“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:
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
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.