Semillon Wine Guide
Everyone knows Semillon; it is the most widespread white grape variety in Bordeaux, thanks to which white Bordeaux and real oenological masterpieces are produced, such as the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, among which the Chateau d’Yquem stands out as the unique Premier Grand Cru outside Medoc.
Of course, in the blend of these noble wines, there is also some Sauvignon Blanc, but the Semillon does most of the work, and it is thanks to him that Botrytis cinerea, the noble rot, intervenes. It is on him that mold takes root, and due to the late ripening, it is from him that those honeyed aromas of caramelized figs and spices come.
But don’t believe that Semillon can only produce immortal sweet wines; on the contrary, it can produce any wine: white wine for mixed frying, sweet musty for thousands of euros a bottle, traditional method sparkling wines, or great aging whites. Its ductility is comparable only to that of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay. In fact, this grape variety produces dry white wines that can age for 20–30 years, such as Bordeaux whites, especially those from Pessac-Léognan, and the massive Australian Semillons from Hunter Valley, Barossa Valley, and even Margaret River.
But the delicious Crémant de Bordeaux is also made with a blend that includes a significant amount of Semillon, and we’re talking about elegant, structured, and very charming wines, even if they’re not as “trendy” as Champagne.
Prior to the global rise of Chardonnay, Semillon was the white wine par excellence; it was the most cultivated in Australia and South Africa due to its abundant production, vigor, and resistance to disease and, obviously, mold, which was its most important feature.
Organoleptic characteristics of Semillon
Its flavor and aroma palette is proudly yellow. The unmistakable aromas of the bouquet have yellow hues: straw, honey, citrus, pulpy yellow fruit, saffron, and quince. It is not an aromatic vine; indeed, we could define it as a very shy Chardonnay, but thanks to the long polyphenolic maturation, the aromas develop clearly.
It tastes very different depending on how it was made and what kind of wine it was, but it is always warm, full, very structured, and alcoholic. It must be said that Semillon grapes have low acidity and many sugars, and to reach the right ripeness, they remain on the plant until the end of September. The ideal climate in which it grows well is quite cool and windy, with a strong temperature range, but at the same time, the sun must never fail; otherwise, it will not mature.
Finding the right balance between alcohol, freshness, structure, and richness is not easy. Because of this, it is often picked early to keep its acidity, or it is mixed with Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon solves all its problems, adds an aromatic and acidic touch to the mix, and helps to lighten a massive structure that often struggles to find dynamism. And perhaps this is the best solution, so much so that this partnership has been going on for centuries because the two complement each other perfectly.
Producing monovarietal Semillon is really difficult; sometimes you can find agile and sharp wines, but they have little substance because they were harvested centuries in advance. Other times, you find pachyderms in the bottle that don’t move even when shot with a cannon; other times, you find absolute masterpieces, but it takes time—a vision projected forward over years, if not decades. And so here, the wines become legends.
Semillon production areas
France is obviously its home, and Bordeaux is its electoral area. Let’s start with the sweet wines made in blend with Sauvignon Blanc: Sauternes and Barsac are excellent, but Cadillac, Loupiac, and Ste-Croix-du-Mont, which are included in the Premières Ctes de Bordeaux appellation, are also noteworthy.
Also in Bordeaux, Graves has some of the most interesting dry white wines. The best are made in Pessac-Léognan, which is the heart of Semillon country, but the wines of nearby Cérons are also worth mentioning, especially when we get close to the stony and sandy soils along the Garonne.
If we fly as far as Australia, we can see that here too, Semillon has found two distinct areas where it thrives, often blended with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. We are in New South Wales’ southern-eastern tip; the most famous and historic area is north of Sydney, the Hunter Valley, not far from the sea, where the Hunter River flows and brings its gentle breezes. This valley was once the domain of Semillon, the Australian white wine par excellence, where it was interpreted with opulence, thanks to the unscrupulous use of the barrique, even if Chardonnay came to lend a hand, bringing more freshness and thus giving rise to a variety of leaner styles.
Two other very interesting Australian areas, thanks to a cool and breezy climate, are the Barossa Valley and the nearby Adelaide Hills, on the opposite side, near Adelaide.
There are few hectares in New Zealand, but there are wines of great value that are sharp and juicy in the Gisborne area.
Even in South Africa, it was once the best white grape. Now, it’s just a habit that’s made in small amounts, but it still stands up for itself in New Zealand and a small part of France.
We end up with Washington State and California wines, produced in patches, but where you can also find sweet Sauternes-style raisin wines, very distant cousins that are improving.
In Italy, it has not taken root very much, and the production is scarce—not even 100 hectares—and it is usually vinified as a blend with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. If Fattoria Zerbina made a “muffato” of Albana and Semillon, it would be a dream; let’s try to make a petition.
Semillon Food Pairings
The fresher and simpler wines are excellent with marinara risotto, scampi, and fried and grilled cuttlefish. Those that are dry but more sumptuous have the right stuff to degrease the heavier dishes with oily fish. We finish with great sweet wines, nectars with a creative sweetness that are excellent with apple pie and trifle, but also with rabbit terrines and blue cheeses like Cheddar and Gorgonzola.