Sémillon (SEM-ee-yawn)


A friend once told me that sémillon always brought back his childhood memories of the smell and taste of cotton sheets as he ran under the clothesline on a summer day. Whimsical as that description might seem, there can indeed be something pure, clean and starched about many sémillons, especially when they are young. In Bordeaux, (sémillon’s birthplace) the grape is often blended with a bit of sauvignon blanc (which is thought to be genetically linked but the relationship between the two is not yet clear). Sémillon’s broad, mouthfilling character gets a perfect lift from the lean tartness of sauvignon blanc. In fact, the blend of sémillon and sauvignon is true not only for dry white Bordeaux, but also for the region’s sweet wines such as Sauternes. Sémillon is, in fact, ideal for Sauternes as the grapes’ thin skins and loose bunches are readily attacked by the noble rot, Botrytis cinerea. The name sémillon, by the way, may be derived from the old pronunciation of St. Emilion, the well-known commune in Bordeaux now devoted to merlot and cabernet franc, and no longer a place where sémillon is commercially made. With all due respect to Bordeaux, some of the greatest dry sémillons in the world are made in Australia, where the wines are considered national treasures. Fascinatingly, Australian sémillon (the Aussies pronounce it “SEM-i-lawn”) bears almost no resemblance to the broad, lush sémillons of Bordeaux. Instead, Australian versions are howlingly tart and full of almost tensile energy when young. With age, they become radically transformed—taking on rich, honeyed flavors, a cashewlike nuttiness and an almost lanolin-like texture. I will never forget being at Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales and tasting their legendary “Vat 1” sémillons going back to the mid-1960s. The wines were nothing short of mesmerizing.

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