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  • Writer's pictureJack Costa

Semillon: A Diamond in the Rough or Coal for the Fire

Updated: May 7




I once knew a winemaker who faced an unusual challenge—his sworn adversaries were none other than a flock of turkeys. During one harvest, he embarked on crafting a Sauternes or Late Harvest-style Semillon, which required an extended hang time on the vines. As the harvest date drew near, the winemaker made frequent trips to the vineyard, savoring the intensely sweet nectar of the shriveling fruit. However, one early morning, he stumbled upon signs of 'fowl' play; not a single Semillon berry remained on his vines.


Suddenly, the unmistakable gobble of turkeys reached his ears. Looking up, he spotted them parading along the upper vineyard block. Armed with a shotgun, the furious winemaker swiftly dealt with the turkeys. Upon examining their stomachs, he made a shocking discovery—the turkey's stomachs were brimming with undigested Semillon berries. What a travesty!


What is Semillon?

Semillon is perhaps the most overlooked grape variety in the world. While industry insiders are familiar with its name, it remains largely obscure to the average consumer. However, Semillon's history is far more illustrious than its current status suggests. This Bordeaux variety, celebrated for its role in crafting some of the world's greatest dessert wine, once reigned as the most popular white grape variety globally; it accounted for a staggering 90% of all plantings in South Africa at one time and had an extensive following in Chile where it dominated 75% of total vineyard production in the 1950s.


Since the Phylloxera plague of the mid-1800s, Semillon has seen a gradual (and sometimes rapid) decline worldwide. Despite its historical significance, the aftermath of Phylloxera forced many producers and growers to seek more commercially viable alternatives that produced consistency. With the European economy (both on the continent and the colonies) in turmoil, Semillon was gradually replaced by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, grapes that yielded more consistent wines for a market parched of good wine.


As Jancis Robinson aptly notes, "Semillon is not a fashionable variety," a sentiment that seems ironic given its similarities to Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Semillon's hallmark viscosity and oily character make it a natural blending partner with Sauvignon Blanc, contributing a racing beam of acidity that complements the richer body. Semillon reigned in its homeland of Bordeaux until the 1960s before gradually being replaced by Sauvignon Blanc. Its precipitous decline worldwide has further been exacerbated by inexperienced winemakers who often produce lackluster wines. Even skilled winemakers find Semillon particularly challenging to master in the winery, especially when dealing with significant drops in acidity well before reaching the desired sugar ripeness; the wines are rich and ‘oily’ but lack a backbone of acidity.


Despite its decline in popularity worldwide, the fact remains: Semillon remains a grape with immense potential for crafting incredible and age-worthy wines when handled correctly. On paper, Semillon is relatively easy to grow. The vine is vigorous and buds late - helping to avoid spring frost damage, and ripens early, ideal for evading damage and molding from autumn rain. However, the secret of making a great Semillon in the winery has only been mastered by a dedicated few.



Origins of Semillon

Bordeaux & Sauternes: While small holdings of Semillon can be found across the globe, two regions in the North and South Hemispheres have mastered this particularly challenging grape. In Bordeaux, Semillon shines as the principal grape for producing Sauternes. The thin skins of Semillon are highly susceptible to Botrytis, making this partnership of mold and grape ideal for crafting premium sweet dessert wines.


The key to producing high-quality Semillon in Sauternes is low yields. Some prestigious producers in Sauternes reported only producing the equivalent of one glass per vine. Unfortunately, in our modern world, which emphasizes higher production volume, Semillon's allure has increasingly waned.


Fun Fact: While it's commonly believed that Semillon originated in Bordeaux's Saint Emilion (a name that sounds strikingly similar phonetically), other theories suggest its roots trace back to the island of Gironde.


The dry table wines produced outside of Sauternes have become increasingly dominated by Sauvignon Blanc. Until the 1950s, Semillon reigned as the principal variety in SBS blends (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon). Yet, today, it remains increasingly dominated by Sauvignon Blanc."


So what's the Secret of Making Stellar Semillon?


The Semillon Whisperer “Down Under”

Wine titan and the 'Godfather of Semillon,' Bruce Tyrrell, has helped the Hunter Valley forge a reputation that rivals even the French (much to their chagrin, I’m sure). The region's unique climate, characterized by soon "flavor ripening" without excessive "sugar ripeness," has been a key to their success. Harvesting 6-8 weeks earlier than wineries down south, the Hunter Valley leverages natural high acidity to produce fresh and bone-dry wines, with an alcohol content no higher than 10-11%. Hunter Valley Semillons have remarkable aging potential, often reaching 40-50 years, becoming rounder, softer, and developing a delicious and highly prized toasted bread aroma that emerges even without oak aging.


Fun Fact: Both Bordeaux and the Hunter Valley share a similar proximity to the ocean—Bordeaux lies roughly 30 miles from the Atlantic, while the Hunter Valley is situated 40 to 50 miles from the Pacific. The relative humidity in both regions might be key to preserving natural acidity while also ensuring sugar and flavor ripeness.


While Semillon has found minor notoriety in places like Washington State, Sonoma, Napa, and even South Africa, winemakers struggle to replicate the same level of success as Bordeaux and the Hunter Valley. Jancis Robinson noted in the Oxford Companion of Wine that Washington's L’Ecole is “one of the few wineries in the entire world to persist with a really well-made Semillon. Surely that grape’s time will come…It has the body of Chardonnay and the aroma of Sauvignon Blanc – surely a recipe for success?” – Jancis Robinson


Semillon’s potential for producing great wines is undeniable. Yet attaining that quality has several barriers to success. There is still hope for Semillon's revival with emerging trends indicating that younger wine consumers have enthusiasm for unique, outlier wines that fall outside the popular 20 mainstream varieties. Novice wine drinkers and aficionados alike should dampen their palates with Semillon given the opportunity and explore the various styles available not only in Australia and France but elsewhere as well. Perhaps the next generation of wine drinkers will help breathe new life into Semillon, revitalizing its popularity and instilling interest among winemakers to unlock the potential of this diamond in the rough.

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