Save the semillon

By Jo Burzynska

It seems semillon might be heading the way of the kiwi, blue whale and giant panda, soon to be added to the endangered species list. Underrated and unfashionable, winegrowers in New Zealand and worldwide are forsaking this potentially gorgeous grape for trendier varieties.

Semillon is considered one of the nine elite classic wine grapes. Like other varieties, when planted in the wrong places and handled unsympathetically, its wines can lack excitement. However, its many scintillating expressions show it deserves its noble ranking. It's one of the most versatile grape varieties there is. In its heartland of Bordeaux it's blended with sauvignon blanc to add weight to the region's dry wines. Its susceptibility to botrytis - "noble rot" - makes it a key component of Bordeaux's great dessert wine Sauternes, as well other stickies around the world.

As a stand-alone variety it can be made in a rich barrel-fermented style or left fresh and citrusy. It can also age well, witnessed in the unique early picked, low-alcohol versions from Australia's Hunter Valley, which metamorphose from being light, tight and lemony in their youth to rich, honeyed and toasty wines with age.

But while it was allegedly once the most-planted grape in the world, semillon has fallen out of favour. Even in Bordeaux, a group of high profile producers drew attention to the fact that dwindling interest meant there was an increasing lack of good semillon vines to replant.

In New Zealand, wineries such as Pyramid Valley have been producing stellar semillons, with the likes of Pegasus Bay illustrating how well it works also blended with our sauvignon. But semillon is being pulled out of our vineyards, replaced by more saleable varieties like pinot gris.

"Few people in New Zealand and around the world are familiar with the varietal," says Pip Austin of Sileni, one of the few wineries to champion semillon, "although we have found that when we actually get people to try the wine they love it." Sadly, Sileni has succumbed to commercial pressure and is no longer making its straight dry semillon. However, at Clearview, Tim Turvey is swimming against the tide: "We're planting more because we think it grows really well in Hawkes Bay."

SEMILLON IS SEXY

LIGHT AND LIMEY

Peter Lehmann Barossa Semillon 2005 $15-17
In a light zingy style, this amazingly well-priced semillon has lots of refreshing lime cordial fruit, plus hints of lanolin and honey on toast.
From Foodtown, Woolworths, Countdown, Top Value.

FAT AND TOASTY

Sileni Estate Selection The Circle Hawkes Bay Semillon 2004 $21.95
A local semillon with age that's added toasty notes along with spice, honey, almond and beeswax to a rich, creamy textured palate that still retains limey acidity.
From La Barrique, Scenic Cellars.

RICH AND SWEET

Carmes de Rieussec Sauternes 2005 (375ml) $34
Sauternes is one of the world's great dessert wines; Chateau d'Yquem one of the most expensive whites in the world. But not all need break the bank. This second wine from Château Rieussec is luscious but fresh and silky smooth.
Contact Maison Vauron for your local retailer.

- NZ Herald

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