History of Semillon
A chilled glass of Semillon on a hot summer evening is a true highlight of Australian wine drinking. Our warm climate is a perfect accompaniment to this classic white wine, with its refreshing zest and pleasing golden hue.
Yet on a cold winter’s night you can also savour Semillon in its sticky state, enjoying its sweet, treacly dessert wine alter ego known as a Sauterne.
Semillon is a truly great wine varietal, one that helped put Australia on the wine-growing map and is now pushing what’s possible with grapes even further as modern winemakers and drinkers continue to enjoy it.
Native to France’s prominent Bordeaux wine-growing region, the Sémillon grape is a hardy, vigorous grape variety that is relatively easy to grow and can produce high yields.
Winegrowers in France have cultivated Semillon for centuries, with references to a grape variety known as Sémillon de Saint-Émilion dating back to 1736. Semillon is one of only three white wine varieties approved for the Bordeaux region, along with Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc, so it’s considered an elite grape by the French.
Winemakers in Bordeaux embraced Semillon because of its hardy nature, with fruit that ripens early with warm weather. The grapes tend to have thin skins with low acidity, but they are ideal for making wines that can be drunk immediately or developed in barrels and the bottle over many years.
What Food Does Semillon Suit?
Semillon, in its traditional state as a dry white wine, is renowned for its zesty flavours and refreshing taste, especially when nicely chilled.
Australian Semillon wines, in particular, are known for their golden hue and aromas of burnt toast or honey on the nose, particularly wines from the Hunter Valley, whose style tends to influence the rest.
Because of its easy-drinking nature, Semillon and its blends such as SSB are best enjoyed with foods like fish and Asian dishes.
Oysters shine with Semillon, as do crab, lobster, and any shellfish or white fish. The clean, crisp freshness of the Semillon pairs perfectly with fish, complementing everything from sashimi to ceviche.
For meats, try Semillon with lighter things like pork or chicken, especially Asian-style, but nothing too spicy as that could overwhelm.
If you can find a Semillon blend from somewhere like Margaret River, they tend to be a little richer so you can pair them with seared seafood like scallops.
On the sweeter end of the scale, a Sauterne made from Semillon is a perfect dessert wine and can be enjoyed after any meal. It pairs deliciously with cheese, especially sharper styles like Danish blue or Gorgonzola to create a dramatic contrast.
What Does Semillon Taste Like?
The remarkable thing about Semillon is its range – it can be sweet or dry, all depending on the grapes and the desire of the winemaker.
Semillon grapes that are picked early almost always display a dry characteristic, while late harvest wines are typically sweeter. Most Semillon in Australia is made into dry white wine, in keeping with the demands of modern palates and because it highlights the wine’s delicate zestiness.
Semillon can be oaked, and you’ll often find that Barossa Valley Semillon has a bit of woodiness to it, while Hunter Semillons are left alone.
But if sweet is what you’re after, Semillon is used to make dessert wines like Sauternes. A type of rot known as Botrytis is allowed to develop on Semillon grapes and dry out the fruit. This has the effect of concentrating the sugars inside and enhancing the flavours that can be created with pressing.
Botrytis is also known as “noble rot” and allows winemakers to bring out some truly astonishing flavours from Semillon, such as strawberries and cream or golden fruits like apricots and peaches.
Semillon in Australia
The first plantings of Semillon happened in Australia in the early 1900s and were based on cuttings brought over from France. However, it wasn’t always known as Semillon down under.
The most prominent Semillon plantings were in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, where the wine became known as “Hunter Valley Riesling.”
Wrong labelling aside, the Hunter Valley was the main driver of Semillon’s development in Australia, with four distinct styles emerging. The first is a blend with Sauvignon Blanc (known as SSB) or with Chardonnay. The second is a sweet style like a Sauterne. The third is a traditional style with early picking to create a wine with longevity, followed by a dry style. These latter styles are considered unique to Australia.
But Semillon is not just confined to the Hunter. You can also find this noble grape growing in the Adelaide Hills where its cooler climate is producing complex examples, and in Margaret River, where it’s often combined with Sauvignon Blanc.
Overall, there’s around 4,570 hectares planted with Semillon in Australia and it looks like this classic white wine variety has a bright future.
Where is Semillon Grown?
Semillon tends to fly under the radar on the Australian wine scene compared to its more prominent varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
But the rise in popularity of the Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blend has put this classic white wine variety firmly in front of new generations of wine drinkers, and there is growing demand for Semillon down under.
It has been a historical part of Australia’s wine industry and will continue to flourish with its delicious zest whether sweet or dry.
Semillon is highly adaptable, so is able to be grown as a single varietal of high quality or blended with other white varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc. It has spread widely across the world’s winegrowing regions, with up to 90 per cent of South Africa’s vineyards once dominated by Semillon. It can also be found growing in other new world wine regions like Chile, Argentina and New Zealand.
In fact, Semillon is also rising in North America, with plantings in California’s Napa Valley, in Washington State, and in Texas, with vineyards in Canada also embracing this old world classic.