Semillon is a puzzling and mysterious wine; a chameleon that takes on different aromas and flavors depending on where the grape is grown, how the wine is made and what grapes are chosen as blending partners. And then there’s the confusion centered round the pronunciation (“Sem-e-yon” or “Sem-a-lon”) of the grape and wine.
The same claim can be made about many other white wines (Chardonnay is one prime example that comes to mind), but Chardonnay without a measure of oak is often bland and simply fruity. Some white wines, like Albariño, don’t need oak and, in fact, would be a different animal coupled with a little oak. In Australia, Semillon continues to hang on, especially in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, though it’s a difficult sale there as it is elsewhere in the world, even in spots where the native French grape is still grown like California’s South Central Coast, South Africa, or the South of France. Australia’s attempt to use up hard-to-sell Semillon took a wrong turn when the Aussies tried to market popular Chardonnay blended with Semillon as the forgettable mongrel called “SemChard.”
The Semillon grape is best known as one of three used to make the sweet and dry white wines of Sauternes and Bordeaux Blanc, but outside these noteworthy French regions, Australia is the best known wine region where Semillon excels. Among the prime spots for Australian Semillon are South Australia’s Barossa Valley and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, where the unoaked style is favored. The intriguing thing about mature Hunter Semillon is that it smells and tastes like it had been aged in oak, though the wine never touched wood. A similar depth and structure are obtained in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia and Western Australia’s Margaret River by blending Semillon with a little Sauvignon Blanc.
Iain Riggs, winemaker for Brokenwood, one of the top Semillon producers in the Hunter Valley had this to say about the mysterious Semillon at a recent Landmark Australia Tutorial in the Barossa Valley: “We still don’t know the secret of great Semillon. But put it this way: The soils in the Lovedale Vineyard are so poor that the rabbits carry lunch boxes.” Sounds like Semillon, at least in the Hunter Valley, proves the old saw that great wine comes from poor soils. Yet soils in the Hunter Valley vary from alluvial to sandy to dark loamy, or a combination of all three like that found in Tyrrell’s Short Flat Vineyard, source of Tyrrell’s Vat 1, one of the Hunter’s legendary Semillons.
With young Semillon you often get crossed signals that can put off the consumer. Aromatics are scant and the wine tends toward fatness, or a ripe oily texture. But with bottle age, Semillon morphs into a complex wine with ample, though not over-ripe fruit and an intriguing combination of roasted nuts and ripe figs. Adding oak presents another layer and is especially popular among those who love their white wines with wood.
With bottle age, Australian Semillon becomes a different animal, often described as “honey and toast.” Mature Semillon’s fruit profile is riper, more mature, leaning away from green apple and more toward figs, bread dough, straw and a toasted component that can easily be confused with the scent of toasted oak barrels. On my first trip to Australia in 1985, I was lucky to sit with Len Evans at Rothbury in the Hunter Valley for a vertical tasting of mature Hunter Semillons. Evans delighted in springing the tasting on unknowing writers and roared when I described the wines as having nicely integrated oak notes. “Not one of these bloody wines ever came close to an oak barrel,” he guffawed.
Still, most consumers opt for young white wines, rather than ones that have developed bottle maturity. Youthful Semillon appeals with hints--though sometimes muted ones--of lemon grass and lemon peel, crisp green apples, lime juice, freshly mown grass, vanilla, and refreshing vibrant acidity. These are just the kind of aromas and flavors that meld nicely with shellfish, grilled fish and other summer dishes with subtle flavors that could be overwhelmed by stronger whites like oaked Chardonnay, aggressive Sauvignon Blanc, or overtly fruity Viognier and Albarino.
Another style that gets some play, especially in California, is blending a small amount of Semillon with Sauvignon Blanc to mute the aggressiveness of Sauvignon Blanc. The complaint is that Sauvignon Blanc is too forceful and in-your-face, so the less aggressive Semillon adds a softer dimension while not cancelling out the character of Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc fans scoff at this cheeky idea, protesting any adulteration of their favorite wine.
Prior to the 1960s, Hunter Semillon was fermented in open-top tanks without the benefit of modern temperature-controlled closed stainless steel tanks. During that period the style of Semillon we enjoy today was created. Pioneers of this fruit-forward unoaked style of Australian Semillon include, but are not limited to, Tyrrells, McWilliams, Rothbury and Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley, as well as Peter Lehmann in South Australia’s Barossa Valley.
In a Chardonnay-centric wine world, it is unfortunate that there is not more room for satisfying white wines like Australian Semillon, especially those from the Hunter Valley. At the recent Landmark Australia Tutorial, veteran Australian wine scribe James Halliday best summed it up for all of us who love Semillon: “If ever we are going to convert our affection for this variety into a successful franchise, now is our chance.”