Semillon is a white grape variety, that is planted across the world, but whose origins lie in Bordeaux. A star in its own right for producing the greatest sweet wines in the world, from Bordeaux, and also, at the other end of the scale, some of the longest lived and complex white wines of Australia, notably from the Hunter Valley, it falls into a pool of blends, within these 2 extremes.
What Is Semillon?
It’s a thick-skinned grape, but one which can frequently overripen if not tended carefully; it is a key component in all dry Bordeaux white wines, and is the sole star of the world-famous sweet wines of Sauternes, Barsac and Cerons, from the same region. It also produces exceptional dry wines in New World countries, especially Australia, where it shines as a single varietal, especially in wines from the Hunter Valley.
It is a grown all over the world, and is an integral part of many blends, especially in New World countries. At its best it has a zesty freshness and produces wines that age superbly; as a blending wine, it adds weight and fleshiness to dry white blends. It can be a real maverick of a grape, in that, at its best, it possesses incredible acidity to produce long lived single varietal wines, such as Hunter Valley Semillons, yet, overripe, it tends to fatness and a lack of depth… unless of course it is affected by ‘noble rot’, or ‘botrytis cinerea’, mainly in Bordeaux, where it produces the most unique and prized sweet white wines in the world.
Semillon is at the heart of all white Bordeaux blends, and is the sole star of all Bordeaux sweet wines. It has been grown in Bordeaux for centuries. Its natural home is in the southern part of the region; the star of Sauternes, Barsac and Cerons, it is also an integral part of all white wine blends from Entre-Deux-Mers and Graves, the main white wine producing areas of Bordeaux.
Semillon is a grape that is grown all over the world; it was taken to Australia in the 19th century, and is now one of the most widely planted white grape varieties in the country, with its natural home, the Hunter valley. In the 19th century it was also one of the most widely planted grapes in South Africa, although it is now only a tiny percentage of the white grapes grown.
It is really only in Sauternes, and in the Hunter Valley that Semillon shines on its own, yet it is an integral part of almost every dry white Bordeaux wine from Graves or Entre-Deux-Mers, where it is blended with Sauvignon blanc, and a tiny proportion of Muscadelle; it also forms part of the most popular white wine out of Australia – the ubiquitous Semillon/Chardonnay blend.
Semillon is a grape that is easy to cultivate, and that is resistant to disease, making it easy to plant in most corners of the wine producing world. It is unique and extreme in the fact that it can produce wines of incredible acidity, such as Hunter Valley Semillon, and yet overripen so easily that it can lead to flabbiness and flatness in lower quality blends of wine.
It’s a fleshy, weighty grape, which ripens early; it’s key to pick this grape, for dry wines, at its optimum, where the acidity and freshness of the grapes are still strong. In Bordeaux, for dry wines, it’s blended with the zesty Sauvignon Blanc, to add weight and structure to the blend. In Australia, it’s part of the country’s most popular blend Semillon/Chardonnay, where it contributes weight, but also lime freshness and acidity, when treated carefully.
It’s a grape that loves hot conditions during the day, and cool nights, together with misty, foggy conditions.
It produces unique wines in the Hunter Valley, where it manages to produce some of the longest lived, highest acidity wines in the world. Careful vineyard management and winemaking result in wines that are lime-streaked and mouth-tinglingly zesty in their youth, and develop into glorious, buttered toast and butterscotch infused, complex whites – with absolutely no oak; truly glorious and iconic wines.
But it is in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, with its cold winters, hot summers, and cool, foggy, damp autumns, that this grape really comes into its own. It’s a grape that’s resistant to everything but rot, but in Bordeaux (and now some areas of Australia), this is good news. The damp fog rolls in to the Sauternes and neighbouring regions from the Bordeaux rivers, and hits the grapes. Botrytis cinerea, or ‘noble rot’, is a condition that affects the Semillon grape in this region, shrivelling the grapes, and concentrating the sugars. The grapes are then picked, far later in the season than all other grapes, and the few drops of intensely sweet juice, then gathered from the crushing of the shrivelled grapes – this is what produces the beautiful sweet and complex dessert wines of Bordeaux.
What Does It Taste Like?
Semillon is a unique grape variety, in that it has more personalities than any other single grape.
As part of the dry Bordeaux blend for Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers, it adds weight and fleshiness to the zestiness of Sauvignon Blanc, and leads to structured, elegant, lime fresh, yet almost waxy dry whites.
On its own or as a dominant part of a blend it can be criticised for this ‘waxy’ quality, a fleshiness, or weight, that can be overpowering if not managed carefully. This is why, in one of its integral roles, as part of Australia’s most popular white blend ‘Semillon/Chardonnay’, it’s so crucial that the acidity in this grape is maintained and used carefully, to ensure a quality blend… which is often not the case.
In the Hunter Valley, it creates some truly unique wines – unoaked, in youth, it is searingly fresh, with high acidity, and a glorious tongue-tingling freshness, with citrus fruits abounding; as it ages it takes on an incredible toasty, buttery character, yet without any oak; older Semillons, especially from the Hunter Valley are unmatched – layers of complexity, buttered toast, lime marmalade, richness and weight, yet, with a steadfast streak of fresh acidity running through, regardless of age.
At its glorious peak, in Sauternes, Cerons and Barsac, it is a wine of unctuous richness, yet delicacy; a sumptuous balance of rich, intense, honeyed fruit, raisins, and lemony glycerine, with a zesty, refreshing edge. Nothing is cloying, the sum of the parts is wonderfully intense and multi-facetted – deep, lingering and intriguing.
Where Is It From?
Semillon’s natural home is the Bordeaux region of France, where it produces the most unique and prized sweet wines in the world. History books show that these wines have been enjoyed for centuries, both in their sweet style, and also as part of the classic white Bordeaux blend.
Semillon was taken to Australia in the 19th century, and has become one of its major white grape varieties, where it stands as a star. At one stage it also accounted for 90% of all white grapes grown in South Africa, although this has now dwindled dramatically, and now accounts for only 1%.
What Does It Go With?
As part of the dry white Bordeaux blend, it’s perfect with goats cheese salads, mussels, all other manner of shellfish, and simply grilled or pan- fried white fish.
As any Semillon Chardonnay blend, it produces a ripe, peach and baked apple fruity white, sometimes oaked, which works well with richer fish dishes, such as fish pie, and salmon with a creamy sauce; roast chicken, and chicken casserole; and fruity pork dishes.
Pure Semillon wines, well- made, are one of the greatest pleasures in the world, with their vibrant zestiness and freshness when young, and imbued with a toasted hazelnut and buttered toast character when aged. For the former, match with the freshest shellfish, and chargrilled prawns or Thai spiced salmon; with older Semillon the options are endless – lime butter salmon, tarragon infused chicken, and mature, soft cheeses.
Sauternes and other sweet Bordeaux or botrytis Semillon wines are rich, yet have a delicate fragrance and lemon zestiness – don’t overwhelm with a chocolate pud, but match with fruit based desserts, crème brulee and lemon tart. The classic matches for Sauternes are foie gras (but rich pates would work) and Roquefort, or other blue cheese – the sweetness in both these dishes matches perfectly with the sumptuous wine, yet the acidity holds the match together