Recommended Semillon Producers:
Australia: Dry Semillon
Australia: Botrytis Semillon
Like the second son of an aristocratic family,
some grapes need to travel abroad to make a name for themselves.
Back home – that is to say, in Europe – they hide in
a blend or behind an obscure regional name, but in the New World
they get the chance to make something of themselves. Think of Malbec:
once one of the more obscure Bordeaux varietals, it now thrives
as the pride of Argentina. Similarly with Carmenere in Chile. Zinfandel
is an extreme example – perhaps “adventurous peasant
makes good in the colonies” is a more accurate archetype in
its case. Spending time abroad just seems to be good for some grapes.
An often overlooked example is Semillon. While
its thin skin makes it susceptible to botrytis and therefore a valuable
part of Bordeaux’s sweet whites, it shares its billing there
with the more recognized name of Sauvignon Blanc, plus bit player
Muscadelle. But in the far-flung outposts of the Commonwealth, Semillon
shows that it can indeed stand on its own two feet.
There’s a strange paradox to the best of
New World dry Semillons; although full-bodied, even viscous, and
relatively low in acid, they retain a surprising freshness and a
clean finish. Many producers find it hearty enough to bear the weight
of new oak; that, combined with the sometimes waxy touch of the
varietal itself, can make for a complex and satisfying mouthfeel.
Lime, lemon, and grapefruit aromas typically add some fruitiness
and interest as well.
Australia’s Hunter Valley is the first area
to make a name for this style of Semillon; the grapes were often
picked early, giving the wine an herbaceous character that somehow
matured into a toasty, honeyed aromas. Lindemans’ richly-colored
bottlings, for example, proved both delicious and ageworthy. As
elsewhere, today the grapes are harvested riper; the wines have
more to offer when young, but don’t usually develop as spectacularly.
Demand for Hunter Valley Semillons is such that availability is
limited to direct purchases (i.e. at the winery) or at selected
restaurants. Your best bet is to keep an eye out should you visit
Down Under. However, a few wineries do import their dry, 100% Semillon
wines to the U.S., and these can be excellent values, since the
varietal still lacks cache here.
Just as Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz blends
let the latter grape piggyback on the success of Cabernet in the
80s, many Aussie winemakers did the same with their Semillon, blending
it with Chardonnay. While the wines can be good, it hasn’t
been the marketing success that Cab-Shiraz is. In some senses the
grapes both bring the same thing to the wine; the classic Bordeaux
blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc seems more logical from a
winemaking point-of-view, combining as it does the acidity and aromatics
of sauvignon with Semillon’s more rounded mouthfeel.
The other Australian region for Semillon is Riverina,
a large area in the interior of New South Wales, about halfway between
Adelaide and Sydney. Much of Riverina’s grapes are destined
for the bulk wine market, but the Semillon-based dessert wines prove
that the area is capable of much more. Winemakers cultivate botrytis
in the grapes, and here as in Bordeaux, the fungus concentrates
the sugars and flavors of the grape while adding smoky, tropical,
and/or bitter orange zest notes. Because of the relaxed Aussie laws,
these wines are easier to make than their Sauternes role models,
so they’re generally great values even if they rarely attain
the same complexity.
South Africa took to Semillon with a vengeance;
by the early 19th century the grape made up as much as 94% of their
plantings. That’s dwindled down to only 1%, as growers replant
with other, more internationally popular varietals, but the vines
that remain are generally quite old, bringing low yields and plenty
of intensity and richness to their wines. Its old popularity probably
relates to the country’s reputation for dessert wines in the
1800s; these days several producers are instead following the Hunter
Valley’s model for dry wines. Stellenzicht, part of the large
Distell group, produces a superb dry Semillon, as does Constantia
Uitsig. Fairview (one of Charles Back’s labels, along with
Spice route and Goats do Roam) also produces an excellent, single-vineyard
Semillon. While none of these companies has made Semillon a priority
for the U.S. market, here’s hoping that these rarer wines
will become more readily available as South Africa continues to
push into North America.
Recommended Semillon Producers:
Mount Pleasant Elizabeth
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