A short history of Semillon
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 world.
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, Château d'Yquem.
* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans at The Gurdies Winery