The Principality of Monaco of Forgotten Grapes

Semillon, the Principality of Monaco of Forgotten GrapesIn case you’re wondering, Monaco-Ville, which sits across the harbor from Monte Carlo, is the actual capital of Monaco. But let’s face it, when people think about the principality, what they are really thinking about is Monte Carlo, that playground to the rich, powerful, rich, famous, rich, glamorous, and exorbitantly wealthy. A city that glitters in opulence, where the streets are paved with gold, diamonds rain from the sky. Okay, not really. But you get the point.

Likewise, when most wine drinkers think of Semillon , they are thinking about only one thing: Sauternes, that sweet golden nectar from southern Bordeaux. A wine rich, expensive, and limited in production that its traditional pairing partner is the one food that can match it step for step in luxury and decadence: foie gras. Oui, madames et messieurs, to some Monte Carlo is to Monaco as Sauternes is to Semillon, a singular definition for something that is so much more. And at Friends of the Forgotten Grapes, we’re trying to change that way of thinking one entry at a time.

Think about it this way: Monaco may only cover 0.76 square miles of territory (you could fit two Monacos into Central Park), but if you only define Monaco by Monte Carlo, you lose out on five other sections of the country (see the map above), at least 0.5 square miles of territory, and some really terrific parts of the principality, such as the royal palace, the National Museum, the soccer stadium, the Oceanographic museum, and the exotic gardens, just to name a few.

The same holds true if you define Semillon only by Sauternes. You’d miss out on some terrific, dry, crisp 100% varietal wines and a grape that also blends well with both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Semillon is by nature a tough, hearty grape that for several decades was the most widely-planted grape in the world and is still grown in numerous old-world and new-world wine regions around the globe. It’s a grape that sometimes tastes similar to a Sauvignon Blanc, and yet is still completely different, with brighter citrus, less grassiness, and a lighter, paler color. Semillon is a wine that is a powerhouse match with fish and seafood, some would say the ideal match with both dishes, because it won’t overpower their delicateness like a heavy Chardonnay or an overly grassy Sauv Blanc can. But most of all, Semillon is a wonderful, drinkable, Forgotten Grape that is so much more than just the grape used to make Sauternes. Wine drinkers need to be broken of this mind-set, and we’re just the website to do it. 

Now, we’re not saying that you should ignore the majesty of Sauternes completely. On the contrary, we believe that Sauternes is a wine that everyone in this world should taste at least once in their life and something all wine lovers should be consuming more of (although this would probably jack up the price of already high price of Sauternes exponentially given how hard the wine currently is to produce and how scarce it already is, so scratch that last thought). Let’s face it: Semillon wouldn’t have a hundredth of the popularity it has today if it wasn’t for Sauternes, and I suspect Semillon would feel awfully unfulfilled and depressed if it wasn’t allowed to be made into Sauternes (yes, I just personified a grape). We won’t be ignoring Sauternes this week, and neither should you. But you also shouldn’t be ignoring all the other wonderful wines that define Semillon as well, and that’s the point we’re trying to hammer home here. We hope you’ll be our nail.

How Do You Pronounce Semillon?


Semillon Looks Like:

We were tempted to post the “It’s not easy being green” photo here again, since dry Semillons can often have a pale green color similar to the one Grüner Veltliners exhibit, but you people aren’t paying us for repetition; you’re paying us for originality. Actually, you’re not paying us at all, but that’s neither here nor there. Most dry Semillons typically have a very pale straw color to them, nearly clear in the glass save for the slightest tint of yellow shifting them away from the absence of color (or is that the fullness of color – I can never remember whether white or black or both of them or neither is the absence of color. Then again, it really doesn’t matter).

Sauternes-style Semillons, on the other hand, practically glow in the bottle: a radiant, shimmering gold like bullion bricks. Bright, rich, thick, and warm, it’s an unmistakable color, and the deeper the gold in a Sauternes, the more concentrated and better the wine will be.

Semillon Smells Like:

Dry Semillons are youngish wines, so you’re not going to get an overwhelming perfume-y nose on them by any stretch of the imagination. The scents you’ll get on a Semillon will be very dry and crisp, similar to a Sauvignon Blanc but not grassy (the similarities between the wines are why they are such well-matched blending partners). You will get guava and other tropical fruits, maybe some orange or Mandarin orange even an orange cream (like a Creamsicle...mmmmm). There might even be a flavor like Lemonheads (Remember them? It’s a shame about Ray...). But dry (not dried) tropical citrus fruit is the key aroma in a Semillon wine.

As for Sauternes-style Semillons, the most notable aroma you are going to smell on a freshly opened bottle is honey. Lots and lots of honey. You also should get just a whiff of an antiseptic glycerin smell from the botrytis to go along with the honey, as well as some exotic fruits, apricots, caramelized citrus, and even some florals depending on the producer. But all of these other scents will smell like they’ve just been dipped into and pulled out of a big Winnie the Pooh-style pot of honey. Oh bother.

Semillon Tastes Like:   

If it looks like a Sauvignon Blanc and smells like a Sauvignon Blanc, then you’d expect it to taste like a Sauvignon Blanc. And with dry Semillons, you’d be partially correct. You’re definitely going to get a dry, sharp, citrus snap to a Semillon – more tropical fruits like the guava and some pineapple and even a Limeade flavor in there. It might start out with just a touch of sweetness too but then develop quickly into the more sour, acidic citrus fruit flavors. Don’t be afraid; the acid is a good thing. The wine should be very dry and very clean on the finish, with only the slightest hint of an aftertaste too. What it doesn’t have is Sauv Blanc’s grassy, earthy, sometimes vegetal flavors (good riddance!), which in many ways makes it superior to a Sauv Blanc, depending on what you’re eating and what kind of mood your mouth is in when you’re drinking.

For a Sauternes Semillon, it’s all about the balance, between the honey and the citrus and the acidity and the syrupy creaminess of the wine’s viscosity. Mouth feel is as important as taste when it comes to Sauternes. The same glycerin aroma should be at the forefront of your palate, though not overwhelmingly so. You’ll also get burnt orange, pineapple, apricot, lemon, and even some vanilla flavors. But that medicinal honey flavor is what Sauternes is best known for, and what you should be expecting when sip this glorious wine. 

Key Regions:

●        Sauternes and Barsac in southern Bordeaux

●        Bordeaux, especially the Graves and Entre-deux-Mers appellations (as White Bordeaux blends)

●        Australia

●        The Languedoc-Rousillon

●        Northern and Southern California

●        Washington State

●        Chile

●        Argentina

●        New Zealand

●        Canada

Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:

Semillon is a historically robust grape that, despite its thin skin, is easy to cultivate, produces large numbers of grapes per vine, and is rather resistant to most types of disease (except for one particular fungus – more on this in a second). For those reasons, Semillon is grown in several different countries around the world (including France, Australia, the U.S., South Africa, Chile, and recently Argentina, New Zealand, and Canada), but no longer commands the same popularity it did decades ago, when it was the most widely-planted grape in the world. A few facts and figures to demonstrate Semillon’s once-global dominance: as far back as the 1820s, Semillon grapes composed 90% of South Africa’s vineyards (that number is down to around 1% today) and in Chile in the 1950s, Semillon accounted for nearly 75% of all grapes produced (that number is substantially lower now, though Semillon is still Chile’s second most widely-grown grape). In France’s Bordeaux region, Semillon was the most widely-planted grape, red or white (take that, Cab & Merlot!), up until 1968. Even California has had an up-and-down love affair with Semillon. Acreages of the grape nearly doubled between 1961 and 1981, but then almost halved between 1981 and today.

Perfect Pairing:

Much like Sauvignon Blancs, dry Semillons are really excellent white fish and seafood wines, because their acidic crispness contrasts nicely with the mellow fishiness of the fish and seafood, and one won’t overpower the other. In fact, I think in a lot of cases, Semillons are THE ideal seafood wine because there’s nothing too strong about it to take away from any of the other flavors you might be cooking with. Case in point: lobster. It has such a subtle, mellow, slightly sweet flavor that you don’t want to pair too heavy of a wine with it. Semillons make perfect sense with lobster: steamed on its own, with a Cognac-splashed bisque, even something crazy, like say wrapping a lobster tail in bacon, grilling it, and then topping it with Béarnaise sauce. Semillon would go awesome with that. It’s a total Béarnaise sauce wine.

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