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Semillon is an often-underrated grape, not one most people would pick up first from the shop shelves. But then again, most people have drunk Semillon countless times, possibly without even knowing. In blends, in white Bordeaux, in sweet wines and on it's own, Semillon is a quiet but key player in the white wine world.
Semillon is a thin-skinned grape, which grows quickly and is resistant to many of the common vineyard pests and diseases, apart from the good kind of Noble Rot, Botrytis, which its thin skins make it prone to. Semillon has low acidity and a fatness to it, which makes it ideal for blending. You will find Semillon blended often with Sauvignon Blanc where it provides a softness and richness to the acidic fresh Sauvignon. In Australia, Semillon is often blended with Chardonnay to lend weight to wines without diverting from the flavour.
Semillon is a permitted white grape of Bordeaux, grown mostly on the left bank for sweet wines such as Sauternes and Barsac, and in the Entre Du Mers. It is also one of the key ingredients in White Bordeaux and ages well in bottle. Most Entre Du Mers whites used to be 100% Semillon but nowadays they are more likely to be blended with Sauvignon for extra freshness and aroma.
The thin skins of Semillon make it especially prone to Noble Rot. On the left bank of Bordeaux, in Sauternes, Barsac and Saint Croix du Mont, blankets of river mist encourage the development of Noble Rot. This funky little mould sucks the water out of the grapes and concentrates the sugars, adding unique flavours. Although the grapes look disgusting, they are little bags of concentrated sweet flavoursome juice. Prices of these luscious sweet wines are high because each grape is hand picked at exactly the optimum time of ripeness so several harvests are needed. The most famous sweet wine in the world, the Sauternes from Chateau D'Yquem, is made from mostly Semillon.
Outside of France the Hunter Valley in Australia is the adopted home of Semillon. Making a variety of styles from sweet, sauternes styles, to dry table wines. One of the characteristics of Semillon here is that even though it is unoaked, a few years in bottle turn it from a somewhat neutral wine to a toasty honeyed weighty tipple, tasting like it's spent all that time in oak barrels! These wines age very well. In other areas of Australia Semillon is used to add bulk and weight and citrus fruit to Chardonnay, and to make classic Sauvignon-Semillon blends in Western Australia.
Other countries to grow Semillon include Chile, Argentina, the US and New Zealand, although the amounts they grow vary widely from year to year.