Semillon – versatile, vivacious and under-valued
Semillon hails from the French region of Bordeaux where it is grown alongside the more popular Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Whilst today, in France, it isn’t really fashionable as a single varietal, it commonly plays a minor role blended in dry table wines or, more significantly, is coveted as a dominant contributor to sublime dessert wines. Indeed, Botrytis-affected Semillon, blended with small amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, produce the most famous, and expensive of Sauternes, being Château d’Yquem. It commands close to $1,000.00 for a bottle.
Whilst not as sought after as the elegant Sauvignon Blanc or noble Chardonnay, Semillon’s high-yielding attributes make it attractive to French growers who appreciate its undeniable versatility.
Semillon arrived in Australia in 1831 as part of James Busby’s collection and found its first Antipodean home in the warm, humid Hunter Valley. Here it has more of a cult following and is often made as a single varietal wine; for many years, it was known as Hunter River Riesling.
According to Wine Australia’s 2018 report, Semillon accounts for only 3.4% of all grape plantings in the country yet, as in France, its flexibility in the winery means that it performs admirably in any number of applications. Winegrowers also appreciate its vigour, ease of propagation, high yields and disease resistance.
As a white wine, Semillon can make a delightfully acidic and steely type that will age well over the years. The Hunter Valley is world-famous for the style that develops a deep honey yellow colour over years in the bottle and ends up showing toasty edges to the citric fruits that weave their way through a gently acidic conclusion.
Outside the Hunter, there are neat examples of the style from places like the Riverina where there’s a little more fruit and a touch less acid to their examples. I’m fond of the Calabria Three Bridges Reserve Semillon ($30) which has a 2012 edition on the shelves right now.
Whilst it’s not the style that I’d hide in the back of the cellar for 30 years, it is drinking well now with ample cumquat, granny smith apple and gnashi pear characters through the mid-palate. You have to love the zippiness of the finish which sucks in the cheeks and has you rushing for another sip!
Semillon will pair well with Sydney rock oysters, sashimi or simple scallops in the shell. Richer styles of Semillon, or those that have aged, pair better with richer food such as lobster or smoked fish. Goat’s cheese is a go-to match for Semillon, although most fresh cheeses will also go well.
As a blended wine, Semillon is a perfect partner for Sauvignon Blanc. Over in the West, the winemakers of the Margaret River have made an art form of their “SSB” classic – a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc that is the perfect summer aperitif. They’re household names and you can’t go past those from Juniper Estate, Hayshed Hill or Stella Bella.
As in Bordeaux, the adaptability of the varietal is demonstrated by its ability to also produce the mouth-watering dessert wines known as “Noble Rot” – a fungus called Botrytis which concentrates the sugars in the fruit by devouring the water content. The De Bortoli Noble One is a great example of a Semillon based dessert wine – it’s always a challenge to abstain from pouring a second glass or, better still, try it frozen in a shot glass and serve it as a taste-popping granita. Pow!
Blended, youthful, well-aged or dehydrated, the Semillon grape is up to the task; I reckon it’s a shame that it doesn’t get the airtime it deserves.
Truly, versatile, vivacious and under-valued.