LifestyleThe SIP CruDesperately Seeking Sémillon?

Desperately Seeking Sémillon?

Sémillon (pronounced Sem-Mee-Yawn) is quite the unique grape varietal. You may not have heard of Sémillon, but we guarantee you’ve tasted it. Whether in the classic white blends of Bordeaux or as a hidden partner in the Sauvignon Blancs of California, you’ve had it go down your gullet. The grape itself is a bit of a chameleon though. It can be bright and snappy as well as richly textured and full-bodied. It is one of this writer’s top 5 white grape varieties in the world.  

So, What’s its story? 

Originating in the Bordeaux region of France, Sémillon’s first claim to fame was the sweet wines of the Sauternes AOC. The grapes are easily affected by the botrytis fungus or ‘noble rot’, causing sugar levels in the grapes to skyrocket. This leaves a lot of residual sugar after normal fermentation, thus producing one of the world’s most famous sweet wines. 

Historically and today, Sémillon is also used to produce dry, White Bordeaux blends, with Sauvignon Blanc being the counterpart for this perfect marriage. On the left bank of the Gironde River, in the areas of Graves and Pessac-Leognan, you can find Sémillon taking center stage in the blend. (Usually around 60% or more.) This adds richness and softens the acidity of Sauvignon Blanc.

Sémillon Characteristics

The Sémillon grape is considered a low-acid variety.  Picked a little under full ripeness, this grape displays an herbaceous quality and a perplexing, yet welcoming, twinge of acidity. 

When picked fully ripe, the grape displays a rich and fatty texture with a waxy, lemon-curd, lanolin punch of aromatics. Beeswax, and plenty o’ peach on the palate. So effing cool.  

My Encounters with Sémillon 

One of my A-Ha moments in my wine career was drinking a ten-year-old expression of Sémillon from Australia’s Hunter Valley. Though it’s been years since drinking the 1997 Brokenwood ‘ILR’ Semillon, I remember it like it was yesterday. I drank aged wines before. This wine, however, has enough acid to make Timothy Leary proud!  An explosion of flavors and textures coupled with creaminess (not oak or malo-related).  It’s like if Sancerre and a White Burgundy had a baby.  I also expected the alcohol content to be at least 13.5 to 14%, but to my surprise, it was a mere 11%. What magic is this?!   

From then on, I was hooked…. 

Throughout my wine career, the more I tried Sémillon and realized its similarities to other great varieties I knew of in the wine world. Chenin Blanc and Riesling are two examples. They all have popping acid, a multitude of fruit flavors and aromatics, and are structurally fit to produce everyday quaffers as well as age-worthy selections for the cellar. They are conducive to sparkling wine production, low alcohol, and food friendliness to the max! To this day, this wine is still no on the tip of peoples’ tongues – pun intended – as it should be. 

You’d think that some of the best restaurants and wine bars would have Sémillon by the glass, as much as they do Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and other well-known varieties.  Now mind you, I’m just chatting about US operations here. For all I know, a wine bar in Bergerac, France could have half their wine list devoted to Sémillon (and if so, please comment below, I’ll be booking that ticket).  But really, wow… This grape can pair with so many types of cuisine.  See below!

Dishes Be Crazy

Dry, Crisp, Refreshing, Unoaked:  

Seafood – raw oysters, ceviche, grilled fish, prosciutto, veggies, guacamole and salsa.

Dry, Rich, Old-Vine, Oaked, or Unoaked:  

Butter and cream dishes, mushrooms, rich shellfish, risottos, roast chicken, pork loin.

Dry, Aged (10-20 years):  

Add some sweet spices or a sweet glaze to your poultry and pork dishes. Surprise your wine geek friends at Thanksgiving. Ideal with everything at the table!

Sweet: 

Foie gras, fruit desserts and custards, and spicy AF dishes.   

Sémillon Faves

I may have to write a second article on how many good Sémillon bottles there are in the marketplace but here are my top picks for now! While you can of course find Semillon in Bordeaux, France, and in the Hunter Valley, Australia, the grape is planted all over the world!     

2022 Brokenwood Semillon, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia (Old Bridge Cellars)

Coming from vines planted on sandy and alluvial soils in this sub-tropical region, the ocean breezes and early picking help retain the fresh acidity that Hunter Valley Sémillon is known for.   Brokenwood nails it with lemon/lime accents, kiwi, zippy acidity, and utter drinkability.  The finish just lingers on and on with this one. This entry-level wine from Brokenwood is a textbook example of what a dry Sémillon should be. Sancerre fans, take note! Fermented and aged in stainless steel. Abv. 10-11%. 

National avg. price: $21

2016 Tyrell’s Winery ‘Vat 1’ Winemaker’s Selection Sémillon, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia (Broadbent Selections)

Crafted from the estate’s old vines, the oldest of which were planted in 1923. The grapes are harvested by hand then pressed, aged on lees for one year, then bottled early to retain its freshness.   This receives no oak treatment. Remaining in bottle for 7-8 years before release, this wine is the perfect example of something delicate and powerful at the same time.  Classic lemon/lime profile here with a creamy undertone. Other citrus fruits and minerals swirl around the wine’s acidity, like a DNA helix that’s been twisted to the max. Please decant, if you’re to drink this now, but this wine can be cellared for 10-15 years or more. Abv. 11%

National avg. price: $72

2021 Kings Carey Sémillon, Happy Canyon, Santa Barbara County, California 

Winemaker James Sparks, of Kings-Carey Wines, admits the Hunter Valley Sémillon bug bit him early on, and when he was given the chance to work with some of Santa Barbara’s best Sémillon fruit – the existence of which made possible by pioneering winemaker Fred Brander in the 1970s – he jumped at the chance.  James’ vineyard sources vary from year to year but are always in the Los Olivos or Happy Canyon District. On the nose of this gorgeous wine, you’re likely to find lemon rind, figs, herbs, and grass. There’s a chalky minerality to the wine. Neutral barrel fermented and aged on the lees for 6 months. Bottled in 2022. Abv. 11%. 

National avg. price: $24

2018 Gabriëlskloof ‘Magdalena’, Bot River, South Africa (Skurnik Imports)

In the 19th century, Sémillon was the most widely planted grape variety in the Western Cape of South Africa. The region of Bot River is about two hours southeast of Cape Town and just an hour southeast of the well-known Stellenbosch region.

This white blend is the winery’s tribute to Bordeaux;  85% Sémillon (from granite soils in Franschhoek) and 15% Sauvignon Blanc (sandy soils in Botrivier).The nose on this wine is a whirlwind of red apples, chamomile, and ginger, accompanied by a quince, lemon, and honeyed palate. It wraps around your tongue, and just when you think it’s not going to let go, the delicate acidity steps in and activates your salivary glands. This is a perfect example of a truly, rich, and full-bodied Sémillon with less of the tartness found in Australian examples. Fermented with natural yeasts and aged in old French foudre. After 10 months on the lees, the wine is bottled. 13% abv. 

National avg. price: $41

Bonus Sweet Pick & Other Regions!

2019 Château La Rame Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, Bordeaux, France (Neal Rosenthal Selections)

While there are many great sweet wine examples in the Sauternes area of Bordeaux, I do find some of the best values to be from satellite appellations near Sauternes. 100% Sémillon, planted on clay-limestone soils, is used to craft this sweet, yet delectable and refreshing wine.  

Located 40 kilometers southeast of Bordeaux, Chateau la Rame is one of the most well-known producers of the appellation.  Fermentation of the botrytis infected Sémillon is picked at very full ripeness and then fermented over a 3–6-week period.  Steel and old barrels split up the aging process before it is bottled.  Aromas of fresh peach, lychee, and pineapple jump out of the glass.  Lots of concentration here, but the wine never comes off as too saccharine tasting.  Perfectly balanced and made for a cheese board!

National avg. price: 375ml – $25

Other regions to look out for: 

  • Bergerac and Monbazillac AOCs near Bordeaux 
  • New Zealand
  • Chile
  • Argentina
  • and a very important role in South Africa where you can find vines that go back 100 years. 
  • California and Washington have also had a long history with the grape, and it has a few spots in Italy, Greece, and even Turkey. 

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