In league with sauvignon blanc and muscadelle, semillon is responsible for the dry whites of Bordeaux, as well as the great sweet wines of Sauternes, Barsac et al. In Australia, semillon found its own unique niche in the Hunter Valley, making low alcohol, super-bright and zippy wines that age for decades, while in Margaret River it is more often than not blended with sauvignon blanc to make the region’s signature aromatic white.
Also known as
There are now no synonyms used on wine labels to confuse wine drinkers, though old bottles labelled ‘Hunter River Burgundy/Chablis/Riesling’ are all actually semillon.
What semillon tastes like
Given the major styles of semillon made, the wines veer from lemony, low alcohol and bracingly acidic to opulent and loaded with botrytis characters of lemon curd, honey and tea. In the middle, expect citrus and apple flavours, while with age, Hunter Valley semillon can famously take on lanolin accents with toasty notes that can make unwooded wines look like that have been oak-aged.
Vineyard & winemaking
Semillon can reliably yield very high crops of unsurprisingly neutral white wine, making it a useful grape for bulk wine production. In terms of quality production, semillon needs reduced yields to exhibit much flavour, then to be picked early enough to retain natural acidity, or blended with another variety, like sauvignon blanc, to provide freshness. Semillon is usually used as a blending component, except for the notable exception of the Hunter Valley, where is it is picked ultra-early and fermented to bony dryness. In Margaret River, semillon bottled solo can often have three to four degrees more alcohol than those of the Hunter. Oak is not uncommonly used in blends employing semillon, for both dry and sweet wines, while in the Hunter it is an anomaly to use anything other than a neutral vessel, either steel or very old, large barrels.
Where is semillon grown?
Bordeaux is the home of semillon, with it teaming up with sauvignon blanc and muscadelle to make the famous dry Bordeaux Blanc of the region, as well as the botrytised wines of Sauternes, Barsac et al. Outside of Bordeaux, there are no significant wines made from semillon, but it is France’s fourth most planted white grape, nonetheless, filling in blends in various places in the south-west, with Bergerac perhaps the most prominent.
Semillon around the world
Semillon has not found much sustained traction around the world, with very modest plantings in the USA and Canada, while Chile and Argentina have significant histories with the grape. Occupying 35,000 hectares in Chile by 1950, the popularity of sauvignon blanc has seen those holdings sink to under 1,000 hectares today, with a similar story in Argentina. They are still meaningful plantings, though, and there is now renewed interest in old vine semillon in those countries. South Africa also has a long history with the grape, with it dominating plantings in the 1800s, at one point accounting for 90 per cent of all vines. And though its position has been significantly eroded to be less than a percentage point, notable wines, both dry and sweet, are still made. Semillon is also grown modestly in New Zealand.
Semillon in Australia
Australia has taken what was essentially an anonymous grape in a blend that was best known for being a vehicle for botrytis – Sauternes et al – and elevated it to sharing top billing as one of the great wines of the world. The pioneering makers in the Hunter Valley developed a style that was dictated by the climate, picked before summer rains and the worst of the heat took their toll. Those low alcohol, lemony and high-acid whites turned out to be some of the world’s most age-worthy, developing toasty aromas with age. There are also old plantings of semillon in the Barossa Valley, but the wines are less esteemed, so they are in decline, but can be blended with other curio varieties – both old vines and new – to make interesting styles. But it’s Margaret River that produces the other icon wine, either solo, which is now uncommon, or in league with sauvignon blanc. Oddly, given the history and status, only 2 per cent of Australian Semillon is grown in the Hunter, with a more respectable 7 per cent grown in Margaret River. Nearly 85 per cent is grown in the warmer regions that flank the Murray, mainly going to bulk wine, although De Bortoli’s iconic ‘Noble One’ is Australia’s most famous tribute to the botrytised wines of Bordeaux is from the same territory. Semillon also pops up in vineyards in small quantities right across the country, with makers and regions as diverse as Jasper Hill, in Heathcote, and Charlotte Dalton, in the Adelaide Hills, making strikingly individual takes on the grapes.
Some of the best Australian semillon
Some of the icons
Some of the new wave