Ask a group of winemakers or wine journalists what their favourite white wine is, and a good proportion will include Semillon in their list of standouts. Ask most wine drinkers the same question and Semillon is unlikely to feature. So what is it that those-in-the-know know about Semillon that the rest of us don’t?
Semillon is a very versatile, yet underrated wine grape, most often known in Australia as a blending partner with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. But as a stand-alone variety, Semillon can produce crisp, zingy, extremely long-lived wines that, with age, develop immense depth, character and complexity.
Semillon’s Distinguished History
Semillon has a distinguished history both in the Old World and the New. Originating from the Bordeaux region of France, Semillon has been used for centuries to produce the dry Bordeaux Blanc styles. It is also the dominant variety in the luscious, sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, wines that can command some of world’s highest prices, especially with increasing bottle age.
Semillon vines were some of Australia’s earliest plantings. After an extensive tour of the vineyards of France and Spain in 1831, viticulturist James Busby, often regarded as the father of the Australian wine industry, introduced the first vine cuttings from Europe, Semillon amongst them.
It was first planted in the Hunter Valley in NSW, a warm, humid region, notorious for its often-torrential rains during harvest. As an early ripening variety with a susceptibility to rot, Semillon was harvested early, resulting in low alcohol, high acid, delicate wines, with plenty of minerally zest. This unique Hunter style was shown to age magnificently, developing a richness, toastiness, and depth of character unmatched by any other white variety.
Semillon in the Barossa
In the Barossa Valley, Semillon started out as a very different beast, lacking its Hunter cousin’s pedigree. Initially used mostly as a blending wine, the early straight Semillons were big, fat, ripe, and heavily oaked, totally overwhelming the variety’s finesse.
But over time, a new Barossa style has evolved. Local winemakers are handling Semillon with care, harvesting earlier and making both unoaked wines, and oak matured styles that are judiciously handled with a balanced, integrative approach. Stylish wines that excite the drinker both in their youth and with extended bottle age. As crisp, young wines they prove the perfect accompaniment to fresh, modern Australian cuisine, or stashed in the cellar to allow their brooding complexity to develop, they emerge as rich, honeyed, toasty wines to suit equally rich and flavoursome fare.
Developing the Rosenvale Style
As staunch Semillon fans, at Rosenvale we’ve been making Semillon since 2003. Our earlier wines were made in a more traditional style, picked riper, with higher alcohols and richer, fuller flavours.
Then in 2011, Mother Nature forced our hand to try a different approach. A very wet vintage, we made the decision to pick earlier rather than risk disease by leaving the grapes out longer. With the resulting wine having an alcohol of around 11.5%, we had a very different style on our hands, a leaner, more delicate wine with fresh, crisp, citrusy flavours.
While the wine critics had high praise for our earlier picked 2011, we felt we hadn’t quite hit our unique Rosenvale Semillon sweet spot just yet. Winemaker, James Rosenzweig, felt a little added dimension was needed. So, our more recent vintages are targeting a happy medium. One step up from the leaner, citrusy style, with just a little extra depth and flavour, but no excessive ripeness. Crisp, fresh, and with the right balance of flavour to be deliciously food-friendly, or to equally hold their own as the perfect refresher for an afternoon wind down.
Growing and Making Rosenvale Semillon
James now makes two Semillon styles, one completely without oak, the other oak fermented and matured to build greater depth and complexity.
All Rosenvale’s Semillon is sourced from the majestic old Semillon vines at on The Crossings vineyard on the Rosenvale estate. Planted in 1940 with traditional 10 by 10 foot vine spacing, the vines are cane pruned to two canes, with a catch wire above that stops the vine rolling and provides the ideal canopy microclimate of soft dappled light for optimum ripening. Just the right amount of shading prevents overexposure, stress, or sunburn.
Deciding when to pick is based on flavour, with a dominance of riper over greener flavours coming to the fore as the grapes reach maturity. James walks the rows, meticulously tasting the berries, determining which flavours offer the most to the whole array of tastes, and painting a picture in his head of how they will ultimately come together in the wines.
Once the grapes reach peak maturity they are harvested and fermented. Bright, tank-fermented batches, with plenty of upfront, primary fruit are used to make the unoaked Estate Semillon. Free-run juice, drawn off at the press, is fermented in barrel to ultimately make its way to the Reserve Semillon. Barrel fermentation enhances texture and structure, and contributes an integrated, subtle oak complexity, offering secondary characters of oak spice, nuttiness and gentle toasty notes.
Rosenvale Old Vines Estate Semillon
Made without the use of oak, this is a fresh, dry Semillon with a lemon-lime citrus backbone and a crisp mineral acidity on the finish. Delicious flavours of sun-ripened apples and pears, cut straw and creamed honey enhance a beautifully balanced palate with just the right generosity of flavour.
The light to medium body and bright, zesty fruit flavours hold up well with bold, aromatic foods like Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese spices. Its soft, crisp, freshness is the ideal partner to sushi, seafood and white fish, light white meats, salads, rice dishes and green vegetables.
Rosenvale Old Vines Reserve Semillon
With all the delicious Semillon flavour of citrus, apples and pears, barrel fermentation and oak maturation build further subtle, complex layers of flavour and texture, with hints of gentle spice, toast and nuttiness, and a fuller, rounder palate, with a supple, silky mouthfeel.
With more fullness on the palate, the Reserve Semillon can take on more richness in food, suiting full-bodied, meaty fish like barramundi, trout and swordfish, smoked fish, chicken, turkey, ham, pork, and root vegetables, pumpkin, and leeks. It’s ideal with Mediterranean flavours and spices like cinnamon, saffron and fennel seed.