Thursday, July 23, 2020

Semillon Styles

 "I am not old but mellow like good wine." Stephen Phillips, English poet

It's time for a conversation about Semillon.  To start, consider the old adage that great wine is made in the vineyard is especially true for Semillon.  Semillon is a finicky grape, subject to variations in climate and soil, producing distinctly different wines that can be either dull and flavorless or complex and multi-faceted.

Despite such a difficult personality, without Semillon, there would be no Sauternes or white Bordeaux.  Without Semillon, Hunter Valley wine makers would not have a white wine to confuse the unsuspecting into thinking the local traditional Semillon is oak-aged.

So why, then, is Semillon, once popular and plentiful, now is mostly an after thought as a varietal wine? 

The simple answer is Semillon doesn't taste like Chardonnay or, for that matter, Sauvignon Blanc.  Something can be popular one minute and then quickly fall from favor the next.  Except for Bordeaux and Australia's Hunter Valley, plus a few scattered places like South Africa, California and Washington state, varietal Semillon is struggling to stay relevant. 

Still, Semillon has one clear advantage over Chardonnay: Semillon is attractive and tasty both as a dry and a sweet wine. Chardonnay, as we know it today, is dependent on its association with French oak, but Semillon can be a fine wine, either as an oaked or un-oaked wine.

Vineyard stock photo. Image of green, leaf, field, semillon - 26540684
Apologies to the handful of unoaked Chardonnays in the market today, but they don't have the pull in the marketplace of a Chardonnay loaded up with lots of new French oak. 

Fatness is a term often used to describe the texture of Semillon; more of a mouth feel, like the tactile difference you sense between a nibble of chocolate and a sip of milk. Ripe fruits, especially figs are useful in describing the flavor of unoaked Semillon.  And, I often find a "waxy" smell and texture in Semillon. 

The natural blending of Semillon with Sauvignon Blanc, forms a yin and yang relationship. Semillon's relatively low acidity tempers the racy piquancy of Sauvignon Blanc, while Sauvignon's lack of body is more than compensated by the lushness of Semillon. As a pair, they work well together, especially in the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac and the dry whites of the Bordeaux Graves.

South of the city of Bordeaux is an enclave where one of the world's truly great wines is made -- and it's not red. Sauternes is a rich sweet blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle de Bordelaise.

Sauternes is one of five townships in the district of Sauternes, which is itself a district in  Bordeaux. Sharing fame with Sauternes is the township of Barsac. Same grapes and production techniques as Sauternes, except for one difference: Barsac wine may be called Barsac or Sauternes, while Sauternes is Sauternes. 

Understandably, Barsac producers, like chateaux Coutet, Climens, Doisy-Daene, Nairac and Suduiraut, prefer to use the Barsac appellation.

 Wine lovers, especially those with a fondness for the noted red wines of Bordeaux, are familiar with the vaunted Classification of 1855 for the Medoc. Another classification that gets less attention is the Sauternes and Barsac Classification of 1855. Ch. d'Yquem is the only Bordeaux white (sweet) wine accorded the honor of Grand Premier Cru, while the Medoc classification has five Premier Crus.

Making Sauternes and Barsac is a risky business because conditions must be right for Botrytis cinerea, the so-called "Noble Rot," to grow, an occurrence that doesn't happen every year. Essentially, fog that forms on the Ciron river, which runs through the Sauternes district, needs to burn off the following morning, followed by hot sunny weather.  If the fog lingers and the temperatures stay low, the desired botrytis becomes unwanted Grey rot, spoiling the vintage. 

Selective picking of botrytized and shriveled ( " aszĂș " ) berries ...
Selectively picking botrytized Semillon
Describing the flavors of Sauternes is like describing a mash-up of a basket of fruit: peaches, apricots, tropical fruits like mango and pineapple, combined with traces of coconut and a waxy nuance that reminds me of beeswax. Telling the difference between a top-end Sauternes and one from Barsac is difficult, except that Barsac may be a little lighter in body and texture. Both wines, though, are sweet, silky, luscious and impeccably well balanced with a crisp acidity that tempers the sweetness. 

Sauternes to look for include Chateau d'Yquem, which many believe stands alone. Other chateaux: Rieussec, d'Arche, Filhot, La Tour Blanche, Guiraud.  

On the right bank of the Garonne river, across from Sauternes and Barsac, is a district known as the Premieres Cote de Bordeaux, home to the sweet wines of Cadillac, Sainte- Croix-du-Mont and Loupiac. 

There is a story behind how the name "Cadillac" (pronounced Cah-dee-yahk in French became attached to an American car.  Supposedly, many years ago, a top executive of General Motors was touring Bordeaux and stopped at a chateau in Cadillac. He liked the wine and the name so much that upon his return to Detroit, he named GM's newest luxury sedan Cadillac.

Stylistically, these wines are comparable to Sauternes and are made from the same grapes, although they lack the complexity and longevity of their esteemed neighbors. In all, there are ten different sweet wines made in Bordeaux.

In 1987, authorities in Bordeaux pulled Pessac and Leognan, the two most important communes in the Graves, to form a new district with the awkward hyphenated name of Pessac-Leognan. The region, which is known for both white and red wines, went on to establish an international reputation for its wines. 

More red wine, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, than white is made in Pessac-Leognan, but our focus here is on the whites. Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle (the same trio of grapes in Sauternes) are joined in Pessac-Leognan by Sauvignon Gris, a pink-skinned variety that elsewhere is sometimes used to bump up weak Sauvignon Blanc.

Gravel, the main component of Pessac-Leognan soil, imparts a characteristic flavor that some describe as minerally (current-day buzz term: "minerality"). The mineral notes are more common in the reds, while Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, rooted in lighter sandy soils, show the ripe Semillon fruit, more green fruit flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and a bright crisp acidity.

Barrel fermentation and oak barrel aging are two of the factors that separate Pessac-Leognan white wines from France's upper Loire River Valley, the other noted region for Sauvignon Blanc wines. The other difference, of course, is there is no Semillon in the Loire wines. 

Semillon-dominated Pessac-Leognan chateaux wines include: Haut-Brion Blanc, La Mission Haut Brion Blanc, Laville-Haut-Brion, Domaine de Chevalier and Couhins Lurton. 

Beyond Bordeaux 
Semillon has had moderate success outside Bordeaux, no place more than in the upper Hunter Valley of Australia. Some say that Hunter Semillon has the acidity and structure of Riesling, although I've not noticed that similarity. The acidity is there in Hunter Semillion supporting nutty-honied flavors that can taste like the wine has seen oak.  Hunter Semillon can age 10 to 20 years in the bottle, especially those from Tyrrell's, McWilliams and Brokenwood.

                                                 L'Ecole No 41 Winery - Home | Facebook

Washington Semillon is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc, to give the wine acid structure  and that unique herbal note associated with Sauvignon Blanc. Look for these Washington Semillons: L'Ecole No. 41, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Bernard Griffin and Andrew Will. 

Plantings of Semillon in California are going down, leaving only those with a fondness for the grape keeping the wine in their line, like Blackbird Vineyard and Newfound, both in the Napa Valley.

It's easy to see then why Semillon deserves more attention and respect.


Next blog: The first of four essays on Bordeaux, starting with St. Emilion and Pomerol.

Questions?  Comments?  Email me at

Monday, July 13, 2020

My Life in Wine Episode 4

All wines are by their very nature full of reminiscence, the golden tears and red blood summers that are gone. Richard Le Gallienne, English author and poet

At the end of Episode 3, Hawaii was in my rear view mirror as we headed for California. It was my first time in the Golden State and, as it turns out, also the beginning of my elementary education in wine, helped along by visits to David Bruce and Ridge Vineyards and a food and Zinfandel match that was apropos of the times.  A few years later, I was tasting a Portuguese rose near the Arctic Circle, about to hear that I had lucked out in the USAF "dream sheet" lottery scoring my first choice: Colorado.

The year was 1966 and while I was in Labrador (drinking Mateus rose), Janet and our two oldest sons were staying with her mother in Philadelphia. At last, after a year of staring at the same walls, and people, day after day, it was time for a change.  

Anyone who has spent time in the Air Force, or for that matter, any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, knows that when it's time for a transfer, you fill out a "dream sheet," listing the top three places you would next like to be stationed.  And then, the Air Force sends you where it wants. 

My three choices were Colorado, Colorado and Colorado. And to my surprise, Air Force Personnel in Texas decided to come through by assigning me to a television production facility at Lowry AFB, Denver. I spent the next five years there writing and developing scripts for training films used in Air Training Command. 

My interest in writing was about to mesh with my growing interest in wine. 

Writing training scripts had its challenges, but explaining the proper way to use a fire extinguisher (The Air Force euphemism for the tool was "first aid fire fighting appliance.") didn't really get my creative juices flowing.


Little did I know that the answer to this dilemma was in a downtown wine store. One Saturday, while poking around in the bins at Harry Hoffman, then Denver's premier wine store, I saw a bottle of Ivancie Cellars Pinot Noir, with a Denver address.                                

A little research disclosed that Gerald Ivancie was a Denver periodontal surgeon with a passion for fine wine.  At the time, Colorado had a few experimental vineyards in Grand Valley, near Grand Junction, that mostly supplied grapes to home winemakers. However, Ivancie didn't find the grapes he wanted in Colorado, so he went to California and persuaded Warren Winiarski, then winemaker at Robert Mondavi to become Ivancie Cellat's first winemaker. Winiarski arranged for Ivanice to buy some Napa Valley grapes, which were shipped in refrigerated trucks across two mountain chains to Denver. 

Colorado Wineries - Wine tours in Palisade - Things to do in Colorado
Vines near Palisade, Colorado
Ivancie's scheme had all the ingredients for a good story. In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, city magazines were a popular forum to tell local stories not covered by newspapers. The editor of Denver's city magazine liked the Ivancie story idea and, just like that, I had sold my first wine article.  

Later, Denver magazine bought "The Colorado Wine Barons," about Colorado businessmen Tom Jordan, Ray Duncan (then Franciscan and later Silver Oak) and Joseph Phelps.  It was a time when people in other fields were looking to get into the burgeoning California wine business: Jordan was in oil exploration; Duncan was in construction and Phelps headed a company that built major projects such as bridges.  

While at Lowry TV, I met Rich Marschner who would become a good friend, fellow classical music listener and a budding wine enthusiast.  Eventually, Rich would leave the Air Force for a job as an announcer at Denver's classical music station and to edit the station's listener's guide. The KVOD Guide featured arts-related material, such as wine stories. A holiday issue was being planned and Rich asked me to write a wine-related piece.

While shopping for Thanksgiving wine at Harry Hoffman, I found an Austrian white wine with a likeness of Ludwig van Beethoven on the front label.  So I cobbled together a short piece on how nice a bottle of Austrian wine would be with your Christmas dinner, accompanied, of course, by a Beethoven symphony as background music.   

                                                         Vector Of The Musician Ludwig Van Beethoven - Download Free ...

Using carbon paper sets and a manual typewriter, I continued to develop my budding avocation as a free lance wine writer, a difficult job to be sure, as the Colorado wine industry had yet to take off. 

I had heard of "Wine World," a southern California-based wine magazine, so I sent the editor a query about the Ivancie story and she bought it.  The sale opened the door for more contributions to "Wine World" on a regular basis, plus querying "Vintage," then the other popular U.S. wine magazine, published in New York city. 

This all happened in the early 1970s, at the beginning of what would be known as the "California Wine Boom," a surge in the recognition of the rightful place of California wine in the world market. And I planned on being a part of it.

But once again, it was time to go, this time to an Armed Forces Radio and Television (AFRTS) station in Taiwan, where I was told the Taiwanese enjoy a local beverage they call "wine," although there were no wine grapes grown then in Taiwan.   

In the fifth installment of "My Life in Wine,"  set for August 13, 2020, I buy wine in a Piggly Wiggly store, decide to try my hand at advertising and publicity for Air Force recruiting, return to Colorado, then retire from the Air Force and take my first wine trip to Europe. 


Next Blog: Semillon Styles

Comments?  Suggestions?  Email me at

Friday, July 3, 2020

America's First Wine Expert

Foreword. Thomas Jefferson, a founder of this country, wrote that "all men are created equal," yet held hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. Jefferson was also a noted statesman, diplomat, astronomer, inventor, original thinker and our third U. S. president. While I recognize Jefferson's controversial legacy, the following essay is offered as a recognition of Thomas Jefferson: America's first wine expert. 

July 4, 1776 – On this day, 244 years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, forever severing the American colonies from the British Crown.  The Committee of Five, which included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, met a few days earlier to draft the document.  John Adams, then the representative from Massachusetts, had asked Jefferson to write the declaration. 

                                            thomas-jefferson-portrait image - Free stock photo - Public Domain ...

It is not a stretch to imagine that Jefferson, a multi-talented man and America’s first wine expert, had a glass of Madeira at his elbow while he worked on the first draft.  Malmsey Madeira was, after-all, the wine of choice then in the Colonies. 

Madeira is a sweet fortified wine from an island of the same name in the Atlantic, about midway between Portugal and North Africa.  British trading ships en-route to India stopped at Madeira to take on new provisions including Madeira wine.  The wine soon became fashionable in England and was so popular in the Colonies that it was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Today, the United States is still a major export market for Madeira, although sales are small.

While he continued to enjoy Madeira, Jefferson’s natural curiosity sparked an interest in learning about indigenous grapes grown in Virginia and the Carolina's and expanding his knowledge of European wines. Thanks to friends and college tutors, Jefferson had already tasted wines from France, Germany and England, but his interest picked up with the construction of a new home. 

In 1772, Jefferson built Monticello in the neoclassical style on 5,000 acres of land outside Charlottesville, Virginia.  A year later, the Florentine horticulturist Filippo Mazzei came to Virginia to look for land for his Italian Vineyard Society.  Mazzei’s idea was to import Italian grape vines and vineyard workers and all he needed was land.  Mazzei and Jefferson had earlier corresponded and Mazzei was anxious to meet Jefferson in person.  Eventually, Jefferson gave land next to Monticello to Mazzei and a mutual friendship and working relationship was established.

                            The Best Views at Monticello | Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

About 200 years after the completion of Jefferson’s Virginia home, Monticello, native Virginian Jay Corley, named his Napa Valley winery in honor of Jefferson’s Virginia estate.  Corley built a one-third replica of Monticello on Big Ranch Road in the Oak Knoll District and named it Monticello Vineyards.  Monticello Jefferson Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon is the winery's top bottling.

Mazzei encouraged Jefferson to expand his plantings of various crops on the estate, including local grapes like the native Vitus labrusca “fox grape” and Scuppernong, a native grape of the Vitis rotundifolia species that grew along rivers in the south. Jefferson heaped praise on wine made from native grapes like Scuppernong, writing that its strong muscat aroma and flavor would be “distinguished on the best tables of Europe.”  He planted 287 vines at Monticello, including 24 European grape varieties, hoping to make wine from the European grapes.

Unfortunately, after many years of planting and experimenting, Jefferson had little success in the vineyard and the only wine made on the estate was from local varieties, including the Alexander grape, which impressed Jefferson enough to proclaim that it was “equal to Chambertin,” one of Burgundy’s top red wines made from the Pinot Noir grape.  Premium grape varieties, of the family Vitis vinifera, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, did not survive the vine pests and black rot common then in Virginia, not to mention the area’s harsh winters.

Undaunted, Jefferson encouraged his neighbors James Monroe and James Madison to develop their own vineyards, while he concentrated on developing his formal wine education, with the same devotion and enthusiasm he showed to other interests like astronomy and fine art. In 1785, George Washington appointed Jefferson Minister to France, a post held previously by Benjamin Franklin.  For the next four years, the erudite and curious Thomas Jefferson traveled throughout France’s wine regions and was the toast of Parisian society.  Jefferson’s new French friends and colleagues introduced him to Champagne and Bordeaux and broadened his knowledge of fine Burgundy. 

Paris Society Art Print by Max Beckmann
Paris society by Max Beckmann

While traveling in Italy, Jefferson sampled the great Nebbiolo reds of Barolo and Barbaresco and the red wines of Tuscany, some of which he was told about by his friend, Filippo Mazzei, himself a native of Tuscany.  Upon tasting a Nebbiolo-based wine in Piedmont, Jefferson said it was “about as sweet as the silky Madeira.”  But his favorite Italian red wine was Montepulciano, which he described as “superlatively good.”  Today, that Tuscan red is known as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. (See "The Many Faces of Montepulciano" blog, June 23, 2020.)

Jefferson built further on his European travels, establishing himself as a wine consultant and buyer for his friends and colleagues in the Colonies, remarking: “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”  Over the next few years, he traveled back and forth between Virginia and Europe, building his wine knowledge and establishing himself as the go-to-wine guy in Virginia and Washington.  When Thomas Jefferson became the third U.S. president in 1801, he was known for his extensive wine knowledge and for keeping a well stocked wine cellar in the White House.  Also, he helped lower taxes on wine, hoping that it would make the United States a wine-drinking country.

Thomas Jefferson’s major contributions to wine in America were his experimenting with native grapes and introducing Americans to European fine wines from France, Italy and Germany. 

Afterword. This short essay on America’s first wine expert is but a small part of the vast material on Thomas Jefferson, notably his interest in wine and the many other aspects of his life and learning that distinguished the man, warts and all.  To learn more, Google Thomas Jefferson, Monticello or the Jefferson Society.  


Next Blog: My Life in Wine Episode 4

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