semillon inside

Wine literature is essentially a snapshot in the history of wine as portrayed by that author. Have you ever received or purchased a book on wine, read it cover to cover, made note of a few interesting items and relegated it to a shelf somewhere in your house and forgotten about it? Then some day, possibly years later, as you are dusting around the house you find the book and start flipping the pages. As you read, you start picking up little tidbits of information that perhaps needed to be refreshed in the current memory circles.

That happened to me recently, and while I wasn’t dusting shelves, I was curious as to where I had even got this particular book. The book is titled, The Great Book of Wine, by Edita Lausanne, and published by Galahad Books in New York. The copyright is 1969 and 1970. Now this is a real mystery, because I was less than half of the legal drinking age in 1969, but there is a notation on the inside cover indicating someone wanted $10 for it. Still a mystery, but I guess the main point here is a passage I came across on a section about California wine.

The book extolls the white wines of the day — Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Green Hungarian, and Sylvaner. In its descriptions, it refers to their ability to remain “fresh for five years, sound for ten.” It then goes on to talk about the “fuller bodied” white wines, specifically Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and this column’s featured variety: Sémillon. And again, it refers to the ageability of these white wines of the day. Truth be told, today’s average wine consumer does not realize the truth in these statements because of how wines are made today. Specifically, they are created with the intention to be consumed when young. Why? That’s what the
consumer wants.

But what about the exceptions? I guarantee there are those exceptions, as I have made and tasted them over the years. Sémillon is a grape I was introduced to about 15 years ago, and while I am never disappointed in them as a young white wine, I am impressed how they develop in the bottle after three or four years and I find them, albeit subjectively, tasting better. By this, I mean when compared to a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc made to today’s consumer preferences, where the latter two have lost considerable fruit characters and tend to take on an oxidized tone.

Sémillon originated in France. There is no known listed parentage of the grape, so presumably, the wild vines in the Bordeaux region were brought under cultivation. The Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) lists it as “likely a native of Bordeaux vineyards.” Decreasing in popularity, its area in France has gone from almost 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) in 1958 to about 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) in 1995. The main regions it is grown in Bordeaux are Graves and Pessac-Léognan, and then to the south in Sauternes, where it is made a sweet wine after infection with the noble rot, Botrytis cinerea. You may recognize that Châteaux Haut-Brion includes Sémillon as the dominant white grape in dry white wines that last ten years or longer. Incidentally, the tasting notes for the 2014 vintage lists it to be in its prime from 2024–2044!

In Bordeaux, Sémillon is blended with the region’s other permitted white grapes; Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. The 2014 vintage at Châteaux Haut-Brion lists Sémillon as a 68% component, but the previous vintage was only 32%. Given the testimonial of its ageability as a white wine, consider its contributions to the Sauternes wines where it produces some of the longest aging wines in the world — the sweet wines of Châteaux d’Yquem being sought after by collectors all over.

It is a vigorous variety that adapts well to warmer climates, but is also reported to be sensitive to soil fertility, thus yields can vary. It is also a variety that is low in acidity — the low acidity is one of the reasons it is commonly blended with Sauvignon Blanc, which tends to have higher acidity. It is this blending with Sauvignon Blanc that I am most familiar with. Commercially, when I first got into the wine industry, the winery I worked for grew both Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The typical blend, on an annual average was generally 70:30 Sauvignon Blanc to Sémillon, which we marketed as a Fumé blanc. What this also meant is that we had a lot of Sémillon left over after the blend was made. We had to correct the naturally low acidity by adding judicious quantities of tartaric acid. In some vintages, additions of 3 grams per liter were the norm. But balanced with tropical and citrus flavors originating from the vineyard and fermentation, this wine was fantastic, and it aged gracefully. More on that later.

I pulled another book off the shelf, because it seems that to understand the Sémillon grape, it has to come from a historical perspective. This book, Wines of California, by Robert Lawrence Balzer, published in 1978, gives the following perspective. Frank Schoonmaker, who was responsible for the introduction of varietal labeling in US-based wines, and instrumental in marketing Sémillon as a varietal after Prohibition, produced a dry Sémillon from the Livermore Valley (in Alameda County, California). But if you wanted a sweet version, similar to the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, move about 75 miles south to Monterey County, where the Sémillons being produced were infected by the noble rot in the vineyard. It was like we had our own little version of Bordeaux right here in California. At Cresta Blanca Winery, in the early 1960s, Enologist Myron S. Nightingale “simulated” the noble rot under controlled conditions by harvesting the fruit, placing them in a humidity-controlled room and infecting the clusters with Botrytis. In this manner, several vintages of “premier Sémillon” were produced. Balzer adds that these wines “offered no serious competition to Châteaux d’Yquem.”

Worldwide, Sémillion is planted over 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres). In recent years, Sémillon is experiencing a revival in California. According to the 2014 California Grape Crush report, 6,660 tons of Sémillon was crushed in 2014, a couple hundred more than the previous year. I recently sought it out for my commercial winemaking program only to find it very hard to come by, especially since crop yields for all varieties in the 2015 vintage seem to be low across the board.

Another country of notable interest in the grape was Australia, where it was widely distributed in the 1800s as the continent became colonized. The Hunter Valley is well known for producing excellent examples of the grape and I recall tasting a 1960 vintage at a dinner hosted by one of our local wine merchants. I think the moral to the story is that any well-made white wine, when cellared properly, has the potential to age, but . . . you have to appreciate what the wine was, and what it has become.

Our marketing of Sémillon as a varietal was just not as successful as we could have hoped for. It just was hard to convince the tasting room visitors that there was nothing wrong with a white wine that was four years old.

The typical flavors of an aged Sémillon are of apricot and honey. Given we also made the wine in a sur lie style, there was a considerable mouthfeel contribution from the yeast. If only we could convince the average consumer of this variety’s uniqueness. Jancis Robinson once wrote, “Sémillon is one of those grapes like Riesling, which tends to be much more appreciated by wine insiders than by the average wine drinker.” Now, bring on the oysters, pop the cork of a bottle of Sémillon, and enjoy being someone different. Cheers!

Sémillon Recipe


100 lbs. (45 kg) Sémillon grapes
Distilled water
10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution. Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 75 milliliters (mL) of distilled water. When completely dissolved, make up to 100 mL total with distilled water.
5 grams Lallemand QA23 yeast
5 grams Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
5 grams Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP)
Rice hulls
~3 lbs. (1.4 kg) dry ice

Other equipment or needs

Basket press
Food-grade plastic tub (~18 gallons/68 L)
5-gallon (19-L) carboy
(1 or 2) 6-gallon (23-L) carboy
(1 or 2) 6-gallon (23-L) plastic bucket
Racking hoses
Equipment cleaning and sanitizing agents (Bio-Clean, Bio-San)
Inert gas (nitrogen, argon, or carbon dioxide)
Refrigerator (~45 °F/7 °C) to cold settle the juice. (Remove the shelves so that the bucket will fit.)
Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 55 °F (13 °C) TIP: Use a 33-gallon (125-L) plastic can as a water bath. Place ice blocks in the water to maintain a relatively constant temperature. This will be your refrigeration system for peak fermentation. If you have other means to keep things cool, of course use that. TIP: You may have a need to keep it warm, in this case wrapping the bucket/carboy with an electric carboy wrap works well.
Thermometer capable of measuring between 40–110 °F (4–43 °C) in one degree increments
Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 mL

Step by Step

1. Crush the grapes to the large tub. Place dry ice chucks into the tub. You want to see visible gassing, viewed as “smoke,” bubbling from the must.

2. Mix rice hulls (about 30% of the total volume) into the must. Move the must to your press. Do not delay between crushing and pressing.

3. Move the must/rice hull slurry directly to the press and press to the 6-gallon (23-L) bucket (you may end up with more, in which case use a second bucket). Again place the dry ice chunks into the bucket. The rice hulls aid in pressing by creating juice channels. Your juice yields will increase significantly with their use.

4. While pressing the juice to a 6-gallon (23-L) bucket, add 16 milliliters of 10% KMBS solution. This addition is the equivalent of 40 mg/L (ppm) SO2. Move the juice to the refrigerator.

5. Let the juice settle at least overnight. Add dry ice and layer the headspace with inert gas and keep covered.

6. When sufficiently settled, rack the juice off of the solids into the 6-gallon (23-L) carboy (or two if needed).

7. Prepare yeast. Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 104 °F (42 °C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface of the water and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension and the juice. You do not want to add the yeast to your cool juice if the temperature difference exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter.

8. Add Fermaid K or equivalent yeast nutrient.

9. Initiate the fermentation at room temperature (~65–68 °F/18–20 °C) and once fermentation is noticed, (~24 hours) move to a location where the temperature can be maintained at 55 °F (13 °C).

10. Two days after fermentation starts, dissolve the DAP in as little distilled water required to completely go into solution (~20 mL). Add directly to the carboy.

11. Normally you would monitor the progress of the fermentation by measuring Brix. One of the biggest problems with making white wine at home is maintaining a clean fermentation. Entering the carboy to measure the sugar is a prime way to infect the fermentation with undesirable microbes. So at this point, the presence of noticeable fermentation is good enough. If your airlock becomes dirty by foaming over, remove, clean and replace it as quickly and cleanly as possible. Sanitize anything that will come in contact with the juice.

12. Leave alone until bubbles in the airlock are about one bubble per minute. Usually about ~2–3 weeks.

13. Measure the Brix. The wine is considered dry, or nearly dry, when the Brix reaches -1.5 °Brix or less.

14. When the fermentation is complete, add 3 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon (4 L) of wine.

15. Transfer the wine off of the lees to the 5-gallon (19-L) carboy and lower the temperature to 38–40 °F (3–4°C) to preserve the freshness of the wine during aging and prevent the possibility of malolactic fermentation or other spoilage. Make sure there is no headspace. Fill the 5-gallon (19-L) carboy to the top.

16. After two weeks, test for pH and SO2 adjust as necessary to attain 0.8 ppm molecular SO2. (There is a simple SO2 calculator at www.winemakermag.com/guide/sulfite). Check the SO2 in another two weeks, prior to the next racking and adjust while racking. Hint: Rack to another sanitized 5-gallon (19-L) carboy, or your bucket. In the case of the latter, clean the original carboy and transfer the wine back to it. This is done at about 4-6 weeks after the first SO2 addition. Once the free SO2 is adjusted, maintain at the target level by monitoring every 3–4 weeks.

17. At about three months you are ready to bottle. Be sure to maintain sanitary conditions while bottling. Once bottled, you’ll need to periodically check your work by opening a bottle to enjoy with friends.