Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

A finicky friend ” that is to say, a friend with finicky tastes in wine ” recently returned from a trip to South Africa. In addition to the spectacular photos of striped zebras and spotted cheetahs that she brought back, she also experienced a wine revelation during her travels.

“I didn’t like most of the South African wines, they were too floral for me,” she opined. “But I did have one wine I really liked. It was a Semillon.”


Semillon (pronounced sem-mee-Yone) is one of the most under-appreciated white grapes. Today, especially here in the United States, it is rarely used as a stand-alone grape. Rather it is mostly used to blend with Sauvignon Blanc and, very occasionally, Chardonnay to help reduce acidity and to give a richness to those popular varietals. Often the name is not even seen on the bottle, meaning this golden thin-skinned grape that once thrived throughout the wine regions of the world has been relegated to doing its job uncredited, in sad anonymity.

I have enjoyed dry Semillon wines occasionally in the past such as Washington’s L’Ecole 41 Semillon, as well as a wonderful offering from New Zealand’s Sileni Estates on a trip to Hawkes Bay a few years back. But outside of the wonderful late harvest sticky sweet wines based on Semillon, it is relatively difficult to find wines made from 100 percent Semillon.

It just figures that my finicky friend would pick a grape that is as elusive as a white lion. Of course, that’s why we love her.

Anyway, some research was required. It turns out that South Africans do make Semillon with more regularity than most. And not just dessert wines, but lovely, dry, food-friendly white wines that are tailor made for drinking with seafood and shellfish, both of which are found in abundance in a land surrounded on three sides by the Pacific and Indian oceans.

In mid-19th century South Africa, Semillon was the most planted of all grapes, so ubiquitous that it was simply referred to as “the wine grape.” Today Semillon makes up just a tiny fraction of the nation’s total production. Because of the early plantings, many of South Africa’s Semillon vines are older than those found in other new world regions that grow the grape.

The Semillons made in South Africa are noted for their ability to age. Young Semillons can be tight and, it is said, they lack aroma and acidity as they tend towards a roundness in the mouth that some refer to as “fat”. But with a little time in the bottle they mature and become golden, ripe wines that hold treasure for even the most finicky of drinkers.

Those who want to try the wines have a challenge, as few South African Semillons find their way to our shores. Seek out the hard-to-find, and even harder-to-pronounce Boekenhoutskloof Semillon. Produced from old vines and aged in Burgundian oak, it is one of the few examples to have made its way to American wine shops.

Other options for Semillon include looking in the Australian section of your wine store. Semillon enjoyed a mini-explosion in the mid-1980s in Australia and a style known as unoaked Hunter Semillon became quite popular. Barossa Valley Semillon from Peter Lehman, Grant Burge and Tim Adams can sometimes be found on local shelves.

Also, look for the aforementioned L’Ecole 41 wines. Since 1983 this pioneering winery ” originally housed in a former schoolhouse in Frenchtown, in Washington’s Walla Walla region ” has made terrific Bordeaux varietals.

In Semillon’s natural home of Bordeaux, it is, along with Sauvignon Blanc and increasingly less so, Muscadelle, one of the three grapes approved for the classic Bordeaux Blanc wines. But it is Semillon’s use in the honey-hued sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac regions of Bordeaux that give Semillon a small place in the pantheon of wine’s most esteemed grapes. Chateau d’Yquem, the world’s quintessential sweet wine (one that will be the subject of its own column in the near future) is made from a blend of 80 percent Semillon, 20 percent Sauvignon Blanc.

To go on a South African photo safari and find hippos, crocs and giraffes is expected, but to return from that country with a new wine fave as obscure as Semillon ” well, that takes a serious hunter.

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