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Semillon photo by Tim Ramey.Chateau d'Yquem 1981.Semillon grapes make up 80% of the blend in the most expensive and famous dessert wine in the world: Château d'Yquem. Semillon seems the favorite foil of Botrytis Cinerea, the noble rot which concentrates the sugars and flavors and intensifies the aromas for Yquem and the other "late-harvest" dessert wines of France's Monbazillac and Sauternes appellations. These wines hold up spectacularly in antiquity, a unique ability in the spectrum of unfortified wines.

Consistently productive at six to eight tons per acre and of vigorous vines, semillon is easy to cultivate and flourishes in a variety of soil types. It is fairly resistant to common vine diseases, with the notable exception of rot, which is hoped to be of the "noble" type and not the destructive strain. Semillon clusters are merdium-to-large and well-filled to compact. The thin, rot-sensitive berry skins can also sunburn easily. Keeping the canopy open to air circulation is equally important to minimizing direct sun exposure of the fruit. Overall, its viticultural profile has led to widespread propagation of semillon vineyards, even if the popularity of their wine has waxed and waned.

While semillon is the majority white variety in Bordeaux, Graves, and Sauternes, more acreage is planted in Chile than anywhere else on earth (yet ranks third in toal Chilean acreage, behind chardonnay and sauvignon blanc). Early in the viticultural development of Australia, semillon (often incorrectly labeled as "Riesling") dominated as the major white variety, although chardonnay and sauvignon blanc reign today. The South African vineyards also began in the early 1800s, with semillon (aka Wyndruif) as the most abundant white grape variety, yet today it accounts for less than 1% of plantings.

California also has an ongoing checkered relationship with semillon. Although the actual debut of this variety is unsubstantiated, semillon was among the many cuttings Agoston Harazsthy brought from Europe in 1862; J.H. Drummond and Charles Wetmore imported vines before 1880 and the variety was fairly widespread in Northern California vineyards by 1885. California's total semillon plantings have fluctuated up and down over the past several decades, from 1,200 acres in 1961, to 2,800 acres in 1981, to currently over 1,500.

Most California semillon today is blended with sauvignon blanc and rendered as dry table wine, but an experimental dessert wine created a popular and critical sensation in the middle of the 20th Century.Semillon cluster photo.

Semillon leaf photo.In 1956, winemaker Myron Nightingale, then of Cresta Blanca winery, made a dessert wine by spraying spores of Botrytis cinerea on semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes to produce French Sauternes-like results. The wine was a breakthrough success in the industry, because the California climate had always been considered too arid for the Noble Mold to naturally exist at a high enough population level to any beneficial effect.1 Financial problems caused Cresta Blanca to change hands and production ceased after the 1966 vintage.

The ripe semillon berry is a rich yellow color at maturity, although increasing sun exposure may turn it amber-pink. In warmer climates, there is always danger of sunburn and raisining. If processed as a dry or semidry table wine, the thin skins and tender, juicy pulp require speedy but gentle handling to avoid oxidation and browning.

*Typical Semillon Smell and/or Flavor Elements
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Fruity: apple, date, fig, lemon, pear

Botrytis: apricot, quince, peach, honey, pineapple, vanilla, candy

Spice: saffron

Malolactic: butter, cream

Herbal: grass, weeds

Oak (light): vanilla, sweet wood

Vegetal: (atypical) bell pepper, asparagus

Oak (heavy): toast, smoke, oak


Wines dominated by semillon may lack much youthful aroma, but have fairly full body and tend to be low in acidity, even "oily" or "fat" at times. Semillon also has an affinity for oak, accentuating subtleties such as "toast" and "smoke" that emanate from wines' "spice" rather than its "main ingredient", but nonetheless adding complexity.

This is the flavor profile of a supporting role grape, rather than a star, and most winemakers use semillon in blends, if at all. Semillon is the soft, subtle, rich Yin to balance the Yang of sauvignon blanc, which can be aromatically aggressive and acidic. Semillon even works well when blended with that notoriously standoffish loner, chardonnay, providing weight and richness without diverting aromatic delicacy.

by Jim LaMar

1 Naturally Botrytis-affected wines from riesling, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, and even chardonnay and viognier are now occasionally made from California vineyards exposed to marine influence and higher humidity. Botrytis can, on the other hand, also cause big problems for California table grapes and other fruits, vegetables, and even flowers. BACK

1. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

2. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

4. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

5. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

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Page created April 19, 2002; last updated July 1, 2015
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