History and geography
Semillon grows all over the world but its history is difficult
to pin down. It first came to Australia in the early
1800's. The best-known Semillons in Australia come
from the Hunter Valley where it's known as Hunter Riesling.
France, Portugal, Israel, Tunisia, Australia, South Africa,
California and South America (especially Argentina and
Chile) grow Semillon and do it very well.
By the 1820's Semillon accounted for over 90% of all
South African plantings. By 1997, plantings of the 'green
grape' as it is known due to its bright green leaves were
down to less than 1% of Cape vineyard. Australia has almost
17,000 acres planted to Semillon (2002 data). The
Bordeaux in France has over 30,000 acres of Semillon
and California has close to 3,000 acres planted. Semillon
was at one time the most widely planted white grape in
The thin-skinned Semillon grape ripens early. It's easy to
cultivate, high yielding and relatively disease resistant,
except for Botrytis. In areas where sweet Semillons are
highly prized, pickers go through the vineyard many
times and pick only the Botrytis infected bunches which
will yield syrupy sweet wines. Yields up to 8 tonnes per
acre ripen well on vigorous Semillon.
The ripe Semillon berry is dark yellow and will pick up a
pinkish hue in warmer areas. The down side is the thinskinned
berries can sunburn in hotter climates.
Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc together form one of the
most famous Bordeaux blends but here we'll look at
100% pure Semillons only.
Young Semillons have some fig aromas on the nose but
are otherwise pretty bland wines with a short finish that
is usually the result of high cropping levels. Semillon has
a 'Riesling like' ability to develop wonderful characteristics
in the bottle. As flat as the young Semillons are, a
10-year-old Semillon develops rich hazelnut aromas with
a long finish that lingers for minutes.
The young wines are often lacking in acidity with little
aroma and a short finish. As Semillons age they develop
rich golden colours with full flavours. Common aromas
in older dry Semillons include: fig, lemon, saffron, nectarine,
grass and asparagus. Semillons put the Hunter
Valley on the map and you'll be amazed at the flavours
and colours of the older wines. The older wines develop
a nutty, toasty richness with honey flavours and a
crisp lemon-citrus finish. They age for very well and
often reach their peak after 10 years in the bottle.
The Hunter Valley in Australia started producing botrytis
affected oaked Semillons and changed the way
the world looked at the Hunter Valley. Now the Riverina
region is also coming up and producing worldclass
botrytis Semillons. Semillon easily picks up botrytis
infections. Botrytis infects the grape during autumn
causing it to shrivel and dry up. By harvest time
the juice is extremely concentrated and honey sweet.
There are only a handful of regions around the world
capable of producing Botrytis wines year after year.
The sweeter Semillons have delightful, waxy flavours
of peaches, apricots, pineapple and honey. Malolactic
fermentation and oak maturation will add butter,
cream, vanilla and smoke flavours.
Some more background
The region of Bordeaux in France is made up of five
main districts: Medoc, St. Emilion, Pomerol, Graves,
and Sauternes. While Medoc and the entire region are
best known for their reds, whites from here are also
pretty famous. Graves creates dry whites, and Sauternes
is known for its sweet whites. Sauternes, the
sweeter whites, are made with Semillon, Sauvignon
and a drop of Muscadelle. So now you know where the
term Sauterne (as in sweet wines comes from.
The French blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc
produces some of the worlds most expensive sweet
white Sauternes in the world. Semillon grapes make up
80% of the blend in the
most expensive and famous
dessert wine in the world,
* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans at The Gurdies Winery