Semillon is one of the wine world's unsung heroes. The gold-skinned grape produces France's most famous and revered sweet wines (notably Sauternes), and some of the greatest dry white wines of Australia (specifically those of the Hunter Valley), but few Semillons between these two extremes attract much attention.
When vinified, sweet wine made from Semillon can take on a plethora of flavors, particularly stone-fruit (apricot, peach, nectarine, mango), and secondary notes such as citrus, nut and honey. Perhaps the wine’s most remarkable feature is its silken texture, caused by the concentration of sugar and glycerol.
As a dry wine, Semillon requires a unique set of conditions in which to make quality wine. In the Hunter Valley, in New South Wales, Australia, some say that a certain amount of rain is actually beneficial to the production of unoaked Semillon. The best Hunter Valley Semillons have such high acidity that they used to be referred to as Hunter Valley Riesling, although there seems to be less confusion these days. These wines are some of the longest living whites in the world.
The grape’s home is Bordeaux, where in the 1960s it was planted more than any other variety. More recently, though, as palates have moved from white wine to red, Semillon vines have been removed and replanted with more marketable varieties – most obviously Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Semillon’s worldwide distribution has decreased dramatically in the past 150 years. At various times it was the most widely planted grape variety in South Africa and Chile, but both southern hemisphere countries have largely stepped away from Semillon production.
Semillon is a thick-skinned grape, characterized by its autumnal colors in the vineyard. It buds later but ripens earlier than its most common blending partner, Sauvignon Blanc. Although the fruit is usually bright golden-green, it is not uncommon to find pink and copper colored berries around harvest time. Certainly, when the grapes are affected by the noble rot, Botrytis cinerea, they take on darker hues and gnarled textures; viticulturists view the sight with anticipation and excitement.
The vines themselves are vigorous and easy to cultivate and the grapes’ thick skin makes them resistant to splitting. However, the best Semillon wines typically come from vineyards located in foggy but well drained areas.
Often lacking the acid required to balance its weight, Semillon is most commonly blended with Sauvignon Blanc. Muscadelle is also added to enhance the fruitiness of the white Bordeaux Blend. Intensely structured Semillon wines may be barrel aged, while fresher examples are typically blended with Sauvignon Blanc and fermented in stainless steel.
Key regions for dry Semillon are Graves, Bordeaux, and Australia's Hunter Valley, but it is also produced in this style in the United States, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile. Sweet Semillons may be made wherever the variety is grown, but the most renowned regions for this particular style are Sauternes and Barsac in Bordeaux.
Synonyms include: Malaga, Chevrier, Columbier, Blanc Doux, Wyndruif.
Food matches include:
Europe: Pear and Roquefort tarts (sweet); mussels cooked on an open fire (éclade) (dry)
Asia: Grilled squid skewers (satay sotong) (dry)
Americas: Parmesan gratinated scallops (conchitas a la parmesana) (dry)
Australasia/Oceania: Seared yellowtail kingfish with hollandaise sauce (dry); candied orange cheesecake (sweet)