Semillon — A Guide to the Basics

From its key role in many of the top Bordeaux Blancs to its increasingly important solo bottlings, Semillon is a grape variety on the rise.

Semillon grapes in vineyard
Photo: Kiko Jimenez / Getty Images

Semillon has the ability to produce delicious wines on its own, but in general, it's as a blending partner that it shines most brightly. Think of Semillon like an Oscar-winning supporting actor in the movies: It makes everything around it better. From Bordeaux, where its roots go far back in the region's history, to California, South Africa, and Australia, Semillon is a far more important grape variety than it often gets credit for.

What is Semillon Wine?

Semillon is a white wine produced from the grape variety of the same name. It's most frequently associated with the whites wines of Bordeaux, where it is generally blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Many of the great sweet wines of Sauternes also rely on Semillon as part of their blend. Semillon also shines as a varietally labeled wine, especially in South Africa and Australia, though there are also notable ones produced on the North Fork of Long Island and California.

Where Does Semillon Wine Come From?

The most prestigious Semillon is, ironically, not labeled as such. For Bordeaux Blanc, or white Bordeaux, it is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Among the white grape vines at Château Haut-Brion–one of the five esteemed First Growths, and a producer far more famous for its reds, though among collectors, the white is just as exciting–Semillon dominates, and a bit more of it is planted than Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, throughout the region, according to the trade group Vins de Bordeaux, "It is the main grape variety in mellow and sweet whites…[It] is also called Seminion in Bulgaria, as well as Chevrier, Mansois, and Sauternes." White Bordeaux wines from Entre-Deux-Mers are widely available on the American market, and represent some of the most delicious expressions of Semillon (and Sauvignon Blanc) in the world of French wine.

Semillon also does very well on the North Fork of Long Island, as well as parts of California. In South Africa, the Western Cape grows highly accomplished Semillon, as does Australia, where new and older plantings can be found in Barossa, Hunter Valley, Riverina, and Margaret River, in the far west of the country.

Why Should You Drink Semillon Wine?

Semillon is far less famous than many of its white-grape counterparts (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and the rest), but the pleasure this underdog variety offers is easily their equal when it is grown and produced with care. Its round, occasionally waxy texture lends a silky mouthfeel without the necessity of oak (though it takes well to wood aging), and it shines in both its youth and as it matures. Semillon also offers excellent value: Many whites Bordeaux wines from Entre-Deux-Mers, for example, are remarkably affordable — under $25 can get you a huge range of them — and even in their sweeter versions, great bottles can easily be found for far less than you might assume. In the old-vine plantings in Australia, Semillon stands the test of time, with some vineyards still producing concentrated, intensely flavored wines even though they were planted generations ago.

What Does Semillon Taste Like?

Semillon typically shows notes of stone fruit like apricots, orchard fruit along the lines of pears and apples, and occasional hints of herbs or white licorice. When botrytized (that is, affected by the botrytis cinerea fungus that dehydrates the individual grapes, changes their flavors and aromas, and is the key to many of the greatest sweet wines of the world like Sauternes), aromas and flavors of honey, ripe tropical fruit, and occasionally honeysuckle emerge. Its often waxy texture rewards drinking at a slightly less-cold temperature than lighter-textured white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, and even when blended with Sauvignon Blanc, the subtle sense of richness it adds makes the wine shine even more brightly after it's been in the glass for a few minutes. Semillon is best enjoyed from a standard white wine or universal glass.

Five Great Semillon Wines

There are countless great Semillon wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Semillon has to offer.

Alheit Vineyards

The 2016 Cartology Bush Vines white wine, a transporting blend of 89% Chenin Blanc and 11% Semillon, is a stunner: Whiffs of lanolin and orange blossoms find brilliantly calibrated counterparts in yellow grapefruit and a suggestion of white licorice. Even at six years of age, this is a vibrant, balanced, and taut treat.

Blackbird Vineyards

Blackbird produces red wines that have earned the respect of critics and consumers alike, but don't overlook their 2021 Dissonance, which leverages 16% Semillon to add depth, lift, and stone fruit flavors to the more citrus-driven notes of Sauvignon Blanc.

Bodega Catena Zapata

A leading producer of both reds and whites in Argentina, Catena Zapata crafts a wide range of wine across a broad swath of the price spectrum. Their 2020 White Clay bottling brings together 60% Semillon with 40% Chenin Blanc, resulting in a wine whose acidity amps up stone fruit and subtle suggestions of herbs.

Cape Mentelle

From Margaret River, in Western Australia, the 2021 Sauvignon Blanc - Semillon uses only 12% of the latter, but its presence lends the finished wine a velvety texture that's amplified by the time it spent on the lees.

Château d'Yquem

Not just one of the top wines that incorporates Semillon (though it's typically dominated by Sauvignon Blanc), but one of the greatest wines in the world, full stop. This icon of Sauternes produces wines that, in their best vintages, have the ability to last for decades…and sometimes longer. A recently opened bottle of 1994 was honeyed and subtly floral, with dried stone fruit anchored by a bass note of golden chanterelles, and a finish that stretched on for well over a minute.

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