Semillon grapes make up 80% of the blend in the most expensive and famous dessert wine in the world, Château d’Yquem. Semillon seems the favorite foil of Botrytis Cinerea, the noble rot which concentrates the sugars and flavors and intensifies the aromas for d’Yquem and the other “late-harvest” dessert wines of Monbazillac and Sauternes. These wines hold up spectacularly in antiquity, unique in the spectrum of unfortified wines.
Consistently productive at six to eight tons per acre and of vigorous vines, semillon is easy to cultivate. It is fairly resistant to common vine diseases, with the notable exception of rot, which most often is hoped to be the noble type and not the destructive strain. This viticultural profile has led to widespread propagation and popularity of semillon vineyards.
While semillon is the majority white variety in Bordeaux, Graves, and Sauternes, more grows in Chile than anywhere else on earth. Early in the viticultural development of Australia, semillon (often incorrectly labeled as Riesling) dominated as the major white variety, although the vineyards are mostly Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc today.
California has an ongoing checkered relationship with Semillon. Acreage has fluctuated up and down over the past several decades, from 1,200 acres in 1961, to 2,800 acres in 1981, to currently over 1,500 acres planted.
In 1956, winemaker Myron Nightingale, then of Cresta Blanca winery, made a dessert wine by spraying spores of Botrytis cinerea on semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes to produce French Sauternes-like results. The wine was a breakthrough success in the industry, because the California climate had always been considered too arid for the Noble Mold to naturally exist at a high enough population level to any beneficial effect.1 Financial problems caused Cresta Blanca to change hands and production ceased after the 1966 vintage.
The ripe semillon berry is a rich yellow color at maturity, although increasing sun exposure may turn it amber-pink. In warmer climates, there is always danger of sunburn and raisining. If processed as a dry or semidry table wine, the thin skins and tender, juicy pulp require speedy but gentle handling.
|Semillon Smell and/or Flavor Elements|
|Varietal Aromas/Flavors:||Processing Bouquets/Flavors:|
|Fruity: fig, lemon, pear||Botrytis: apricot, quince, peach, honey, pineapple, vanilla, candy|
|Spice: saffron||Malolactic: butter, cream|
|Herbal: grass, weeds||Oak (light): vanilla, sweet wood|
|Vegetal: bell pepper, asparagus||Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast|
Wines dominated by Semillon may lack much youthful aroma, but have fairly full body and tend to be low in acidity, even “fat” at times. This is the flavor profile of a supporting role grape, rather than a star, and most Semillon is blended. Semillon is the soft, subtle, rich Yin to balance the Yang of Sauvignon Blanc, which can be aromatically aggressive and acidic. Semillon even works well when blended with that notoriously standoffish loner, Chardonnay, providing weight and richness without diverting aromatic delicacy.
by Jim LaMar
1 Naturally Botrytis-affected wines from Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and even Chardonnay are now occasionally made from California vineyards exposed to marine influence and higher humidity. Botrytis can, on the other hand, also cause big problems for California table grapes and other fruits, vegetables, and even flowers.