Vintages of the valley

Phil Ryan
Phil Ryan
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The man behind some great Australian wines has roots here in Yorkshire. Christine Austin meets him.

I am not sure how many Leeds United supporters live in Australia’s Hunter Valley, but Phil Ryan, former chief winemaker and general manager at McWilliams Mount Pleasant Estate is certainly one of them. Phil was born in Leeds and still has relatives in the county but he emigrated to Australia as a child and has spent his working life making some of Australia’s most distinctive and famous wines.

I called in at McWilliams during my visit to Australia earlier this year, and while I knew Phil had retired last year, I was totally delighted to see him heading across the paddock to meet me.

“I couldn’t miss a visitor from Yorkshire,” he said. He has worked with McWilliams from the age of 19, and in that time the company has collected more accolades and medals than any other Australian wine company.

McWilliams is a family-owned wine company, founded in 1877, with vineyards across South Eastern Australia. The Mount Pleasant Estate is in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, just a couple of hours’ drive north from Sydney. It is here that Semillon is a particular speciality, producing wines with the ability to age for decades, developing a whole range of unique and delicious flavours.

Since Phil’s retirement, a new team has come in to replace him, including Scott McWilliams, a sixth generation family winemaker, but the great thing about Semillon wines is their longevity, so while Phil may have fermented his last McWilliams wine, they will still be available on the shelves for years to come.

In most parts of the world, particularly in Bordeaux, Semillon is harvested late, often affected by botrytis to make gorgeously sweet wines but in the Hunter Valley it is picked early, to make an acidic, fresh tasting wine of around 11 per cent alcohol. Bottled soon after fermentation its clean zingy flavours can justifiably live up to its old name of “Hunter Valley Riesling” but the magic happens in bottle over a number of years as the wines develop gorgeous complexity of honeyed toast. Starting with green, crisp apple notes the flavours deepen over the years, through lemon and lime notes while developing texture and allowing some tropical fruit notes to emerge which can almost give the impression of sweetness, despite being bone dry. It is the unmistakeable clear acidity which gives old Semillon its long life and vitality.

I tasted through a range of wines with Phil, starting with the wine that bears his name, Phil Ryan 2009 Semillon, which was one of the best Hunter Valley vintages. It is made from youngish vines yet still musters notes of lemon marmalade on toast with an almost crunchy finish.

Mount Pleasant “Elizabeth” 2006 Semillon comes from a selected group of vineyards in the Hunter which bring together the different influences of their soils. “Grapes for this wine must be in absolutely perfect condition, then we crush them under a carbon dioxide blanket to prevent any kind of oxidation”, said Phil. Bottled within six weeks of harvest, the wine ages and develops its character in bottle and this 2006 vintage has already shaken off its pure citrus character to become nutty, with lemon curd on toast notes and a developing texture that adds roundedness and style.

Find this at Majestic, currently on offer at £9.99 on multibuy and at Tesco.com but don’t rush to drink it. Buy more than you need and lose it at the back of the wine rack for a few years.

I was also treated to a couple of vintages of Lovedale, the flagship single vineyard wine, planted in 1945 on sandy soil which seems to give the wine a tight mineral character with citrus blossom aromas and zesty citrus peel flavours. The 2007 vintage is still young while 2005 is developing into an intense, power-packed citrus-charged wine. Difficult to find on local shelves, check Slurp.co.uk for stocks at around £19.

While at McWilliams I also checked out a couple of the flagship Shiraz wines, named after the founder of the Mount Pleasant winery Maurice O’Shea. Made from 150 year old ungrafted vines, they defied the usual blockbuster character of Australian Shiraz, with the 2005 vintage gathering intense spice and pepper with mocha chocolate edges and dark bramble fruit while the 2010 is still developing its character, with great potential. Find them at Hanging Ditch Wine Merchants at around £30.

A short distance from McWilliams is Tyrrells, another family-owned winery with a reputation for its Semillon wines, and I was just minutes into my conversation with Bruce Tyrrell when football came up in conversation again. Apparently Michael Bridges, formerly of Leeds United and now with the Newcastle Jets lives locally and is a frequent visitor to the winery. I tasted through the current range with Bruce, and particularly liked the Semillons, especially Tyrrells Vat 1 Hunter Valley Semillon 2006 which is showing lemon and lime freshness with precise acidity and a long, balanced finish. Majestic has the 2003 vintage of this wine (£25) which has had more time in bottle to develop its toasty complexity and minerally finish. If you have a plate of oysters then this is the wine to pour alongside. Another Hunter valley winery which is doing more than most to open up the world of Semillon to a new range of drinkers is McGuigan. Made in a slightly riper style than others, with tropical fruit notes to the fore, McGuigan Classic Semillon Blanc 2012 (£7.99, Sainsbury) still retains crisp lime freshness with a rounded, softer style. While this wine will age, it is really enjoyable young too, especially with summer foods and salads.

Tesco source their own label Finest Denman Vineyard Semillon 2012 (£9.99) from McGuigan in the Hunter Valley and I tasted the 2013 vintage while I was at the winery. Fresh with delicious honeysuckle aromas and ripe pear and citrus notes, it will arrive soon on the shelves. Meanwhile the 2012 vintage is available and it is a terrific wine, offering rounded, elegant Semillon fruit, with a soft rounded style and a lively finish.