What does it taste like?
- Orange Peel
Where is it grown?
Semillon in Bordeaux comes in two styles: dry and blossomy or lusciously sweet and nectar-laden. In almost all cases, it's part of a blend, usually with sauvignon and a dash of muscadelle.
The dry styles colonise the large area of vineyards between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers known as the appellation of Entre-Deux-Mers. Blended with sauvignon blanc, and sometimes muscadelle, the wines are dry and crisp with fresh, lemony flavours and made for early drinking.
The traditional heartland of fine white Bordeaux is the Graves, notably its northern enclave of Pessac-Léognan. The home turf of Haut-Brion and Domaine de Chevalier, among other iconic properties, was granted its own appellation in 1987 to set it apart from the vast acreage of the wider Graves, and to give it the kind of quality profile enjoyed by the Haut-Médoc. The appellation covers both red and white wines and here, the latter achieve standards of quality, complexity and longevity comparable with great white Burgundy. The best are breathtaking, and can easily keep for a decade or more. Meanwhile, don't overlook the rest of the Graves, for delicious, approachable and rather more affordable wines in a similar vein - dry, but fruity and creamy with spicy oak in balance.
Autumnal mists over the Garonne & its tributary the Ciron provide ideal conditions for noble rot.
In the world-famous appellations of Sauternes and Barsac, also part of the Bordelais, semillon is the principal grape in the blend and accounts for about 80% of the blend, supported by sauvignon blanc and muscadelle. Its pivotal contribution is its susceptibility to noble rot, or botrytis cinerea. The mould attacks the grapes and, by feeding off the water, leaves the fruit dehydrated but with a significantly higher concentration of sugar and acid. As with most natural processes, an outbreak of noble rot is neither uniform nor consistent. Grapes from one vineyard will be affected to different degrees, making hand picking essential for the best châteaux. With such tiny yields and protracted, labour-intensive harvests, this nectar commands some of the highest prices in the wine industry.
It's worth it, though. Shrivelled and visually unpromising, a nobly-rotted semillon makes bewitching wine with complex aromas and flavours redolent of orange peel, marmalade and honey. The deep, golden colour is further enhanced by oak ageing and the high acidity balances perfectly with the luscious sweetness on the palate.
Barsac and Sauternes are located either side of the Ciron River, a tributary of the Garonne. The former is synonymous with wines that are often lighter in style, almost ethereal, rather than densely rich. In part this lightness can be attributed to lighter, sandier soils, but such style differences can also be a matter of individual winemaking style.
Hunter Valley, located in the state of New South Wales and 80 miles north of Sydney, is hot in anyone's terms and unusually hot for the production of fine wine which is only made possible by the high humidity and prolonged afternoon cloud cover.
This unlikely spot is home to perhaps the world's finest, longest-lived dry semillons, explaining why here, the grape enjoys single-varietal status.The heat transforms a potentially flat and aromatically lacking grape variety into a superstar. The use of oak is well supported by the grape, and confers wonderfully complex lemony and nutty aromas and rich, toasty, buttery flavours that deepen with age. Surprisingly, the alcohol content is often lower than expected, often coming in at around 10% by volume. The best wines can keep for 10 or 20 years and gain in structure, maturity and depth of flavour while doing so.
This golden-berried variety, hailing from south-west France, is often referred to as an unsung hero. Its small, thin-skinned berries are highly susceptible to rot, ideal for producing botrytised wines and some of the world's greatest examples in Sauternes and Barsac. It is also responsible for Bordeaux's best dry whites and a unique dry wine in the Hunter Valley.
Semillon lacks the aromatic punch of sauvignon and, on its own, can appear flat and rather plain, especially in youth. It does though have the potential for great bottle ageing, developing distinct, mineral and dried fig aromas as it does so.
Most frequently used as a blending partner, semillon is often married with sauvignon blanc, muscadelle and, sometimes, chardonnay. Whilst its thin skins can sometimes lead to disaster in the vineyard, it does mean the variety is vulnerable to botrytis cinerea, or noble rot. Given the right conditions the grapes shrivel on the vine, concentrating the sugars and resulting in some of the world's longest-living dessert wines.
In Bordelais enclaves, its marriage with sauvignon blanc produces dry, crisp whites. The appellation of Entre-Deux-Mers is home to crisp, dry, easy-to-drink whites with a refreshing, lemony character. The superior appellations of Graves and Pessac-Léognan produce a finer, mineral-rich wine with gentle oak-ageing to complement the fragrant, lemon and green apple fruit flavours. The grape really comes into its own in Sauternes and Barsac, producing dessert wines packed with flavours of orange peel, marmalade, citrus fruits, and honey.
Outside Bordeaux, semillon is mostly seen as taking a secondary role. When blended with sauvignon, its fatness, body and substance work well with sauvignon's aroma and acidity. Similarly, the consumer-driven drive for chardonnay in the 1990s inspired the peculiarly Australian creation of chardonnay-semillon blends, the latter helping stocks of chardonnay go further.
The most distinctive of the rare examples of unblended semillon may be found in Australia's Hunter Valley. Dry, well-built and richly fruited, it responds to lengthy maturation, which give full expression to secondary aromas of toasty spice, vanilla, and musk.
Semillon stands out for its versatility: its unique natural make-up means it produces superb wines right across the style spectrum, from delicate, dry, aromatic, low-alcohol wines to full, round oaky styles and lusciously sweet, dessert wines.Pierre Mansour