Thursday, February 1, 2024


Note: I was one key stroke from finishing a piece on the wines of Lake County, when like a magician's disappearing trick, the words vanished from the screen, presumably into the ether. So, enjoy this essay on Semillon and look for my Lake County posting next week. 

One of the many pleasures of Semillon is how time forces you to think the wine has transformed, through aging, into something quite unexpected. The deep golden color and honeyed richness, has you thinking about how nice the new oak has meshed with the ripe fruit. 

But it's all a trick, a kind of trompe l'oeil of taste. 

The transformation is not evident in all varietal Semillons, but it comes through with conviction in aged Semillon from the Hunter Valley of Australia.  I was fooled once when I wrongly described a Hunter Semillon as oak-aged by a challenging Hunter winemaker who delighted in tripping up the eager American wine writer.  

While the test of my tasting ability was a little embarrassing, the afternoon at Rothbury Estate with the estimable Len Evans, was a treasured learning experience that made me want to know more about Semillon.

I'll pause here to tell a short story about the wine savvy Evans, as he was known in Australia by his devoted friends and by those few who thought him just another loud brash ocker, even though he was born in England. Evans was a multi-talented wine expert, known for his impressive wine memory, spitting accuracy and tasting prowess.  

He loved to play Options, a challenging wine tasting test. The idea is to start with a group of tasters and an unidentified wine. Each taster asks a question about the wine, such as general origin (Spain, Chile). As the rounds continue, the questions become more specific. Ask the right question and you stay in the game. Slip up and you're out. 

My first experience with Options was at the end of a welcome dinner for the Sydney Royal Wine Show (Competition). After just a few rounds, I was out and the field of my fellow judges had been deftly whittled down to just one grinning taster. The truly impressive thing was not that Evans had won, but that he unerringly guessed the wine was a red Burgundy, but also the vintage and commune.  

Semillon and the Hunter

Grape vines were first planted in 1788 in Sydney Cove, making New South Wales, the oldest wine region in the country.  In time, the settlers moved inland to what today is the Hunter Valley, 80 miles north of Sydney.  

Local wine folk call the historic area,"The Hunter," and divide it into Lower Hunter and Upper Hunter. Though, legally, the region is Hunter and Upper Hunter.


The Hunter is not an ideal place to grow wine grapes, with its subtropical humidity, high temperatures, winter drought and rainfall before and during harvest. Yet, somehow, Semillon manages to develop great complexity, deep golden color, and a toasty, honeyed bouquet, without oak contact. The complexity is developed through bottle age, some wines reaching 25 years, and still not over the hill. 

More than 60 wineries fill the Hunter Valley, with most of them making a Semillon.  Here are a few of the better ones: Brokenwood, Tyrrell's, Lindemans, Allandale, Rothbury Estate, McGuigan, Mount Pleasant, McWilliams.

Semillon is the hands down star of the Lower Hunter, but there's also richly textured, buttery Chardonnay.  Hunter Shiraz can be hard and astringent in youth, but like Semillon, bottle age transforms Shiraz into a complex wine, with forward varietal fruit and smooth tannin.

Semillon and Sauternes

When most people think of Semillon, the wine that usually comes to mind is Sauternes, from the legendary region of the same name at the southern edge of Bordeaux in western France. There are less than a handful of truly great sweet wines and Sauternes is one of them. 


To arrive with a fully realized Sauternes (or Barsac) takes an artful blending of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, working together, with the help of botrytis, to form a wine of depth, complexity and fruit/acid balance, rivaled, perhaps, only by botrytised German Rieslings and Hungarian Tokaji.

Barsac is a sweet wine similar to Sauternes, though lighter. Legally, Barsac can be called Sauternes, but the reverse is not permitted.

Semillon is the major component of the three-grape blend in Sauternes and Barsac. Semillon adds aroma and complexity, Sauvignon Blanc provides acidity to balance the sweetness and Muscadelle (when used) gives the blend a complimentary fruit note. Botrytis, or "noble rot," forms a concentrated, honeyed note that I describe as the scent of bees wax.

Sauternes is unlike any other wine made. Take the same three grapes, add botrytis, use the same wine making techniques, and you have a nice sweet wine, but it's not Sauternes, no more than the many sparkling wines made worldwide are Champagne.

There was a time when devotees were saying that Semillon would be the next great white wine. Although, today, Semillon is still held in high esteem in Sauternes and the Hunter, it never became as great as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Ironically, Sauternes wouldn't be the great wine it is without Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon. 


Next blog: Look to Lake County

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