early part of the twentieth century as “Hunter Riesling,” young Hunter Sémillon indeed takes all the edginess of Riesling to the extreme.

“We really have no detailed history of our viticultural heritage,” said Bruce Tyrell, fourth generation winemaker and managing director of Tyrrell’s Wines. “In the early 1800s, we know there were all sorts of cuttings coming in. Then, in 1830, the Australian government sent James Busby to Europe to collect grapevine cuttings. He acquired 660 different cuttings from all over, but only about two-thirds survived. They were packed in bundles of 20 or bundles of 5. The bundles of 5 came to the Hunter Valley. These Busby clones were the core of the Australian wine industry. The industry went through incredible growth in the late 1800s. At that time, around 7000-8000 acres were planted in Hunter Valley. Then it nose-dived to around 700 in the mid-1900s.”

"I always say that phylloxera got to the Hunter Valley border and said, ‘Well, that looks boring,’ and turned back."

Tyrrell’s was established in 1858 and remains one of the oldest family-owned wineries in Australia.

“Allotments of land were made available by the Australian government, up to 320 acres, which you could pay for later,” continued Bruce. “That’s how my great-grandfather got his land. My great-uncle took over and really held the place together through the great depression. My grandfather worked with him. To him, every vine was like a person. We have some old vines with a lot of character. We’ve got a plot of Chardonnay planted in 1908—maybe the oldest own-roots Chardonnay vines on the planet. The Old Patch Shiraz vineyard I have was planted in 1867. See, we never got phylloxera. I always say that it got to the Hunter Valley border and said, ‘Well, that looks boring,’ and turned back.”

In 1963, Tyrrell’s created Vat 1 Sémillon, a label that was to become one of the world’s finest expressions of this grape. Initially, it was a single vineyard wine from the Short Flat vineyard, positioned in front of the winery. This vineyard still makes up the backbone of Vat 1, with Sémillon vines planted in 1923 and 1927. Hunter Valley growers realized that Sémillon works best when planted on the sandy soil profiles in the Valley, whereas Shiraz tends to be planted on the darker red-brown loams. Along with vine age, the sandy soil profile defines the vineyard selection of grapes destined for Vat 1. 

“We are working on improving the winemaking of Sémillon constantly,” said Bruce. “The vines are all cane pruned—two canes, four buds each. And they’re clean cultivated. We get wet summers and humidity, so if we have grass growing, we get rotten fruit. We need to copper and sulfur spray every two weeks. Picking is based on flavor first. We probably eat about three tons of grapes. You want to fill the mouth with flavor, and you want good length of flavor. pH is your mark of stability. 3.1 is good. 3.6 is dangerous. We’re only 30 kilometers from the coast, so the nights are freezing, and the days are hot. Sunscreen for the grapes has been a game-changer. Now, the vineyard looks like a moonscape, but it means you don’t get burnt berries anymore. And it comes out as sediment when you do the settling. We start picking in January because we get flavor development early. The wines would be coarse and flat if I picked the grapes later. It’ll be about 90 days from budburst to ripening. If Easter is early, your crop will be early; if it’s late, your crop will be late. It’s about the phases of the moon. Sorting is ruthless. Every bunch is handled twice so that all the rot gets sorted out. Then we do a rapid pressing and a cold settle. Leave it in tank a few months, and then get it in the bottle.”

"You know what you do if you’ve got a young winemaker who wants to make more Sémillon? You take him out behind the barn and shoot him. Because he’ll only go and make it elsewhere."


Hunter Sémillon is so delicate that random oxidation due to the use of cork as a closure was evident in the range of colors of wines aged the same way and even from the same case. These days, nearly all Hunter Semillons are bottled using screwcap. Total production of Tyrrell’s Vat 1 under screwcap began in 2004.

The Production of Vat 1 is about 2000-2500 cases annually. A style that often needs something of a hand sell, Hunter Sémillon is especially popular in Sydney and surrounding areas. “About 75-80% of our sales are domestic,” Bruce mentioned, “of which about 20-25% is direct to consumer.”

Hunter Sémillon is a style for anti-hedonists who embrace soft-spoken elegance and quiet intensity.

Like Sauternes, Hunter Sémillon is an underrated, under-the-radar style offering great value for the quality. Seriously crisp, bone dry, and usually around just 11% alcohol or below, it’s a style for anti-hedonists who embrace soft-spoken elegance and quiet intensity. Give it 4-5 years in bottle, and Vat 1 will begin to reward your patience with subtle lemongrass, lime leaves, toast, fresh hay, and preserved mandarin peel characters. Give it ten years or more, and Vat 1 sings of chamomile tea, honeycomb, baking spices, and a myriad of mineral/chalky notes. The appeal may be niche, but that means more for those who love it.

Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photos by Johan Berglund



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