Semillon, or Sémillon to give the French spelling, is a white wine grape found in many regions throughout the world, though most popular in France and Australia. Its berries can be spotted by their thin, golden skin and can produce both dry and sweet wines. Dry white wine produced from Semillon is usually quite rich and relatively low in acidity, so it is often used as a blending grape in dry white Bordeaux. Elsewhere, notably Australia, 100% Semillon wines are common in addition to blended wines. Semillon is famously susceptible to botrytis cinerea (“noble rot”), making it a crucial component in the beautiful sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
Semillon in France
The south west of France is probably the most important region in the world for Semillon. Here, the Semillon grape is used to produce absolutely outstanding dry and sweet wines.
Dry white Semillon
The dry white wines of the Bordeaux region are generally blends, with Semillon playing its part alongside Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Look for wines with designations like Bordeaux Blanc, Entre-deux-Mers, Graves and Pessac-Léognan. The exact proportions of Semillon to Sauvignon Blanc will vary, though generally dry whites favour Sauvignon Blanc. This is the case for leading properties such as Château Malartic-Lagravière, based in the Graves region. Château Malartic-Lagravière Blanc 2005, a 92-point wine from Robert Parker, has a rather typical blend of 90% Sauvignon Blanc to just 10% Semillon. The Semillon here subtly contributes weight and mouthfeel, leading to a very well-balanced wine.
Sweet white Semillon
Semillon is perhaps at its very best as the major blending component of the fine sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. Thanks to the Semillon grape and its susceptibility to the so-called noble rot, these wines have a much lower water content and much higher natural sugar levels prior to fermentation. The resulting wine is rich, luscious and decadently sweet, with up to 150 grams per litre of residual sugar. The reference point for Sauternes is certainly Château d’Yquem, which is quite literally in a class of its own in the region: It is the only Premier Cru Supérieur in the 1855 classification of Sauternes and Barsac. Château d’Yquem 2006 is a wonderful example of the region’s style, receiving 98+ points from Robert Parker.
Semillon in Australia
Semillon is also very popular in Australia. Blends such as Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon-Chardonnay are common, especially with large producers like Wolf Blass. The most exciting examples of Semillon wines from Australia are surely the single varietal examples, such as Torbreck Woodcutter’s Semillon 2009 from the Barossa Valley. Torbreck Vintners is a premium producer, and this wine is as good an example of Australian Semillon as you are likely to find: Medium-bodied with a complex palate showing fruit and savoury notes, this is a fantastic food wine, capable of standing up to roast game, grilled red meats and winter stews.
Semillon in other regions
Though best known (and often at its best) in either France and Australia, you can find Semillon wines, sometimes single varietals and more often part of a blend, in places as far afield as the USA, Chile, Argentina, Greece, Turkey and beyond.