Know Your Variety: Australian Semillon
“Hunter Valley Semillon is one of Australia’s great gifts to the world of wine.”
– Jancis Robinson, Wine Writer
Semillon is a white variety from Bordeaux, which famously offers a unique flavour experience when produced in a handful of premium Australian regions; some Australian examples of Semillon are so good, their qualities are said to be unseen in the rest of the wine world! Yet when pitched against the likes of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon remarkably doesn’t enjoy the same market success in the country it excels in. Why?
There’s so much to love about Semillon
Australians love the lemon-fresh characteristics of a Sauvignon Blanc and the honey aged flavours of a Chardonnay – and Semillon can do either depending on its age. When it comes to being food friendly we hear a lot about Verdelho and Pinot G, but Semillon has the potential to match with a host of different foods too. Semillon’s characteristics and food matching potential simply depend on the style and age of the Semillon in your glass.
Plus, while of course there are highly-prized and thus suitably priced Semillons, you can also pick up a quality Hunter or Barossa Valley example for as low as $15 that can age wonderfully if cellared well, making it a variety that can be accessible to most Australian’s wine budget – young or aged. With so many positives to its arsenal of classic varietal characteristics, Semillon is surely due for a return to favour – and we’re more than happy to champion its return to glory. Watch out Chardonnay and SB, Semillon is fighting back.
A quick history of Semillon
Hailing from France, Semillon is most famous for being part of the highly-prized and lusciously sweet white wine blends of Sauternes. These famous Bordeaux blends, which also feature Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle fruit, have earned a reputation for featuring the likes of golden peach and apricot fruit, lashings of honey layers and decadent nutty finishes – with the most notable and costly being the wines of Chateau d’Yquem. While Semillon has such famous affiliations and great historical successes in France, as a single varietal wine it has never really achieved the quality in Europe that we have in Australia.
It all started in 1832 when James Busby planted Semillon in the Hunter Valley, and a New World future for the variety was kick-started. First vinified in the Hunter as early as 1840, Semillon, while confusingly labelled ‘Hunter River Riesling’, soon became a favourite amongst Australians. In fact, in its earlier years, Semillon and Riesling were the white varieties of choice for Australian wine-lovers, dubbed by some as the B.C. years of wine – Before Chardonnay. Today, of course, Chardonnay is Australia’s No.1 choice when it comes to white wines with the more recent addition of Sauvignon Blanc rivalling Chardonnay’s success.
Regional successes of Semillon
Semillon has found its veritable home in Australia with the Hunter and Barossa Valleys proving to produce standout examples. Traditionally, the Hunter style of Semillon is dry and tight when young; the region’s wineries are known to adopt early picking to ensure low sugar levels, use dry fermentation without any contact with oak, and follow-up with rapid bottling to achieve the region’s much-revered style. These techniques, along with the warm to moderate climate, aged vines and terroir of the region, has allowed the Semillons of the Hunter to achieve incredible ageing potential.
For a different take on the variety, the Barossa earned its stellar reputation for producing generally richer, riper and fuller styles of Semillons, sometimes including oak contact. However, the current trend for lighter, cool climate styles has seen Barossa Valley winemakers shift towards the winemaking techniques of the Hunter. The result is exquisite, fresh, dry and crisp styles emerging from the Barossa’s cellar doors with the ageing potential of Hunter greats.
Other standout regions for the variety includes the likes of Margaret River and Clare Valley with Botrytis effected fruit from the Riverina producing sublimely sticky dessert wines too. Of course, the unique climates and terroir of the vineyards where Semillon is grown, adds interesting complexities and ageing characteristics, but typically a young Semillon will be pale in the glass and feature crisp, lemon-freshness on the palate. When enjoyed young like this, wine drinkers can expect a delicate, dry and characteristically savoury experience from their Semillon, but when bottle age occurs, these fresh and light wines can be completely transformed. After five, ten or even more years, the humble Semillon begins to exude luxurious, multi-dimensional qualities, including a depth and richness that is silky smooth and completely captivating.
Enjoy Semillon with irresistible food matches
Young Margaret River + a barbeque:
Lenton Brae Semillon 2017 – This is an exclusive wine that we have offered for a number of years now and the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel works closely with winemaker Ed Tomlinson to determine the final blend, which has plenty of finesse.
Food match: Lyndey Milan’s barbequed marron with garlic and herb butter
Moderate Age Hunter Valley + sashimi:
Andrew Thomas Synergy Semillon 2015 – Andrew Thomas made a deliberate choice to focus on Hunter Semillon, “When I started Thomas Wines I made a very clear decision to specialise in the signature varieties of the region. And it’s a very unique combination of old vines, ancient soils and our relatively warm climate, that make Semillon suited to the Hunter.”
Food match: Tetsuya Wakuda’s Sushi at home recipe
Aged Barossa Valley + fish:
Peter Lehmann Margaret River Semillon 2009 – Western Australian Semillon is distinctly herbal, or grassy, which is a character very similar to its major rival, Sauvignon Blanc. This Semillon is from a legendary producer and is named in honour of Peter Lehmann’s wife and business partner. It has developing preserved lemon, white peach, honey, lanolin and toast aromas, a full-bodied palate showing excellent development, and layers of lime and buttered toast on the long finish.
Food match: Luke Nguyen's Char-Grilled Salmon Salad
As a crisp, dry and young style, a sublimely sticky dessert wine, or a deliciously aged gem, Semillon is deeply imbedded in the history of Australian wine and deserves our unwavering adulation. So whether you’re looking for a white wine from the Hunter Valley, Barossa Valley, Margaret River, Riverina, or any other premium Australian wine region, instead of reaching for a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, next time, maybe reach for a Semillon. It will be worth it!