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by Staff Writer - B. Scottenberg | April 05, 2011

Semillon is the major white grape in the Bordeaux region of France. Semillon features a fig like character and is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc to limit its strong berry flavors. The dry styles of Semillon lean towards lemon, fruit and grass; while the sweet styles favor honey, beeswax, lanolin, toast and vanilla. Semillon grapes make up eighty percent of the blend in the most expensive and famous dessert wine in the world, Château d'Yquem.

Wines dominated by Semillon may lack much youthful aroma, but have fairly full body and tend to be low in acidity. This is the flavor style of a supporting grape role, rather than a standalone star grape, and most Semillon is blended. Semillon is the soft, subtle, rich opposite to balance the Sauvignon Blanc, which can be fragrantly aggressive and acidic. Semillon even works well when blended with Chardonnay to provide weight and richness.

Semillon Grapes

Semillon vines are very vigorous with large, thick green leaves. The vines tend to grow in compact bunches that are medium sized and cylindrical in shape. Semillon grapes are thick skinned wine grapes which are very juicy and sweet. The ripe Semillon grape is a rich yellow color at maturity, although increasing sun exposure may turn it amber pink. The grape is a heavier grape, with low acids and an almost oily texture. It's easy to grow and high-yielding, although in Bordeaux, the vines are older and produce less fruit so that the grapes on the vine have more flavor. Semillon can produce a dry wine of high quality. The great dry white wines of Bordeaux are made with up to 100% Semillon, although Sauvignon Blanc is often a blending partner.

In warmer climates, there is always danger of sunburn and shriveling. If processed as a dry or semi-dry table wine, the grape skins and tender juicy pulp require quick but gentle handling.

In many warmer wine regions, Semillon with its naturally low acidity can need the sharp strength provided by Sauvignon Blanc to bring out its flavors. A well made dry Semillon can be a flavorful full-bodied wine with a satisfying combination of citrus, grassiness and honey. Under-ripe Semillon smells like Sauvignon Blanc but there is no DNA analysis to prove any connection.

Semillon is easy to cultivate and consistently produces six to eight tons per acre. The vine is fairly resistant to common vine diseases, with the noted exception of rot. Two of the main types of rot affecting the Semillon grape vineyards are the noble type and the destructive strain. You normally consider rot as a bad thing, but when Semillon grapes become over ripe, they are allowed to become affected by botrytis cinerea, which is also known as noble rot. These affected grapes are then used to make the unique wines of Sauternes. From the Bordeaux region of France come the great Sauternes and Barsac. These wines are produced from overripe Semillon grapes. They are blended with Sauvignon Blanc to produce a syrupy, full-bodied wine that some consider to be world class. Other fine dry white wines from the gravely soils south east of the city of Bordeaux can have a similar quality in good vintages.

Semillon Vineyards Outside of Bordeaux

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Semillon is also grown in Chile, Argentina, Australia, and California. In Australia, Semillon has found a home in the Hunter Valley region. There it is sometimes blended with Sauvignon Blanc. Early in the viticultural (the cultivation of grapes) development of Australia, Semillon (often incorrectly labeled as Riesling) dominated as the major white wine variety, although the vineyards are mostly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc today. California has an up and down relationship with Semillon. Acreage has fluctuated up and down over the past several decades, from 1,200 acres in the early 1960s, to around 2,800 acres in the early 1980s, to currently over 1,500 acres planted. Most California Semillon today is blended with Sauvignon Blanc and rendered dry. While Semillon is the majority white wine variety in Bordeaux, Graves, and Sauternes, more grows in Chile than anywhere else.

Semillon Food Pairings

It is recommended to drink Semillon wines within five years of bottling, although blends tend to last longer. Semillon wines are considered ready for immediate enjoyment, and as a white wine tend to pair well with same colored foods. Fish and shellfish of any type are a perfect match as well as poultry, clams, mussels or pasta salad. Pasta with white sauce also makes a good pairing. Sweet varieties of Semillon are dessert and cheese favorites.

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