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Guide to the Semillon grape and wines

Semillon grape & wines from Wines With Attitude

Here I take a look at the Semillon or Sémillon grape and why it is, in my opinion, hugely under-rated.

What's the big deal with Semillon?

Admittedly Semillon is not going to appeal to people who prefer their white wines to be very light in colour and body but it has a lot going for it, not least the fact that it is so versatile. Semillon produces:

  • complex, fuller-bodied still dry wines and
  • rich sweet wines  plus
  • it blends well, especially with Sauvignon Blanc and particularly in Bordeaux and in Australia.

It is its ability to make arguably the best sweet wines in the world in Sauternes and Barsac that earns Semillon its classic grape status. In the right conditions the sugars in the grapes become concentrated to make them super-sweet; we’ll go into more detail on this process in a future blog.

Where to find Semillon

Aside from its home of Bordeaux, Semillon is grown largely in Australia, especially in the Hunter Valley, in South Africa, Argentina and Chile although Semillon vines have reduced in number as the craze for Chardonnay took hold in these countries. In addition it is not the easiest grape to grow, or rather it grows profusely but producing good flavoursome Semillon is notoriously difficult.

Flavour profiles of Semillon wines

Dry Semillon

At its worst, as a commercial bulk wine, Semillon lacks any flavour characteristics but at its best, when the grapes are grown in low yields and to their optimal ripeness and the dry wine is produced with care, it is intense, multi-layered with fruity, nutty and savoury characteristics, full body and a smooth, creamy texture.

In cool climate Semillon like those produced in Bordeaux and Hunter Valley citrus fruits – lemon, grapefruit and lime – and apple are likely to be predominant; the wine may also have floral aromas. The acidity will generally be higher and so the wine will be a little sharper. And in fact if it has not ripened properly Semillon tends to be very like Sauvignon Blanc to which it is related; some say it is like Pinot Grigio.

It will also tend not to be aged in oak in cooler regions though some flavour characteristics such as honey, butter and toast and textures that may be associated with ageing can develop if a wine is kept in bottle for a reasonable time. These wines are likely to be lower in alcohol at c.12% ABV.
In warmer climate dry Semillon from areas like Southern Australia, South Africa and Argentina the fruit flavours will tend more towards ripe pears, greengages, papaya, peach and mango though the lemon flavour usually remains. The dry straw aroma for which Semillon is known and the floral scents will be more predominant and there may be spices like ginger in the mix.

If oak ageing is used the butter and creamy aromas and tastes and the smooth, full-body will be enhanced. The texture of Semillon from a warmer area can be a little oily (in a good way), some call it lanolin or waxy, and in a good wine this should be balanced with some acidity. The alcohol will be higher at around 13.5 or 14% ABV. These Semillons can be like a rich, creamy Chardonnay.

When blended with Sauvignon Blanc, the added acidity from the Sauvignon creates a crisper wine and balances the richness of the Semillon; the flavour profile will depend upon the ratio of each grape in the blend.

Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blend from WWA

Sweet Semillon

A fabulous sweet Semillon will have a lovely silky, luscious texture and a multitude of flavours and aromas such as honey, nuts, marzipan, peaches, coconut, pineapple etc. To avoid it being cloyingly sweet the wine must have some crisp acidity to balance the sweetness.

When to drink Semillon

Good Semillon is generally better if it has a few years under its belt before being consumed. The problem with most wine retailers (and I include the supermarkets that sell well over 80% of wine in the UK) is that they push wine out far too soon. You need to be looking for at least 3 or 4 years of age before drinking it. Any earlier than that and it is likely to be too young and of a commercial, one-dimensional style which does no favours to Semillon’s reputation. The advantage is that it is very long-lived so if well-made dry Semillon can keep for 15 to 20 years and sweet Semillon even longer.

One of the disadvantages however of its needing some age before drinking – and of its affinity with oak – is that it is not the cheapest wine but it is definitely worth treating yourself from time to time.

Pairing Semillon with food

Food-wise dry Semillon has the body to make it the perfect match for rich meals like those we eat at Christmas and Easter where there are a lot of different flavours on a plate including fruity and creamy sauces – remember number one of my wine and food-matching tips – match the weight of the food with the wine. And the nuttiness of the wine complements a nut roast.

Perhaps surprisingly Semillon also makes a good match for relatively spicy food – mildly spiced curries, Thai and Japanese dishes.

Cooler climate Semillon is especially good with fish, seafood and even sushi.

Dessert Semillon wines are great with most desserts – remember number 2 of my food and wine matching tips – always to serve a wine that is sweeter than the food to avoid an acidic or sour taste – so rich and creamy puddings are perfect. But sweet Semillon is also good with some savoury foods – foie gras is perhaps the better known combination but try it also with blue cheese and nutty flavoured cheese like a strong cheddar and Gruyere. 

It's time to give Semillon a chance

… just find the right style of Semillon for you.

If you are a fan of Chardonnay try a 100% varietal or the Boekenhoutskloof Semillon which has a splash of Sauvignon Blanc to help the acidity. If you are more of a Sauvignon Blanc fan, try a Sauvignon-Semillon blend.

Boekenhoutskloof Semillon full bodied South African white wine

I can’t think of many white wine drinkers who wouldn’t enjoy one of these styles.


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