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Semillon Goes Abroad

Recommended Semillon Producers:

Australia: Dry Semillon

Australia: Botrytis Semillon

South Africa

By Jim Clarke

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:

Australia: Dry Semillon
Lindemans
Mount Pleasant Elizabeth
Allandale
Tyrrell’s
Tim Adams
Brokenwood
Kalleske

Australia: Botrytis Semillon
DeBortoli
Yalumba
Two Hands
Three Bridges

South Africa:
Stellenzicht
Constantia Uitsig
Fairview


 

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       Published: August 2006
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