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The Semillon Grape


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About Semillon

(Synonyms: Blanc doux, Chevrier, Colombier, Groendruif, Hunter River Riesling, Malaga, Wyndruif.)

Background

Map showing the Bordeaux region of France

Sémillon is a white-wine grape originating in the Bordeaux region of France, where it has historically been a major component in the regional white-Bordeaux blends along with Sauvignon Blanc. Today it continues to be significant there, though (as with all Old World regional wines) rarely as a monovarietal; it is also a major grape in Australia, as further discussed below. There are smaller plantings in most of the other major wine regions of the world, from Chile to South Africa.

Sémillon is generally considered one of the dozen and a half or so of world-class white-wine grapes (those in boldface in the dropdown varietals lists near the top of the page), though that status is almost certainly derived from the amazing dessert wines (as in Château d'Yquem and other Sauternes and Barsacs) it makes, from Bordeaux to Washington State, rather than our focus here, table wines (which is not to say that it cannot make excellent table wines, given due attention).

Sémillon is a grape shifting from the Old World to the New. Alone and even as an ingredient in blends, it is currently losing popularity in France, to the extent that the makers of the famous dessert wines have banded together to grow their own so as to assure a continuing supply. A major reason, ironically, is that both winemakers and consumers in France and indeed much of the world consider Sémillon to be lacking in greatness owing to a lack of complexity and clear distinctiveness when used in or as a table wine—but that situation is very different in Australia. Its chief role in Bordeaux has always been as a "softener" of the much more aggressive Sauvignon Blanc grape, but winemakers today can better control that without needing as much blending of mollifying grapes, hence the dwindling of interest in its homeland.

Sémillon as a monovarietal table wine is, however, now taken quite seriously in Australia, where several styles exist. Of those, the two most interesting are (to quote Wikipedia) "a complex, minerally, early picked style which has great longevity; and an equally high quality dry style, which can be released soon after vintage, as a vat- or bottle-aged example." Those are said to be styles unique to Australia. Specimens from the Hunter Valley region, arguably the premier Australian specimens, are never oaked (but with maturity famously take on a deceiving quality of oakiness). Sémillons of the aged sort tend to taste somewhat honeyed and toasty; the younger style emphasizes fruit, tending to display citrus aromas and flavors.

(A curious conundrum will emerge if you read through the various sources quoted and linked below: the degree of acidity of Sémillon wines. It would appear that Sémillon is definitely a high-acid grape—which is exactly why it ages so long and well—and so many descriptions have it. Nonetheless, many other descriptions refer to it as low-acid—even though the same description may well, some sentences later, also refer to the grape's high acid. One is left to ponder that anomaly, but suspects that it might be the difference between warm-climate and cool-climate growing conditions, as grapes not fully ripened tend toward distinctly higher acidity; one flag is alcohol content: Sémillon wines over perhaps 12% alcohol are probably warm-grown and less acid; wines under 12% are likely to be cool-grown and more acid.)

Factoid: As of the early 19th century, Sémillon was thought to be the most widely planted white-wine varietal in the world.


Some Descriptions of Semillon Wines


Some Semillons to Try

(About this list.)

Examining reviews and competition results soon makes one thing crystal clear: not many brands of Australian Sémillons are making it into the U.S. Here, for example, is an Australian taste-off of 49 Sémillons; here's another of 44 Australian Sémillons. Try to find any of them at retail in the U.S. Neither of the big wine-search engines show any but a very few. (Yes, you can find some Sémillons among the usual big-name, single-digit-price bottlings, but we're talking about serious wine here, not plonk with a funny animal on the label). We have nonetheless managed to include several Oz Sémillons, plus a Washington State specimen, as that is a locale showing promise with Sémillon.

And—as with several other varietals—we were obliged, by our policy of trying to stick to monovarietal bottlings (so you can get a clear sense of what wine this grape makes), to omit many popular "Sémillons" that turn out to be Bordeaux-style blends with a generous amount of Sauvignon Blanc; those can be excellent wines, but they aren't truly Sémillon wines.

The quotations below are excerpts; we strenuously urge you to click on the green diamond symbol by each quoted review to see the full article.
Brokenwood Sémillon
(Hunter Valley, Australia. This is their basic bottling: they do many others.)

• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• This wine's CellarTracker review pages.
• This wine's Wine Searcher "Tasting Notes" page.


Some quotations and facts about this wine:

Pale yellow. High-pitched, mineral-driven aromas of lemon zest, talc and spearmint. Taut and juicy, showing citrus fruits, a hint of green apple and strong minerality. Picks up deeper melon and pear character with air and finishes dry and persistent. I like this wine's linear character.

[A Brokenwood Semillon vertical tasting conducted in 2011:] Wine Advocate (May 2011), 87 points

International Wine Cellar (August 2011), 90 points

♣ James Halliday, Australian Wine Companion (2012), 94 points

♣ London International Wine Fair (2011), Silver medal

Taut, fresh and lemony with crisp, bright lemon and herb fruit. High acidity. Lean and pure with lovely freshness. 90/100

A mix of lanolin, beeswax, lemon pith and a slight grassy edge here too: this is crisp and bright. The palate's like fresh-cut apple, really tangy, with fresh texture and crunchy acid.

Nose: Honeydew, stone-fruit, chalk-dust, elmer’s paste and some flintiness. . . A nice attack of citrus, lemon/lime zest, grapefruit pulp and kiwi combined with razor-sharp acidity make this wine a natural with all sorts of seafoods.

The 2010 Semillon gives intense notes of freshly squeezed lime, lemon meringue and wet pebbles. Dry and light-bodied, it has a nice nervy tautness and very crisp acid that lingers long into the finish. Delicious now, it should cellar well to 2016+.

Delicious young Hunter Semillon with lovely taut acidity, good citrus/green apple flavours and a texture that’s as pure as silk. Will no doubt age well but pretty accessible right now. 4* (89 points)

Light, tart and appealing for its lively, leesy pear and lime flavors, lingering nicely.

Brokenwood's entry-level Semillon is always a reliable introduction to the Hunter Valley style. Crisp, zingy citrus fruit and light body make it a fine accompaniment to raw oysters or other shellfish when young.



Happs "Margaret River" Sémillon
(Western Australia. This is their basic Sémillon bottling; they do others.)

• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• This wine's CellarTracker review pages.
• This wine's Wine Searcher "Tasting Notes" page.


Some quotations and facts about this wine:

♣ There is an amazing dearth of online comment about this wine (perhaps because the quantities made are small—a few hundred cases, we believe). Lots of retailers worldwide carry it, and praise it, but we don't quote sellers or agents. Still, we know famed Australian wine critic James Halliday gave it a 90, and Michael Skurnik distributes it, so someone likes it.



Tyrrell's "Hunter Valley" Sémillon
(Hunter Valley, Australia.)

• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• This wine's CellarTracker review pages.
• This wine's Wine Searcher "Tasting Notes" page.


Some quotations and facts about this wine:

Classic Hunter Valley Sem, if maybe just a little fruit-forward. Like tasting light-bodied lime juice that finishes fresh and clean. Drink it now with oysters, or put some aside for up to 10 years for it to develop toast, honey and marmalade aged characters. 90 points.

Over 150 years of accumulated family experience is on full display with this entry point wine, the '14 vintage providing its special mark of lemon curd, fruit-sweet lemon juice and lemongrass. 93 points. [James Halliday, Australian Wine Companion]

Effortless release, as they so often are out of Tyrrell’s when semillon is involved. Quality made to look easy. Lemongrass, lemon curd and orange rind notes. Delicious young. Will age well over the mid term at least. 91 points.

This latest Tyrrells semillon is a crunchy lightweight 11.5% alcohol, perfect for summer quaffing. It has the trademark lemon citrus fruit flavours and aromas of the best Hunter semillons too and although it's a lighter wine, there's no shortage of flavour here either. The higher end Tyrrells semillons tend to be more restrained in their youth so I suspect this entry level wine is made for earlier consumption. It would be quite easy to enjoy this wine on its own but it would be a great accompaniment [for] any light simple dish. Of course you could also leave it in your cellar for another five to 10 years, the result would be worth the wait.

Lots of lemons and real lemonade. It's clean and crisp screaming for fresh seafood and lazy days in the outdoors. A little texture is evident from a couple of months on lees. Grapefruit acid is in check complementing the fruit nicely. Not much more to say really. Fine drinking this. 91 points.

Pristine and delicate, the bouquet shows lemon peel, floral and fresh apple notes, leading to a finely textured palate that is linear and focused. The wine shows classic Hunter restraint and tight structure, beautifully framed by bright acidity. It is light on its feet, and pure and elegant. 93 points.



Torbreck "Woodcutter's" Sémillon
(Barossa Valley, Australia.)

• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• This wine's CellarTracker review pages.
• This wine's Wine Searcher "Tasting Notes" page.


Some quotations and facts about this wine:

This style of Barossa Semillon is a far cry from that practiced in the Hunter Valley. This version is medium to full bodied, with waxy, pineapple notes and a crisp, linear finish that features just a hint of honey. 89 points.

Pale gold. Pungent lemon rind, jasmine and tarragon scents show good clarity and a spicy nuance. Chewy and dry on the palate, offering bitter pear skin and citrus fruit flavors that flesh out and deepen with air. Firm, focused and nervy on the finish, leaving behind chalky mineral and quinine notes. This zesty white wine has the heft to handle richer foods but also the incisive character to work with light, fresh seafood or vegetable dishes. 90 points. [Stephen Tanzer, Vinous]

This is an unusual but very enjoyable wine. In the past, Dave Powell’s white wines were very full-bodied and oaky (I quite liked them), but he seems to have toned down the oak a bit and possibly picked earlier to get a fresher more balanced style. This has delicious floral and toasted almond aromas, medium-bodied waxy lemons and honey on the palate and a bone dry finish. I would happily lay down a few bottles, as I suspect it will age for another five years.

The Torbreck Woodcutter’s…is more than just a steal at this price. It’s an example of how wine ages, and why you should sometimes buy a wine to age, even if you think aging is too wine geeky for you. I first tasted this Australian white, made with semillon, two years ago, part of a group of samples. I liked it, but it wasn’t anything special, according to my notes: “Intriguing wine that had some richness not unlike chardonnay, but without any chardonnay fruit. Just some pepper and a little apricot or peach.” [Opening another bottle two years later, the] difference, as the wine become more complex from aging, was impressive. The fruit had evolved into an almost honeyed apricot, close to the fig that you’ll find in the textbook definition of semillon. “Some richness” had turned into a rich and full mouth feel, and it didn’t taste like chardonnay at all. Through all of this, the Torbreck Woodcutter’s was bone dry, and with an almost chalky finish. I couldn’t believe the transformation, and the wine was delicious. Highly recommended, and another reason why wine is about trying as many different kinds as possible. Otherwise, you’ll miss a treat like this.

The 2014 Torbreck Woodcutter's Semillon offers distinctive aromas and flavors of earth, chalk and melon. Perhaps the wine's crisp finish cements the deal and makes this one so terrific. 91 points.

The Woodcutter's Semillon gives a good intensity of lemon peel and lime leaf aromas with some notes of orange blossom and fresh straw coming through. The medium bodied palate has a pleasant citrusy character and great freshness. [Wine Advocate]



For a Splurge

The obvious choice would seem to be Tyrrell's Vat 1 Sémillon (Hunter Valley, Australia). This is not the "Museum Release" version of their famous "Vat 1".

• That wine at 1000 Corks
• That wine at Wine Searcher
• Its Wine Searcher "Tasting Notes" page.
• Its CellarTracker pages.

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This page was last modified on Friday, 2 June 2017, at 5:16 pm Pacific Time.