Wednesday, June 3, 2015

White Wine Grapes, Part 3: Semillon

Parts 1 and 2 dealt with Malvasia and Vermentino respectively and those two grapes were connected through our exploration of the white wines of Montauto from Maremma, Tuscany.  On the same tasting table which featured the Montauto whites, we also had the 2014 White Bordeaux from Chateau Cantelaudet of Graves de Vayres which we learned was a 90% Semillon/10% Sauvignon Blanc blend.  After tasting the wine and before learning the blend, I would have guessed, because the wine was so lean and fine, that the percentages were reversed.

Semillon is one of the giants of white wine blending grapes and it's partner is almost exclusively Sauvignon Blanc.  In cool climates like Bordeaux, Semillon adds body and texture along with citrus fruit and honey flavors to its leaner and more acidic partner, Sauvignon Blanc.  A sometimes third partner in white Bordeaux would be Muscadelle which adds a complementary floral fruit component.

With 28,000 acres in vines, Semillon ranks third in total white wine grape acreage in France behind Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Almost all of those plantings lie in Bordeaux which actually makes Bordeaux the world leader in Semillon plantings.  Australia is second with 15,500 acres.  First planted there in the early nineteenth century, Semillon has had a long and storied historical run.  At times in the 1800's Semillon comprised ninety percent of Australia's entire vineyard acreage.  As recently as the 1950's it occupied seventy-five percent.  Now due to the international juggernaut of Chardonnay and Shiraz popularity, Semillon has settled into a niche status, which to my way of thinking, doesn't do it justice.

While Bordeaux shows Semillon to be a zesty palate cleanser in a cool climate blend, Australia shows what the grape is capable of bringing in a hot climate and it is very different indeed.  The wine is much richer with complex, intensified aromas and flavors of burnt toast and honey, replete with tropical fruit flavors of mango, peach, and papaya.  If this sounds like a centerpiece single varietal and not a blender, it often is and that model also often includes oak aging similar to many Chardonnays.  Such Semillon-based wines as these have been known to improve for thirty years in the cellar!

So why haven't we heard more about Semillon before now?  In short, because it is not universally loved.  Semillon is a heavy, low-acid grape that doesn't automatically produce intensely complex white wines.  A great deal of its acclaim through viticultural history can be attributed to its easy cultivation and prolific output, which brings us back to the subject of white wine blending because that is just the kind of "filler" component a lot of blends need.  Semillon brings more though.  That Semillon texture mentioned above actually is described alternately as "waxy", "oily", or "lanolin" and that's kind of an interesting blending additive.

I suppose a word or two should be said about the most famous Semillon wine of all...Sauternes, the finest dessert wine in the world.  In a Botrytis Cinerea or "noble rot" infection, fungal spores will attach to grape bunches in the vineyard and drain the water from the grape pulp leaving concentrated solids, fruit acids, and minerals in the shriveled berries.  If fair weather prevails, those berries will have heightened sugars and glycerol making an exceedingly rich wine with peach, apricot, nectarine, mango, and citrus fruit flavors complemented by nuts and honey.  Like I said, it's the finest dessert wine in the world.      

Hot climate Semillon is a meaty white wine.  It pairs well with all white meats including pork chops, ham, and duck.  Its fat body allows it to stand up to the stronger spices including Asian ginger and curry.  Cool climate Semillons also pair with spicy foods but might do better with veggies and fish.  Cheese affinities include Swisses and Cheddars

Please join us this Friday after 5pm when Dean Johnston of Eagle Rock leads us in a tasting of the Chilean wines: Indomita Pinot Noir and Valdivieso Chardonnay along with Valdivieso's Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.  Also in the mix for Friday will be Sikelia Sicilian Nero d'Avola and Lava Cap El Dorado Cabernet Sauvignon.

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