Wine: Semillon is the perfect grape for the summer season

PUBLISHED: 13:34 19 August 2015

Jim Chatto, chief winemaker at Mount Pleasant, fan of aged semillon since his student days.

Jim Chatto, chief winemaker at Mount Pleasant, fan of aged semillon since his student days.

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Liz Sagues reveals the two contrasting regions that produce Semillon, and picks five top varieties to try.

Are there wine grapes for particular seasons? Surely yes – dark, powerful malbec, for example, is one for cold winter evenings. But August needs something lighter and paler, if not perhaps as bouncy-crunchy as sauvignon blanc. Here’s one that’s perfect.

Semillon doesn’t figure among the grapes familiar to many wine drinkers, but it should. It’s an intriguing one, whose dry wines in early youth are floral and citrussy-fresh but mature to splendid complexity, lean and lovely. Also, the alcohol level is often low by present-day standards – while one of the bottles recommended here hits 14 percent, four are at 12 or below.

There are two principal places, almost the width of the world apart, where fine semillon originates. It is a fundamental grape in Bordeaux, most frequently a lesser partner to sauvignon blanc in the region’s excellent value dry whites but dominating over sauvignon and muscadelle in luscious noble-rot sauternes. It has also dug its roots deep into the alluvial soils of Australia’s Hunter Valley, source of remarkable, venerable bottles.

But here as well you’ll find two rather less-expected locations, South Africa (where it has been grown since the 19th century and was once the leading white variety) and New Zealand. And, new world or old, dry semillon is very reasonably priced.

From Bordeaux to the Hunter Valley: five top semillons

For a happy, approachable introduction, Billy Bosch 2014, semillon with sauvignon blanc from South Africa’s Western Cape region, is perfect: scents and flavours of lemon and lime, splendidly refreshing and appealing, great on its own but also good with salads or dips such as hummus. £10, virginwines.co.uk.

A semillon-dominant Bordeaux blanc, Château Bel Air Perponcher Réserve 2014, moves a step up in richness and body, but still with characteristic freshness plus a tangy grapefruit element and a hint of something enjoyably herbal. There’s depth and good length – try it with chicken. £8.50, thewinesociety.com.

Semillon number three is in fact two wines: Mount Pleasant Elizabeth 2013 and 2007, the latter deliberately aged in the winery cellar before release. They offer a fascinating comparison of fine Hunter Valley semillon, the young wine very dry yet aromatic and citrus-infused, its older sibling showing great purity and complexity, even a hint of honey and spice. Broad food-friendliness characterises both, particularly the 2007. Try them this month at All Bar One bars, or buy both for £25 at slurp.co.uk, saving £4 on the single prices of £14 and £15 respectively.

To the Hunter Valley again for Tyrell’s Lost Block 2013, where scents of fennel and lemon curd lead on to easy, crisply appetising fruit, another tempting introduction to the grape. The entertaining story behind the name is too long to tell here, so buy a bottle and read the label. £13.50 (case rate £12.50), winedirect.co.uk.

The final wine in this all-too-short selection is a renegade in the heartland of sauvignon blanc. Belmonte 2010, from a rare plot of semillon in New Zealand’s Marlborough region, is made with the style and care expected of the Forrest family. It’s the only wine here to have seen oak contact – matured and aged in barrel – but that’s delicately done and the result is pure class, from hay-meadow scent to the wisp of smoke on the lingering finish. £15, virginwines.co.uk.


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