For the love of Semillon

I know what you’re thinking: Semillon is a classic blending varietal without much personality. Even Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent, who is clearly a fan, calls it ‘innocuous’.

But that is exactly why I love it. When treated with a bit of TLC Semillon can be rich, have a lovely linear acidity and take oak incredibly well. It is also partial to a bit of botrytis, leading to some of the world’s most sought-after sweet wines.

I heart Tyrells

Now, I love a lot of varieties, from Chardonnay to Roussanne and everything in between, provided the wines are made with a bit of love.

But from the moment I first tasted Tyrells Vat 1 Semillon early in my career, the grape has always been a favourite.

It one of the first wines that I tried from the new world that wasn’t Chardonnay (yes, this is a long time ago) and I remember it being rounded, smooth and flavourful, without being dominated by oak.

Brokenwood and De Bortoli Noble One became regular purchases of mine, while Keith Tullochs’s Field of Mars Semillon is still a personal favourite: smooth, waxy, rich and packed full of flavour.

Blender par excellence

I love the myriad ways Semillon can be used to provide a rich, slightly waxy/lanolin texture to Sauvignon Blanc blends.

In fact, maybe it’s because it is such a fabulous blender in Bordeaux blanc that it is often misunderstood and underestimated. Yes, it’s a vigorous varietal, but so is Cabernet Sauvignon, and when treated correctly it can be exceptional and age incredibly well.

In Bordeaux it encompasses both ends of the spectrum, used in easy drinking wines such as those from the Entre-Deux-Mers but also dominating the age-worthy and complex wines of Graves and Pessac-Léognan.

See Château Haut-Brion blanc or La Mission Haut-Brion blanc if you’re splashing out. Otherwise, Château Chantegrive’s Cuvée Caroline is a fabulous, more affordable alternative.

And of course, if you’re looking for super long-lived expressions of Semillon, the luscious botrytised versions from Barsac and Sauternes are undeniably five-star.

No marks for appearance, but botrytis is the wonder-mould behind the sweet Semillons of Bordeaux

From France to the world

Semillon is first recorded in Bordeaux in 1736, where it was known as Sémillon de St-Émilion. It travelled to Australia in the 19th century where it took up home in the Hunter Valley region and became used as a blender everywhere else both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay alike.

In South Africa it used to be one of the most planted varieties, under the name Semillon Gris – a mutation of a grape known as Groen Durif (literally ‘green grape’) that was thought to make up 80% of the Cape’s vineyards in the 1800s.

It is still the fifth most planted white grape in South Africa today, though its profile remains strangely low.

Adi Badenhorst has cultivated grapes from the oldest Semillon vineyard on record ‘La Colline’ in Franschhoek, dating back to 1902. Marc Kent also makes use of this vineyard for both his dry Semillon and his Noble Semillon, the unirrigated bush vines coping well with Franschhoek’s arid conditions.

If you haven’t tasted it, please make it your mission to do so. It nods more to Barsac than Sauternes but in all the best ways.

Marc Kent refers to Semillon as ‘sensitive, yet nice to work with’.

Maybe we should all be a little bit more like Semillon.

Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent: a fan of Semillon

Wine Recommendations

all wines tasted February 2021

Brokenwood Semillon 2018, Hunter Valley, Australia

A really lovely racy acidity and gorgeous waxy feel to this lighter, yet flavoursome style. White fruits and grapefruit notes surround a grassy centre, with just the merest hint of acacia honey. A fab everyday style that is just a bit too easy to drink!

Having checked trade price, this reviewer feels it is best drunk at home for the bargain price of £9.99 from Waitrose.

Brokenwood wines available from Bancroft Wines.

Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2018, Franschhoek, South Africa

A beautiful waxy lanolin feel and linear acidity is backed up with white fruits a plenty, firm structure, waxy orange peel and notes of thyme and rosemary. All these sit atop a soft oak base and wonderfully long length. A hint of Muscat d’Alexandre (approximately 2%) here adds just the right amount of perfume to the nose without detracting from the Semillon itself. Arguably a tad too young, this will benefit from 3-5 years age.

New Generation, £20.42 Ex VAT

Château de Chantegrive, Cuvée Caroline 2018, Graves, Bordeaux

A 50/50 blend with Sauvignon Blanc the Semillon beautifully shines through here with the Sauvignon providing a smattering of aromatic and supporting acidity. Honeysuckle, lemon peel and tangerine are just some of the glorious flavours here. All beautifully wrapped in vanilla tinged oak and an extremely long length to boot. Gorgeous and very drinkable now but will happily age.

Berry Brothers & Rudd, £18 Ex Vat

A somm’s guide to bordeaux’s ‘place’

If you’ve ever wanted to know how Bordeaux’s wine trading marketplace – La Place – works, then the best way is obviously to have it explained to you by a top German-born sommelier. Jan Konetzki shuffles us onto the history bus for a tour of a wine world institution.

Explain La Place to me in two sentences

La Place de Bordeaux is a Medieval distribution network used to distribute the wines of Bordeaux globally. Wines are sold from the châteaux to Bordeaux negociants (via a courtier) before being sold on to individual wine merchants around the world and then on to the consumer.

Chateaux I understand – but tell me more about negociants and courtiers

The negociant system has been around in Bordeaux since the early 1600’s and is one of the major reasons Bordeaux became the world’s most important and collectible wine region. And mostly we’ve got the Dutch to thank for it.

As well as draining the swamps (Haut-Medoc, was a swamp in case you did not know), they were some of the first negociants – merchants who may have grown some wine of their own, but mostly bought it, labelled it, shipped it and promoted it inside France and abroad. They were also responsible for producing custom blends ordered by clients.

The modern-day negociant system can be compared to a pre-arranged group of wholesalers who get rewarded by being able to buy (and sell on) a percentage of a château’s harvest every year. Interestingly, the negociants all pay the same price on the same day at close to the same time. They are supposed to sell the wines for the same price, with the same mark-up, though in practice the laws of the market exert a strong influence and this doesn’t always happen.

So if château owners grow the grapes and make the wine, and negotiants sell it, what do courtiers do?

This is a historic trading system that originated in the Middle Ages, and it was set up to prevent France’s elite from having to do anything so uncouth as having to work for a living. These aristocratic owners of wine châteaux did not want to deal directly with the merchant classes. They thought it was common to engage in such commercial activity themselves.

And that’s where the courtiers came in.  They acted as go-betweens for the châteaux and the negotiants. Think of them as Personal Assistants or Messengers – though a very well paid one.

Courtiers typically charge 2% on any deal that they broker and it is one of the most difficult jobs to get into in Bordeaux. You need to pass a series of exams and blind tasting tests, coupled with a minimum of five years of training before you can become a licensed courtier. Kind of like learning to train to be a black cab driver. 

Fun fact: courtiers are by law allowed to own châteaux and vineyards, but are forbidden by law to own, or act as a negociant.

I get that it made sense hundreds of years ago. But why is it still the established route to market today?

This is a good question.  After all, the world of communications and selling has changed out of sight, while the aristocratic owners are now often replaced by banks, insurance companies or wealthy individuals. Yet the system is still going strong. 

Most questionable, for Place-sceptics, is the continued existence of the courtier, since business and communication are now immediate and there is no more royal-class.

Yet fans of the system say they still have a role. The courtier, after all, is a useful buffer between buyer and seller (a bit like an estate agent) and can keep the sometimes heated conversation cool. It’s a big advantage if you are trying to make a deal.

Negociants, meanwhile, have literally created the demand for Bordeaux, its châteaux and appellations since as early as the 1620’s, and they still have great connections and power in the world of wine.

It’s the reason why even wineries from outside Bordeaux (like Super-Tuscans, and estates from Napa Valley and Argentina) are now signing up to the system, in order to find distribution.

The Place might be an old system, but there still seems to be plenty of life left in it.

Jan Konetzki is Director of wine at Ten Trinity Square – Four Seasons and Private Club; Ambassador (UK and Germany) for Château Latour and Artemis Domaines Ambassador UK/Germany; Social Media manager and UK strategic advisor, Niepoort.