Sémillon wine grape
Outside of its French homeland, Sémillon invariably loses its accent to become Semillon, but it’s still pronounced the same way: SEH-mee-yhon, with the ‘n’ being softened in the nasal French fashion, as in
. Its original home is south-west France, where it is the main white grape of Bordeaux and its neighbour Bergerac. It’s almost always blended with Sauvignon Blanc, however, which perhaps accounts for its relative obscurity despite being France’s fifth most planted white variety.
Early-picked Sémillon is green and grassy just like its blending partner Sauvignon, and DNA analysis suggests the two are closely related. But riper Sémillon is more full-bodied, lower in acidity and less aromatic, with citrus flavours and often a waxy, lanolin character. This can provide the perfect complement to the thinner, sharper and more pungent Sauvignon Blanc.
Sémillon can age very well and riper examples respond well to oak treatment. This is also true of blends with the normally short-lived and oak-averse Sauvignon Blanc, provided they are at least 50% Sémillon. The best examples of this dry but rich, long-lived, smokily oaked style are the great Pessac-Léognan whites from châteaux like Haut-Brion and La Mission-Haut-Brion. More everyday Bordeaux whites are fresh and unoaked, with a higher proportion of Sauvignon Blanc.
But there is another famous Bordeaux style that is even more dependent on Sémillon: the great dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac. The usual blend is 4:1 Sémillon to Sauvignon, often with a dash of Muscadelle too. Sémillon’s thin skins make it particularly susceptible to noble rot (
) needed to shrivel and concentrate the grapes for superb sweet wine filled with luscious marmalade and honey flavours.
Australia is Sémillon’s main home outside France, and makes all three of the Bordeaux styles. The oaked dry and botrytised sweet styles are often pure Sémillon, unlike in France. But Australia has another, unique take on this grape: Hunter Valley Semillon. Early-picked to avoid the Hunter’s notorious autumn rains, it is a very dry, high acid, low alcohol (10–11%) unoaked white that starts out sharp and vaguely citrussy but matures superbly in the bottle, sometimes for decades, to a limey, toasty complexity.
Sémillon used to be very widely planted in Australia, and that legacy can be seen in the tradition of Sem-Chard blends. Generally cheap and cheerful party wines, these appeared in the 80s as a way to stretch the small amount of newly fashionable Chardonnay then available by bulking it up with abundant Sémillon. It was once even more important in South Africa, where it comprised 90% of all vineyards in the early 19th Century. Some fine examples can still be found there, usually from the older, cooler regions close to Cape Town.
Decanting Club wines containing: Sémillon
From Margaret River, Australia
Deep Woods, Ivory, Semillon Sauvignon Blanc
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