The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals.
Here's a riddle: It yields some of the world's finest and most expensive white wines yet this French grape enjoys greater name recognition in Australia than in France or anywhere else. What is it?
That's right: sémillon. (But you earn zero points for the answer. The headline on this piece was a spoiler.)
Were it not for the headline, though, I suspect that even a seasoned sommelier might take a minute or longer to come up with the right response. Sémillon tends to spring up much less often than, say, chardonnay or riesling in conversations about great white grapes. That's for good reason. Most of the best sémillon-based wines are in fact blends rather than solo-varietal bottlings, with sémillon's BFF, sauvignon blanc, playing a strong supporting role.
That's the case with Château d'Yquem, the most coveted dessert wine on the planet (at a nosebleed $750-plus a bottle), and many other white sweet nectars from the surrounding Sauternes appellation of Bordeaux. It's also true of Château Haut-Brion Blanc (at, hold your breath, $900) and hundreds of other bone-dry Bordeaux whites whose grape names rarely get listed on the label.
On its own, sémillon also can be hard to pin down flavour-wise. In warm climates, the fully ripe fruit has been known to result in flabby, dull wines with little zest or aromatic lift. In cool zones, such as New Zealand, the grape has a tendency to take on a grassy character that can render it indistinguishable from its aforementioned best friend forever.
In neither-hot-nor-cold Bordeaux, they've come up with two successful profiles. Vinified to full dryness, the variety generally produces a medium-bodied beverage with an oily texture and what's often described as a lanolin-like, waxy aroma. Bordeaux-style sémillon also takes well to oak-barrel aging, absorbing complementary vanilla-like and toasty nuances for added richness. Both qualities enable the grape to mingle compellingly with lean, zesty sauvignon blanc – yielding the classic two-grape white-Bordeaux formula (though many producers shun sémillon and rely entirely on sauvignon blanc, and there's often no way to tell from the label).
More arresting, arguably, are many of Bordeaux's sweet wines, which owe the better part of their glory to another sémillon trait, thin skin. On humid mornings – which are in no short supply in Bordeaux's Gironde estuary around harvest time – a fungus called Botrytis cinerea spreads through the vineyards, piercing berries to release water and thereby concentrate fruit sugars. This so-called "noble rot" also transforms sémillon's flavour to yield a wondrously complex and magically balanced wine that, while syrupy thick and technically very sweet, can come across as much drier than it is, retaining brilliant acidity as it matures gracefully in bottle over many decades. It's considered by many to be de rigueur with foie gras.
Like most of France's top grapes, sémillon has spread throughout the world, with more or less success in Chile, South Africa, California, Washington State, Canada and elsewhere. Much tends to be bottled in the dry-white manner of Bordeaux – rounding out sauvignon blanc's racy-citrus and vegetal profile. One genuinely noteworthy example from Canada is a wine called Alibi from Black Hills Estate in British Columbia, which typically mixes 25-per-cent sémillon with 75-per-cent sauvignon. And there are many other New World renditions that include smaller splashes, such as the always fine Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc from Napa Valley.
Then there's Australia, sémillon's promised land, where the variety has been enjoying a long run and new acceptance as a one-grape show. The country boasts more than half of France's sémillon acreage. While much makes its way into Bordeaux-style dry blends and even delectably sticky offerings (De Bortoli's botrytis-affected Noble One is a dead ringer for top-quality Sauternes), the transcendent, dry examples worth knowing hail from the Hunter Valley near Sydney. In a sense, Hunter sémillon is Australia's answer to New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a category unto itself. The grapes generally are picked early to capture acidity, with a low sugar content that results in perfectly dry wines often registering a mere 10-to-11-per-cent alcohol.
Taste them when they're young and Hunter sémillons might fail to impress (hey, big body and bold flavours are what oaky chardonnays are for). But there's often a fetching lime-like delicacy about this blissfully unoaked style. It makes a fine complement to light cuisine of almost any stripe, including simply prepared shellfish and raw vegetarian fare. Give them time in the cellar, though, and you could be rewarded with a connoisseur's delight: great old white wine that might be favourably compared with fine, cellared white Burgundy or German riesling – in quality if not in style – with a toffee-like, honeyed depth pulled together by tight acidity.
Most Hunter Valley sémillons sell for less than $20 a bottle, though a few, such as the iconic and hard-to-find Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon, go for upward of $50 when available. Pricy, yes, but dirt cheap compared with Haut-Brion Blanc.