Sémillon 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). And yet, few Sémillons between these two extremes attract much attention.
The thick-skinned grape is characterized by its autumnal colors in the vineyard. Sémillon is vigorous and easy to cultivate, and 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 grape's home is Bordeaux, and in the 1960s it was planted more than any other variety there. It is here on the Atlantic coast that Sémillon gives its most famous expression: the botrytis-affected wines of Sauternes. Foggy mornings followed by sunny afternoons encourage the development of Botrytis cinerea, leading to the luscious, long-lived wines that are some of the most collectable in the world.
When vinified, sweet wine made from Sémillon can take on a multitude of flavors, particularly stonefruit such as apricot, peach, nectarine and mango, with secondary notes of citrus, nut and honey. Perhaps the wine's most remarkable feature is its silken texture, caused by the concentration of sugar and glycerol.
Often lacking the acid required to balance its weight, Sémillon is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. Muscadelle is also added to enhance the fruitiness of the white Bordeaux Blend. Intensely structured Sémillon wines may be barrel-aged, while fresher examples are typically fermented in stainless steel.
As a dry wine, Sémillon requires a unique set of conditions in which to make quality wine. In the Hunter Valley, just north of Sydney, some say that a certain amount of rain is actually beneficial to the production of unoaked Sémillon. The best Hunter Valley Sémillons 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 dry white wines in the world.
Dry Sémillon wines are also found in Graves and Bordeaux, and to a lesser extent in the United States, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa. In fact, Sémillon was once the most widespread variety in both South Africa and Chile, but changing tastes have seen plantings decrease dramatically in the past 150 years.
Synonyms include: Malaga, Chevrier, Columbier, Blanc Doux, Wyndruif.
Food matches for Sémillon include:
- Seared white fish with hollandaise sauce (dry)
- Pear and roquefort tarts (sweet)
- Candied orange cheesecake (sweet)