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 ( " aszú " ) 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

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