Funny how some things go out of fashion. Semillon for example. Surprisingly quite a bit of it was grown here in New Zealand back in the 1980s. But Australia has always been the down under leader of the Semillon race. Easy to see why when you taste sublime wines like Tyrrell’s Belford, Mt Pleasant’s Elizabeth and Peter Lehmann’s Margaret.
I often wonder what New Zealand single varietal Semillon would have been like if it had been picked early to retain acidity and released after about five years of bottle age. But it wasn’t going to happen with so many start-up wineries foraying into what was then a new wine region, Marlborough, and needing to make some pretty fast return on investment. Wines had to be sold. And most people drink wine pretty soon after they buy it.
Some vintners blended Semillon into their Sauv – up to 20 per cent could be added without acknowledgment in those days. Unoaked, virtually undectectable - I think it did great things for wines like Cloudy Bay – yes those early wines were a blend. And I think it helps the ageability of these wines too. I remember the Cloudy Bay we bought in 1988 and drunk in 2007 (click here) it was a beauty.
I can’t remember when I last saw a single varietal New Zealand Semillon for sale that was made in a dry white table wine style. Most people who grow Semillon now, do so for a late harvest botrytised style – it’s delicious when it’s been infected with botrytis and fermented or aged in a little oak – a la Sauternes.
But some growers still persevere with Semillon for blending but now it’s Bordeaux inspired, Bordeaux Blanc to be precise, although the wines still have a distinctively proud Kiwi-ness about them. These are blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon – proudly stated as such on the label – funnily enough they are very rare from Marlborough where Sauvignon Blanc on its own is more important. And the success of the wine comes down to the winemaking.
These three I tasted come from Waiheke Island in Auckland, Hawkes Bay and Waipara. The wines were tasted in May 2013 and prices are in NZ dollars, as stated by the winery.
Man O’ War Gravestone Waiheke Island Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2010, $36, is overtly fragrant with sweet mealy wild yeast aromas infused with toast and lemon. It’s creamy and savoury to the taste with Sauvignon’s vivacious pungency subdued by the use of lees action and oak. The fruit has a citrus seam, but it really is more melons and sweet juicy nectarines. Then the hammer hits the rock and smoky flinty nuances embrace the wine and linger. This Graves inspired white is 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon with the latter portion fermented in old oak. Alcohol reads 14%.
Te Awa Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Semillon 2010, $26.95, has an intriguing bouquet of roasted peaches with the sugars starting to caramelise, as well as lanolin, wet potter’s clay and summer herbs. Yes intriguing! The savoury earthy characters carry through to the palate that’s layered with creamy oak, a touch of wood smoke, vanilla and rocket juice (that’s arugula to some of you). Warm and harmonious without any overpowering pungency, and the freshness of grapefruit and melon on the finish. A blend of 61%, Sauvignon Blanc and 39% Semillon, alcohol us stated as 12.5%.
Pegasus Bay Waipara Valley Sauvignon Semillon 2010 costs $27.95. The scent of this wine is all wild yeast and French oak in harmony with concentrated tropical fruit and a kind of sewing machine oil character too! The wild yeast characters set a fuse running into the core where the fruit flavours explode. Vibrant, creamy, toasty and delicious … a touch of grapefruit zest on the end, yet all the time a harmonious underlying savouriness too. If you only have the opportunity to try only one Sauv Sem, could I suggest this! Only the Semillon portion saw oak but both rested on the wild yeast lees for 6 months. Alcohol is stated as 13.5%.
So Australia may have won the Semillon race but I think New Zealand is doing very well with this style of Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blend – thank you very much.