Sémillon is a golden-skinned grape used to make dry and sweet white wines, mostly in France and Australia. Its thin skin and susceptibility to botrytis make it dominate the sweet wine in the Sauternes AOC and Barsac AOC appellations.
The Sémillon grape is native to the Bordeaux region. It was known as Sémillon de Saint-Émilion in 1736, while Sémillon also resembles the local pronunciation of the town’s name. It first arrived in Australia in the early 19th century and by the 1820s the grape covered over 90% of South Africa’s vineyards,
where it was known as Wyndruif, meaning “wine grape”. It was once considered to be the most planted grape in the world, although this is no longer the case. In the 1950s, Chile’s vineyards were made up of over 75% Sémillon. Today, it accounts for just 1% of South African Cape vines.
Sémillon, which is relatively easy to cultivate, consistently produces six to eight tons of grapes per acre from its vigorous vines. It is fairly resistant to disease, except for rot. The grape ripens early, when, in warmer climates, it acquires a pinkish hue. Since the grape has a thin skin, there is also a risk of sunburn in hotter climates; it is best suited to areas with sunny days and cool nights.
Sémillon wines are rather heavy, with low acidity and an almost oily texture. It has a high yield and wines based on it can age a long time. Along with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, Sémillon is one of only three approved white wine varieties in the Bordeaux region.
The grape is also key to the production of sweet wines such as Sauternes. For the grapes to be used for sweet wine production, they need to have been affected by Botrytis (also known as “noble rot”). This fungus dries out the grapes, thus concentrating the sugar and flavors in the grape berry.
Sémillon is an important cultivar in two significant wine producing countries. In France, Sémillon is the preeminent white grape in the Bordeaux wine regions. The grape has also found a home in Australia; whereas today the country’s major white varieties are Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc, early in the country’s viticultural development it was Sémillon, at that time mislabeled as Riesling, that was the most significant white variety.
In France, the Sémillon grape is grown mostly in Bordeaux where it is blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. When dry, it is referred to as Bordeaux Blanc and is permitted to be made in the appellations of Pessac-Léognan, Graves, Entre-Deux-Mers and other less-renowned regions. In this form, Sémillon is generally a minor constituent in the blend. However, when used to make the sweet white wines of Bordeaux (such as those from Sauternes, Barsac and Cérons) it is often the dominant variety. In such wines the vine is exposed to the “noble rot” of Botrytis cinerea which consumes the water content of the fruit, concentrating the sugar present in its pulp. When attacked by Botrytis cinerea, the grapes shrivel and the acid and sugar levels are intensified.
Due to the declining popularity of the grape variety, fewer clones are cultivated in nurseries causing producers to project a future shortage of quality wine. In 2008, 17 Bordeaux wine producers, including Château d’Yquem, Château Olivier, Château Suduiraut and Château La Tour Blanche, formed an association to grow their own clones.
The Sémillon grape offers the following aromas: Lemon, Lime, Yellow Grapefruit, Citrus Zest, Apple, Pear, Green Papaya, Peach, and Mango. Some will have herbal notes, floral hints, and deep mineral and earthy flavors such as waxy lanolin and hay. If aged in oak, one can expect all the usual flavors that occur in the oak barrel such as Butter, Pie Crust, Cream, Dill, and Popcorn.
Sémillon wines can present flavors in various ways depending on their region. The Sémillon flavor profile may range from zesty, palate-refreshing wine like a Sauvignon Blanc to a buttery, creamy palate similar to a Chardonnay. With Sémillon tasting notes, one should be prepared to expect the unexpected!
Dry Sémillons will have hints of lemon, apple, stone fruit, white florals, and beeswax. Sweeter Sémillons are usually more richly textured and will display layers of honey, floral notes, and lanolin. Older Sémillons take on a golden color and with that comes a change in flavor. You can expect a more mellow palate with the zesty flavors of young Sémillons having been tamed by the process of aging, and the aromas of freshly toasted bread will emerge from the glass.
Production area en 2018: 10 800 ha (26 688 acres)