I've been in a very red wine state of mind lately, but as I was trolling the aisles of one of my favorite local stores (that, as an aside, inexplicably put down a faux marble floor that made me think of some of the garish homes of my Long Island childhood), a wine made from a grape I want to learn more about caught my eye. It was Torbreck's Woodcutter's Sémillion (SEM-eee-ohn) from the Barossa Valley of Australia.
Since I've talked about the Barossa and Torbreck in other posts, I'm going to focus on the Sémillon grape -- which, surprisingly, is the second most planted white in France (after a nasty, low quality blending grape that's also used in Cognac production, Ugni Blanc). It's a fickle grape but kind of fascinating and one that you don't often see made as a stand-alone wine -- it's usually part of a blend.
A few basic facts on Sémillon:
- It's a white grape that's high in alcohol, pretty low in aroma and has medium acid
- It does fabulously well when put in oak
- It is not a good grower everywhere, so be careful. In cool climates it can taste grassy like a Sauvignon Blanc and in really hot climates it loses all it's delicate character and tastes like cheap jug wine. It requires Goldilocks conditions
- It's a white grape that's a primary component of white Bordeaux, along with Sauvignon Blanc and another grape called Muscadelle. Because of the description in point one, it's a good blending partner for Sauvignon Blanc, which is both acidic and aromatic
- It's the leading star of another Bordeaux favorite -- the sweet wines of Sauternes -- where it's, again, blended with Sauvignon Blanc
- It's native to the Sauternes region of Bordeaux
I know a lot of us have an aversion to sweet wine, but I'd be remiss if I didn't at least talk about how awesome Sémillon performs when it's attacked by a nasty fungus call botrytis (bo-TRY-tis), which has been renamed "noble rot" in many languages to make it seem less disgusting.
Sémillon, with its thin skin, growing in a humid region like Bordeaux or the Rheingau in Germany is susceptible to this fungus. And when it gets humid and then a cool spell hits (common in these areas), botrytis attacks Sémillon and does something really unusual to the grape. Instead of making it taste horrible and rotten, it concentrates sugars and flavors and leaves the acidity of the grape in tact. That means that the wines produced are sweet without being overly sugary and unbalanced -- the acidity puts the concentrated sugar and the honeyed, bready, tropical flavors in check and the wine is pure goodness without being overwhelming (pictures, left, are courtesy of a winery in Sauternes, Cru Berrejats).
If you haven't tried it, all I can tell you is that wine from Sauternes is unbelievable. Even if Sémillon isn't the most popular white wine in the world, it's got a bright future as long as it's grown in Bordeaux and botrytis keeps attacking it!
Before we move to the dry version, I do want to ponder something for a second... I've got to wonder how the hell someone figured out that they could make wine from grapes with this heinous fungus on it (the history is nebulous and there is no lore surrounding the specific person who made the 'discovery'). It's so ugly and looks poisonous, but I imagine that a few centuries ago some dude had his harvest ruined by botrytis and thought to himself, "no one will know if I make wine out of this crap. I'll sell it anyway." In his quest to make a buck, he stumbled upon liquid gold. So kudos to that dude, whomever he may be.
Ok, but onto dry Sémillon. It's made mainly in Bordeaux (in the blend and called Bordeaux Blanc), South Africa, and Australia, and is much different from the sweet version. Unaged, dry Sémillon is a very lemony, citrusy wine. It tastes like (dare I say?) just boring white wine -- neutral with some acid but not much character. Sometimes it can take on an herbal or tropical note, and can be a little like candle wax too, but it's generally a little boring without any age.
I think this wine is better when it's been held in the bottle for a while. With a little age, Sémillon gets interesting. I've had a few that are a bit older and they are amazing. Boring white wine turns into something honeyed and croissant-like, and can allegedly (I haven't experienced this particular phenomenon myself) taste like buttered toast, even if there's been no time in an oak barrel, which is generally responsible for toast-like flavors. That's kind of cool for such a low profile grape, no?
With all that in mind, you can understand why I was curious to try the (dry) Torbreck Woodcutter's Semillon and see how it stacked up. Torbreck makes insanely good Shiraz, and they are a really reputable producer, so it seemed like a great bet that they'd deliver on this wine. Here's what I thought about it:
The Wine: Torbreck Woodcutter's Semillon
Where It's From: Barossa Valley, Southeastern Australia
The Grapes: 100% Sémillon
Color: A rich, golden color -- like liquid 14 karat gold. This is mostly from the grape, which tends to be more yellow in color but partly from the fact that the wine was fermented in oak barrels (although it's mostly the grape that lent color here -- the barrels used were old, so they could only give the slightest tinge of pigment to the wine).
Smell: Totally unique. The first thing I noticed was that it kind of smelled like a Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc mated. It was like Riesling because it had a really strong gasoline/petrol stink and an appley and unripe nectarine smell too it. It was like Sauvignon Blanc because it smelled like hay in a barn or green grass. There was a distinct gardenia smell and then an old oak smell too -- like the an old wood cabin. Interesting...
Taste: I know the oak on this wine wasn't new, but I could taste wood right away. With that wood flavor, the wine was like a combo of unripe peaches, honeysuckle glycerin soap, and wax lips (if you didn't have these in your childhood, you missed out. Go to a novelty store and get some. They are awesome and disgusting all at the same time). Waxy texture is a benchmark for Sémillon, so this was on target.
MC Ice (my husband) observed that the wine tasted like a winery smells -- like fermentation vats. Not sure why that the case with this particular wine (those smells are usually associated with the scent of yeast doing their business. I'm thinking this is the mark of a wine that could use more age and time to mellow, but that's just speculation) but I kind of agreed with him. To me, this wine didn't have a lot to it, but I liked the super creamy texture that was offset by a little tart acid.
Food: This is a simple wine and it should go with simple food. Raw oysters or light seafood with butter sauces would work -- scallops, flaky fish like grouper or flounder, and a light preparation of halibut. This isn't a wine with a lot of umph, so you want to make sure the food doesn't have too much going on or it will make the wine taste like water.
Drink or Down the Sink?: Drink. Is this one of the best wines I've ever had? No. But it was good and it went down very easily -- never a bad thing. It's a nice sipper -- simple and creamy. That said, for $16.99 I think I'd rather get a Bordeaux Blanc that's got the goodness of this wine with the punch of Sauvignon Blanc, that I love so much. Still, the wine peaked my interest and I'm going to try to seek out some older vintages of 100% Sémillon and see what I discover. Stay tuned.
If you have questions or have had a good Sémillon, share your thoughts in the comments!