Semillion, the grape of great white wines
Sémillon is a white grape variety native to southwestern France . It is to the richness of this grape that you can taste the great sweet wines, dry white wines and basic white wines of France and many other regions of the world.
A grape variety originating from the Sauternes region
The native land of Sémillon is undoubtedly the south-west of France, precisely in the region of Sauternes . It has been grown in Bordeaux for over forty decades, but also in several other surrounding wine regions such as Bergerac . It is the basis of the production of white wines in Bordeaux, and great dry white wines in Graves . Sémillon is also at the origin of the production of the great sweet wines of Sauternes, and is generally associated with Sauvignon Blanc , mainly or in a minority.
Sémillon is often blended with Sauvignon blanc , Muscadelle , and even Chardonnay , to make a much more interesting, subtle, fat-packed, age -worthy dry white wine . In many warmer wine regions, its relatively low natural acidity may need that of Sauvignon Blanc. But, done well, it can make an intriguing, full-bodied wine with a satisfying combination of citrus, honey and candied fruit aromas. Indeed, this subtle grape variety looks like Sauvignon Blanc, one is tempted to believe that they must be closely related, even if DNA analysis has never proven it.
Development and culture
Sémillon is a grape variety that has medium clusters, in the form of a cylinder and compact. Its berries possess thin skins , which gives it a great propensity to be nobly affected by botrytis cinerea . Indeed, the physiological characteristics of this variety are excellent for the development of noble rot , which often appears when the bunches turn golden with small black dots.
The cultivation of this variety of grapes is not so complicated. In fact, unless its yield is decimated by botrytis cinerea, it is naturally very productive. It is also susceptible to diseases such as downy mildew , leafhoppers , black rot and gray rot . Its very remarkable green leaves earned it the title of “green grape variety” for many years in South Africa. It was by far the most planted grape variety at the beginning of the 19th century, so much so that it was just called the “ wine grape ”. Today, despite a slight decline in its cultivation, South Africa still produces a wide range of dry Semillons , as well as dessert wines .
Harvesting perfectly botrytis-affected grapes can involve many passes through the vineyard , in order to harvest each bunch at an optimal stage of infection. This usually makes the grapes look like they are covered in ash . Careful vinification and extended aging in new oak barrels (especially for the sweet wines it yields), can result in some of the most luscious and long-lasting wines in the world.
This variety has primary aromas of acacia flowers, honey, dried fruits and candied fruits. These flavors are similar, but less intense than those of the Sauvignon Blanc with which it is often blended. However, Sémillon can take on more specific aromas depending on where it is grown. In hot climatic regions (South Africa, Argentina, California), it gives aromas of ripe fruit. Moderate aging in oak barrels adds notes of fresh butter .
On the other hand, when grown in a cooler climate (such as Bordeaux or the Hunter Valley in Australia), it is a little more acidic and is closer to Sauvignon Blanc. It is therefore less ripe in this case and gives aromas of green apple, lemon and “acacia flowers”, especially when it is not too aged.
Sémillon in the regions of France and elsewhere
Bordeaux is an emblematic region of Sémillon. In the Château d'Yquem, it makes it possible to produce a sweet wine considered to be the best there is. It comes in a dry style over the large area of the vineyard located between the Garonne and the Dordogne, which refers to the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation. In the Graves, it is under the Pessac-Léognan appellation that it produces complex wines with extraordinary longevity. It is even more marked in the “Sauternes Barsac” region, where it is associated with Sauvignon blanc and a little Muscadelle. Its contribution to this blend (about 80%) is mainly due to the virtues of its noble rot. The Sauternes appellation and that of Barsac are located on either side of the Ciron river, which is a tributary of the Garonne.
In the rest of France, it is part of the grape varieties of the Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, Bergerac, Monbazillac, Côtes-de-Provence appellations... In total, it now covers today a little over 12,000 hectares of cultivated land in France, which is very low compared to its situation fifty years ago.
Nevertheless, Sémillon was able to develop elsewhere, notably in South Africa, Argentina, California, Chile, New Zealand and Australia. It is in the latter country, precisely in the Hunter Valley, that it enjoys the status of a unique grape variety. It produces fine dry white wines with great longevity.
If you are interested in other articles on other grape varieties, you can for example read this article on Malbec .