The gentle kiss of semillon

Sit me down with someone who is enthusiastic about semillon and I’m happy. Sit me down with someone who’s even more enthusiastic about Hunter Valley semillon and I’m even happier. I think Bizoe Wines’ Rikus Neethling was surprised to find a fellow Hunter enthusiast here but when we got together over lunch, it allowed him to elaborate on his latest project, knowing his audience (me) understood what he was talking about and is familiar with the wines.

Rikus Neethling with his range of Bizoe wines

Before we got around to that discussion, Neethling poured his Henriëtta (named for his mother; the whole family is recognised in the range), a semillon-sauvignon blend, unlike most which see sauvignon the dominant variety.

As the style should, the older the wine, the more the semillon with its silky, textured feel, shines, sauvignon driving freshness in the background. It does have the ring of the more beeswaxy, earthy tones of old Franschhoek fruit, source of both varieties; the semillon from 21 year old vines on DP Burger’s property, Glenwood.

Henriëtta 2016 remains friskily fresh with just a wave of silky semillon peeping through at the end. Rather than oak, Neethling vinified half of the semillon in Flextank, an egg-shaped tank made of polyethelyne which allows for 20 mg per year of oxygen ingress; in other words, the effect of oak without any oak. The grape’s waxy breadth is more developed in the savoury 2015, probably encouraged by being oak fermented, though good vitality should allow for much more complexity of flavour and texture with age. It’s certainly the most harmonious of the trio, 2010 recognisably of a style, with supple breadth but short on the necessary freshness. Probably best to drink up soon. That said, the three vintages illustrated with interest the sort of progression and development one would anticipate.

We’ll have to wait and see how things or rather the wine evolves under Neethling’s new project, which is to produce a semillon ‘like those in the Hunter Valley’. What Neethling means is an early-picked, so lowish-alcohol (+-10%), unoaked white that turns from a youngster braced by fine, natural acid and a splash of citrus (a little like a youthful riesling, by which name the variety used to be known in the Hunter) into an altogether more amazing toasty character as it ages, fooling many into thinking it had a spell in wood.

Neethling was inspired by a recent visit to the region, where he had the opportunity to taste older vintages from Tyrrells, one of the leading semillon producers in the area. The current 2012 release of Tyrrells flagship Vat 1, one of the Hunter’s most admired semillons, sells for Aus$85 (just over R900!); amazingly, it is one of 11 semillons, either varietal or blended in the range.

Opened April 2017, this 32-year old Tyrrells semillon was still going strong.

Hunter Valley semillon is one of those strange wines, hugely popular with media (myself included) and a small number of consumers, but not understood by the wineloving public as a whole.

So, it’s going to be interesting to see how Neethling’s new wine, with fruit sourced from Darling bush vines as well as Glenwood, is received. If his attempt to create a South African version of Hunter Valley semillon raised one eyebrow, the other shot up when Neethling told me of his aim to release just 20% of each vintage each year, so the last tranche of 2018 will be five years old when it’s eventually released in 2023.

We are living in the age of innovation and bravado among South African winemakers and more open-minded wine drinkers. Rikus Neethling and his Bizoe wines (a new, still-tight chardonnay, Flextank, naturally-fermented, old oak-matured; an almost-too-easy Breedekloof shiraz and a Noble Late from, surprise, semillon complete the range) aren’t as high-profile as many other producers, this new project could make them more of a household name.

I, for one, shall follow the new project with interest and really hope it produces yet another talking point South African wine.

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