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Probably the most important role of the Semillon grape is as the main component in the sweet wines of Sauternes in Bordeaux.
This type of grape constitutes around 80 per cent of the blend of these wines – usually along with Sauvignon Blanc – including the famous Chateau d’Yquem, which is France’s most famous, and most expensive sweet wine.
These wines are made from grapes which are affected by the mould Botrytis – also known as the ‘Noble Rot’. Botrytis will attack ripe Semillon grapes, especially those that grow in humid conditions, in the early mornings of autumn.
The spores of the mould pierce the skins of the grapes but are killed off quickly once the sun rises and the temperature increases.But because of this the grapes lose their moisture and begin to shrivel on the vine.
All is not lost though – if these rot-affected berries are harvested and turned into wine, they produce a super-sweet thick liquid because there is so little water content in the grapes, yet it retains excellent acidity. The product is truly one of the world’s great – and most unique – wine styles.
Semillon also makes dry white wines in Bordeaux, but its other great home is in Australia. Australia has a great tradition of making both dry and sweet wines from Semillon – including Botrytis-affected wines – particularly in the Hunter and Barrossa Valleys, and in Western Australia close to Perth.
Here are wine expert Tom Cannavan’s top Semillon picks this week.
1. Lantana Semillon/Chardonnay 2008, Australia, priced at £5.95 from Great Grog Co (Edinburgh and free delivery online)
This wine is an unoaked blend of 60 per cent Semillon and 40 per cent Chardonnay, and is an example of Semillon in its crisp, light, lemony guise, with appetising tropical fruit notes and a clean, very fresh and tangy citrus finish.
Easy to drink, yet food-friendly, this wine also has a bit of complexity. With tasting cues of lemons, pineapples and straw, it goes well with chicken satay, chicken in mushroom or creamy sauces, and with firm white fish like cod or turbot.
2. Cape Mentelle Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Australia, priced at £12.99 from Majestic
Cape Mentelle is one of great estates of the Margaret River region of Western Australia, and was founded by the same team that created Cloudy Bay in New Zealand. Now, both wine estates belong to the luxury goods group Luis Vuitton Moet Henessey (LVMH) and quality remains high.
This is a much more serious style of Semillon (actually a 50/50 blend with Sauvignon Blanc), and is fermented in oak barrels. Rich and full-bodied, this wine will age for several years.
With tasting cues of green beans, gooseberries, limes, vanilla and tropical fruits, it goes nicely with pan-fried scallops or king prawns.
3. Hermits Hill Botrytis Semillon 2006, Australia, priced at £6.29 per half bottle from Marks & Spencer
This is a wine made with grapes affected by the Noble Rot like the wines of Sauternes, but this one from Australia and made for M&S by the renowned De Bortoli winery.
This selection is 100 per cent Semillon. As it is in a screwcapped bottle and is an intense little wine, stick it in the fridge and you can drink it over three to four days – if you can resist polishing it off in one go!
A proper dessert wine, this wine is so rich that a little glass goes a long way. Enjoy!
With flavours of peaches, apricots, beeswax and marmalade, it matches well with lemon tart, pavlova, blue cheeses and foie gras.