wa2.gif (4241 bytes)

abut9.gif (3095 bytes)

abut12.gif (3207 bytes)
abut10.gif (3636 bytes)

abut11.gif (4039 bytes)


Focus on Semillon

Semillon is one of those solid, journeyman grape varieties that, while important, never seems to attract the limelight in the way that the likes of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling do. This second-tier status is reinforced by its tendency to be blended, rather than marketed as a varietal. Nor is its cause helped by the fact that it's extremely difficult to come up with a list of defining tastes and aromas that are characteristic of this grape. Always rooting for the underdog, I thought it was time to take a closer look at Semillon, and to give this unsung grape variety some proper attention at last.

Semillon's home is in the South West of France, and more particularly Bordeaux, where it is the most widely planted white grape. Most commonly it is blended: the classic Bordeaux white is a mix of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and often a dash of Muscadelle. It this blend that also makes the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, and this is where one of Semillon's strengths comes to the fore. It's extremely susceptible to noble rot, the posh name for a fungal infection called Botrytis cinarea. If it attacks unripe or damaged grapes, it is a disaster. But this particular cloud has a silver lining. When it attacks ripe, healthy white grapes, it causes them to shrivel, and these disgusting, mouldy looking berries yield small quantities of extremely concentrated juice that is then used to make sublime sweet white wines of great complexity and longevity. Semillon is the key component in these wines, and it is also used to make the sweet wines of Monbazillac, also in the South West of France (in a similar style but usually with a little less noble rot).

However, here we are going to be focusing exclusively on Semillon's role in making dry table wines. Outside France, the Hunter Valley of Australia is Semillon's adopted home, and here it makes possibly Australia's most interesting white wines. Picked early at low potential alcohol and unoaked, in their youth Hunter Valley Semillons are rather neutral, acidic white wines. With several years in the bottle, though, they undergo a metamorphosis, putting on weight and developing a delicious toasty, honeyed character that could fool you into thinking they've been barrel fermented. The best examples can carry on evolving for decades. Elsewhere in Australia, Semillon is undervalued and is often used as a blending partner for Chardonnay, where it contributes a crisp, citrussy edge to what might otherwise be overly flabby plonk. And Semillon/Sauvignon blends are common in Western Australia, where the two grapes synergize to make some stunning wines. Elsewhere in the new world, Semillon can perform very well, as some of the wines tasted here amply demonstrate. But they are usually rare examples, amid a sea of varietal Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Let's hope, for the sake of diversity, that growers persevere with this useful and often delicious variety, even though it lacks the upfront appeal and marketability of some of its siblings.

Château Broustet 'Blanc Sec de Broustet' 1998 Barsac 2eme Cru Classe
This fascinating white wine is a dry wine from Barsac (normally a sweet style). It has an arresting, herby, waxy nose with a complex, leafy edge and some peachy, tropical fruit notes. There's an unusual herby, leafy character to the palate, with high acidity on the palate. Very good/excellent (c. £12)

Sileni Estates Semillon 2000, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
Interesting citrus and herb nose with a lemony edge. It's concentrated, lemony and full flavoured on the palate, with a lovely herbal character. High acidity. Very good/excellent (c. £13.50)

Boekenhoutskloof Estate Semillon 1999, Franschoek, South Africa
The attractive open, toasty, nutty, bready nose clearly shows plenty of new oak, but it's pretty classy. The palate is savoury and lemony with high acid. Lots of classy oak, but overall just a tiny bit disjointed. Very good+ (c. £10.00)

Basedow Barossa Valley Semillon 2000, Barossa, Australia
Fresh lemony nose with some toasty notes. Attractive, full flavoured palate with bright lemony fruit and good balance. The high acidity and low key oaking work well here; an attractive, savoury wine. Very good+ (c. £6.50)

Tim Adams Semillon 1998, Clare Valley, Australia
A yellow/gold colour, this has a striking nose of lemony fruit, coconut and herbs. Complex and savoury on the palate, with powerful fruit flavours and a savoury, herby edge. Unusual stuff: with great concentration and intensity, this is a super food wine. Very good/excellent (Majestic, Tesco £8)

McWilliams Mount Pleasant 'Elizabeth' Semillon 1995, Hunter Valley, Australia
One of the classic Hunter Valley Semillons; always good value for money and released with a bit of bottle age. This one's a full yellow/gold colour, and has a lovely evolved rich nose with toasty, waxy notes and herbal and honey hints. The palate is intense, bold and herbal, with high acid and a rich texture. An unusual but stunning white wine. Excellent (c. £9, some Tesco stores)

Tyrrells Hunter Valley Semillon Vat 31 1996, Hunter Valley
Although it's the current release, this traditional Hunter Valley Semillon from the Stevens Vineyard probably needs another five years or so to show its best. It's a rather understated crisp white wine showing some herby, toasty elements, a touch of smoke and is beginning to fill out a bit on the palate. Unoaked, and with high acidity. Very good+ (c. £10 Oddbins)

Tyrrell's Vat 1 Hunter Semillon 1995, Hunter Valley, Australia
A yellow/gold colour, this has a distinctive waxy/herby nose with some toastiness. Palate is full and savoury with high acidity. It's still quite tight, and probably needs to evolve some more. Great potential, though. Very good/excellent (c. £20 Oddbins)

L'Ecole No 41 1999 Columbia Valley Semillon, Washington State, USA
2000 cases produced. Grapes sourced from several vineyards and the wine is 100% barrel fermented in second and third use oak. Fresh full nose of boiled sweets leads to a palate showing citrus fruit with a spicy edge. Light, fresh, bright style; attractive in a technological sort of way. Very good (c. £10)

L'Ecole No 41 1999 Fries Vineyard Semillon, Washington State, USA
About 500 cases produced. Restrained, fruity nose with nice balance between the fruit and new oak. The palate shows citrus and spice, with good balance: it's fruity, but the oak gives some spicy complexity. Very good+ (c. £15)

L'Ecole No 41 1999 Seven Hills Estate Semillon, Washington State, USA
About 500 cases made. Extremely attractive nose: aromatic and full, with sweet ripe fruit and spice. Palate shows spice and vanilla. Lovely in a full-on style; great fun. Very good+ (c. £15)

Back to top