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
the noble rot which concentrates the sugars and
flavors and intensifies the aromas for Yquem
and the other "late-harvest" dessert wines of
France's Monbazillac and Sauternes appellations. These wines hold up
spectacularly in antiquity, a unique ability in the
spectrum of unfortified wines.
productive at six to eight tons per acre and of
vigorous vines, semillon is easy to cultivate and flourishes in a variety of soil types.
It is fairly resistant to common vine diseases,
with the notable exception of rot, which is hoped to be of the "noble" type and not the
destructive strain. Semillon clusters are merdium-to-large and well-filled to compact. The thin, rot-sensitive berry skins can also sunburn easily. Keeping the canopy open to air circulation is equally important to minimizing direct sun exposure of the fruit. Overall, its viticultural profile
has led to widespread propagation of semillon vineyards, even if the popularity of their wine has waxed and waned.
is the majority white variety in Bordeaux,
Graves, and Sauternes, more acreage is planted in Chile than
anywhere else on earth (yet ranks third in toal Chilean acreage, behind chardonnay and sauvignon blanc). Early in the
viticultural development of Australia, semillon
(often incorrectly labeled as "Riesling")
dominated as the major white variety, although chardonnay and
sauvignon blanc reign today. The South African vineyards also began in the early 1800s, with semillon (aka Wyndruif) as the most abundant white grape variety, yet today it accounts for less than 1% of plantings.
California also has
an ongoing checkered relationship with semillon.
Although the actual debut of this variety is unsubstantiated, semillon was among the many cuttings Agoston Harazsthy brought from Europe in 1862; J.H. Drummond and Charles Wetmore imported vines before 1880 and the variety was fairly widespread in Northern California vineyards by 1885. California's total semillon plantings have 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.
California semillon today is blended with
sauvignon blanc and rendered as dry table wine, but an
experimental dessert wine created a popular and critical sensation in
the middle of the 20th Century.
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
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 to avoid oxidation and browning.
Smell and/or Flavor
depends upon individual tasting ability and experience
and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions,
as well as viticultural and enological techniques.
This list therefore is
merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.
apple, date, fig, lemon, pear
apricot, quince, peach, honey,
pineapple, vanilla, candy
(light): vanilla, sweet
(atypical) bell pepper, asparagus
(heavy): toast, smoke,
dominated by semillon may lack much youthful
aroma, but have fairly full body and tend to be
low in acidity, even "oily" or "fat" at times. Semillon also has an affinity for oak, accentuating subtleties such as "toast" and "smoke" that emanate from wines' "spice" rather than its "main ingredient", but nonetheless adding complexity.
This is the
flavor profile of a supporting role grape,
rather than a star, and most winemakers use semillon in
blends, if at all. 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
Botrytis-affected wines from riesling, sauvignon
blanc, chenin blanc, and even chardonnay and viognier are now
occasionally made from California vineyards
exposed to marine influence and higher humidity.
can, on the other hand, also cause big
problems for California table grapes and other
fruits, vegetables, and even flowers. BACK
1. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010
2. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003
3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford
Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006
4. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998
5. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983