A Global Guide to Sémillon, A White Wine with Incredible Range

Worker harvests wine grapes
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“Sémillon can be amazing and average,” says Pauline Lapierre Dietrich, winemaker for Château Haut-Rian in Bordeaux. It all depends on how winemakers treat it in the vineyard and winery, she says. Clone and site matter, as do yield size and vinification.

Light- to medium-bodied, with trademark waxiness, Sémillon’s aromas include hay, white flowers and lemon in youth. Those notes turn honeyed and toasty with age. It stars in white blends worldwide, especially alongside Sauvignon Blanc in the classic white wines of Bordeaux.

As a varietal wine, however, Sémillon is capable of stylistic acrobatics of balance and tension.

From sublime French dessert wines to dry and bright Australian bottles, Sémillon has incredible range when done right.

“Sémillon is deep and so complex, you never get bored,” says Lapierre Dietrich.

Eager to understand all the grape has to offer? Here’s a style guide to Sémillon around the world.

France Sauternes wine vines
Vines in Sauternes / Photo by K D Leperi/Alamy

France

Sémillon is most known for its work at home in France, where it partners with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle to create sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac. To produce these wines, humid conditions are key. A fungus, Botrytis cinerea, grows on the fruit, and the resulting “noble rot” concentrates the sugars, flavors and acids as the grape shrivels.

Small quantities of luscious, oak-aged wine reveal flavors of honey, apricot, spice, saffron and smoke.

In Bordeaux, winemakers have long made dry Sémillon expressions, too. A typical white wine includes Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes Muscadelle. Simple, fresh expressions hail from Entre-deux-Mers, where they are typically aged in stainless steel.

Sémillon is also included in the dry, oaked and ageable whites of Graves and Pessac-Léognan. Such wines are stars in the firmament of Bordeaux: full-bodied, creamy and capable of aging for decades.

One trend to watch, says Cécile Ha of the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB), is the move toward making dry whites in traditionally sweet regions.

“There’s an increase in Sémillon-based wines, both blended and single varietal, in the south,” she says. “Clos des Lunes, Château Guiraud’s Le G, Y from d’Yquem and R de Rieussec illustrate this trend.”

Australia

Much like Malbec’s emigration from Old World to New, Semillon, as it’s spelled without the accent Down Under, has established roots abroad. Though the grape grows broadly across the country, three regions have distinctive styles.

In the cool climate of Western Australia’s Margaret River, Semillon lends weight to dry, crisp Bordeaux-style blends. In South Australia’s warmer Barossa Valley, old bush vines produce waxy, riper, fuller-bodied versions, often aged in barrels.

Meanwhile, many producers from Hunter Valley in New South Wales eschew oak and pick Semillon early for a dry, bright, lemony profile that’s low in alcohol, typically 10–11.5% alcohol by volume (abv).

After six years in the bottle, the wine takes on flavors of toast, smoke and honey. It’s unique and can evolve for a decade or more.

“We make Semillon like nowhere else in the world,” says James Agnew, owner of Audrey Wilkinson.

Winery sign South Africa
Sémillon grows in Constantia, South Africa / Photo by Migstock/Alamy

South Africa

Accounting for more than 90% of South Africa’s wine grape production by the 1820s, Sémillon took a backseat to trendier grapes like Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc after the phylloxera epidemic devastated vineyards in the 1880s. A quota system introduced in the 1950s further diminished the grape’s stature.

Today, styles vary from dry and fresh, to sweet and rich. Creation Wines, in coastal Hemel-en-Aarde, focuses on the grape’s capacity for brightness over breadth.

“We make a fresher, greener style, less waxy, that has a real salinity that’s appealing with food,” says winemaker Jean-Claude Martin.

One rarity largely particular to South Africa is Sémillon Gris, a mutation also called “red” Sémillon for its pink-skinned grapes. Thorne & Daughters makes a skin-fermented version called Tin Soldier that’s akin to an Italian ramato-style Pinot Grigio.

And several small producers feature Sémillon Gris and old-vine Sémillon, though Boekenhoutskloof has made ageworthy stuff “long before it was a thing,” says Jim Clarke, marketing manager for the Wines of South Africa trade group.

Chile

Sémillon was critical to Chile’s grape industry in the 1950s, but by the 1970s, many growers ripped it out in favor of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Today, much of its remaining acres feature 100-year-old vines that produce a distinctive style of Sémillon.

Amanda Barnes, author of the South America Wine Guide, thinks that Sémillon could be Chile’s next big thing.

“Most winemakers working with Chile’s old-vine Sémillon are making these wines on an artisanal scale, with authentic and sensitive winemaking,” she says.

Though techniques vary, typical aromas of varietal Chilean Sémillon include citrus, florals and hay woven through a dry, fresh profile plumped with lees stirring for texture.

White wine grapes
Winemakers Washington State and California produce Sémillon / Getty

United States

Though not widely planted in the U.S., Sémillon grows in Washington State and California. In Washington’s Columbia Valley, long warm days ripen the fruit, while brisk nights help with acid retention. Producers can achieve a rich, complex profile without sacrificing freshness. Typical aromatics include lemon, honeysuckle and orchard fruits. L’Ecole No. 41’s varietal bottles have earned the winery a soft spot in the hearts of Sémillon lovers.

In Napa, Forlorn Hope works with 70-year-old vines and ages its Nacré Sémillon for five years in bottles before release to emulate the racy, low-alcohol style of Hunter Valley. Natural wine producer Dirty & Rowdy also makes a skin-contact, concrete egg-fermented version. Other California winemakers feature Sémillon as the lead in Bordeaux-style blends.

Published on May 8, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings