Semillon reconsidered

January 28, 2016
by Christian
in Opinion & Analysis
with 5 Comments
Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1 Hunter 2009

Go, you good thing!

“Semillon is one of those grapes like Riesling which tends to be much more appreciated by wine insiders than by the average wine drinker,” writes Jancis Robinson MW on her website. Tim James, meanwhile, quotes a source in his book Wines of the New South Africa – Tradition and Revolution (University of California Press: 2013) that in 1822, 93% of vines in the Cape were planted to the variety (because it was prolific and resistant to disease) and by the late 1970s was still the fifth most planted variety in the country. Today, it is 12th most planted making up 1.2% of the national vineyard.

What to expect from the grape? In Bordeaux, it combines with Sauvignon Blanc to make the great dry whites of Graves and Graves and Pessac-Léognan and of course features in the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. It has also become the stuff of legend as grown in Hunter Valley, Australia.

Should SA be making more of it? To explore this, a blind tasting organised by James and Stuart Downes of Shannon Vineyards in Elgin.

The wines included in the line-up (with scores alongside) were as follows:

Flight One
1. Boekenhoutskloof 2009 – 94
2. Tyrrell’s Wines Single Vineyard HVD 2009 (AUS) – 93
3. Shannon 2010 – 90
4. Tyrrell’s Wines Single Vineyard Belford 2009 (AUS) – 92
5. Steenberg 2009 – 91
6.Tyrrell’s Wines Single Vineyard Stevens 2009 (AUS) – 93
7. Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1 Hunter 2009 (AUS) – 91
8. David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner 2009 – 90

Flight Two
1. Mullineux CWG “The Gris” Semillon 2013 – 94
2. David Nieuwoudt Ghost Corner 2014 – 91
3. Franschhoek Vineyards 2014 – 92
4. Landau du Val 2013 – 90
5. Boekenhoutskloof 2013 – 93
6. Constantia Uitsig 2014 – 94
7. Shannon Vineyards 2014 – 91
8. Steenberg 2013 – 92
9. Vergelegen 2014 – 94

Some general observations: In flight one, the difference between the wines from Tyrrell’s and those from South Africa were easy to spot – not surprising given the low alcohol of the former, 11% or thereabouts. In terms of structure, the Tyrrell’s were light and delicate, the top-of-the-range Vat 1 most of all, a real now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t kind of wine. They recalled good Riesling, with some terpene character more or less in evidence.

As for the South African wines, a wide array of styles, those from cooler climate Constantia and Elim inevitably showing more green character while those from Franschhoek’s old vines showing more stone fruit and possessing greater heft. As the scores indicate, all serious and demanding wines but it must be said that local single-variety Sem makes for a curious wine (often resulting in a weird combination of grassiness, citrus, peach and honey) and is not for the uninitiated. Why bother to make it on its own? In order to make a better Sauv-Sem blend further down the line was James Downes’ frank reply.

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  1. KwispedoorJanuary 28, 2016 at 8:49 pmReply

    One needs to make Semillon on its own to prevent geeks from getting grumpy – we love it. Sure, make the Bordeaux(ish) styles too but don’t forsake the varietal wines, even if you make less of it. Good SA Semillon ages like Buddy Guy. Taste our best Semillons (but you need to include Cape Point Vineyards) against our best Sauvignons at a decade old and the proof of the pudding will be evident.

    • ChristianJanuary 28, 2016 at 9:04 pmReplyAuthor

      Hi Kwispedoor, Always appreciate your impassioned arguments but take CPV as a case in point: If you compared the 2005 of the Sauvignon Blanc, the Sem and Isliedh, I guarantee you the latter will look the most complete wine right now.

      • KwispedoorJanuary 29, 2016 at 9:34 am

        So it should, considering that Isliedh is their flagship. Thing is, I don’t think it will quite trump their Semillon every time in a blind tasting of multiple vintages – that’s how well their Semillon ages. Also, some producers (particularly in Franschhoek) don’t have good enough Sauvignon to back up their Semillon. Still, I wasn’t advocating the demise of Bordeaux-style blends. I was merely defending Semillon’s place as a quality varietal wine.

  2. GrantJanuary 28, 2016 at 11:26 amReply

    Christian, how many of the SA wines were under stelvin?

    • ChristianJanuary 28, 2016 at 1:23 pmReplyAuthor

      Hi Grant, The two David Nieuwoudts, the Franschhoek Vineyards, the Constantia Uitsig and the the Shannon 2014 were under screwcap, the rest cork.

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