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Semillon

excerpt from Diablo Magazine 925797600

Over the last fifteen years in America Chardonnay has become synonymous in consumers' minds with "good white wine." Chardonnay accounts for 25% of the wine dollars spent in the U.S. and 15% of the volume sold, according to Jon Fredrikson, the industry's top statistical compiler. So pervasive is this dominance by a single grape variety that creative winemakers often despair. "ABC," is shorthand at wine trade social events for "give me anything but Chardonnay." Red wine is a different matter. Red wine has seen the emergence of several newly popular varietals during this same period: first Syrah and Mourvedre in the Rhone category; then Merlot as a variation on the Cabernet theme; now Italianate nominees like Sangiovese.

Forward thinking winegrowers in California have long anticipated a similarly faddish interest in newly arrived white wine varieties over the last decade and a half. First Viognier, and now Pinot Gris, have been planted in significant acreage, and have been the subject of intense discussion among winemakers looking to get a jump on the next "hot" white varietal. Neither, however, has achieved much traction in the American marketplace. At least not yet.

Given this situation, Semillon is a fascinating topic; particularly in the Livermore Valley. Worldwide, Semillon (pronounced sem me YOWN as it is spelled by the French) has historically been the most planted grape variety capable of producing top quality wine. It is the distinguishing ingredient in the great white wines of Bordeaux. It is the only ingredient in the wonderful, unique, aged white wines of Australia's Hunter Valley (where it is pronounced SEM il lawn). Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc costs $150 a bottle when it is released and three times that much by the time it is ready to drink. Great twenty-year-old bottles of Lindeman's and Tyrrell's ancient-vine Semillons sell at auction in Australia for $100 to $300.

The reason these wines are so well regarded is the extraordinary ability of Semillon to develop beguiling bouquet as the wines mature in the bottle. There's nothing quite like it. Young Semillon has a fat texture, but a fairly bland aroma, often described as 'fig-like,' and a pleasant, but short finish. Often this non-descript character is a function of Semillon's tendency to produce massive crops. Fifteen-year-old, dry Semillons made from grapes grown on old vines, water stressed to reduce crop levels, are an entirely different story. Their bouquet becomes rich and penetrating with a toasty, 'hazelnut-like' character which remains on the tongue for minutes, and in the mind for years. No better match can even be imagined for fish fillets prepared Almondine.

America's finest repository of old, pedigreed Semillon vines lies in the deep gravel soils deposited along the Arroyo de Mocho south of Livermore. These vines were originally planted in vineyards owned by Louis Mel and Charles Wetmore from cuttings brought to California in the 1880's. The French-born Mel was married to a friend of the Marquis de Lur-Saluces, proprietor of Chateau d'Yquem in Sauternes, one of the four or five most famous wine properties on the planet. Wetmore was dispatched to France with a letter of introduction requesting cuttings from these, the world's most renown Semillon vines. He was successful, and upon his return Wetmore split the bounty with Mel. Unlike many viticultural transfers, this specific vine importation was well documented and acknowledged by all the parties. A subsequent Marquis de Lur-Saluces even made a point of visiting the Livermore Valley in the 1920's "to see how my children are doing."

With well-bred, fully mature vine stocks and expensive, proven wine models in both the Old World and New, logic would seemingly predict some very high-end, venerable, artistic Livermore Valley Semillons today. Wouldn't it? Therein, I suppose, lies this tale; this American tale. Great Livermore Semillons, capable of brilliant bottle maturation DO exist, you just can't find them in normal distribution channels. The Chardonnay-obsessed American marketplace has kicked the stuffing out of California Semillon producers, and they're not inclined to keep butting their heads against such an unforgiving wall. "We get more encouragement for making the 200th Chardonnay on a retailer's shelf than we do for making the only Semillon he may carry," reports Phil Wente, owner of Louis Mel's historic El Mocho vineyard. "For our Centennial Anniversary in 1983, we chose Semillon for our special bottling because it had been such an integral part of our history. But neither retailers nor consumers understood a white wine with a vintage date more than two or three years old. Everybody figured it was forgotten, neglected inventory." Wrong.

Since the mid-'80s Semillon has steadily declined in volume at Wente. At one point they made 15,000 cases a year. Today they make something closer to 3,000 cases, which they sell only at the tasting room and overseas. On the one hand that sales profile is a rather exclusive benefit for knowledgeable East Bay residents. On the other hand it is a national disgrace. Look at the Australians' attitude for comparison. Australia makes about 75% as much wine as California does, but only has 18 million citizens to sell it to at home. Australia's commitment to wine export is about as vigorous as national policy can make it. Nevertheless, Oz connoisseurs keep their fabulous Hunter Valley aged Semillons all to themselves. Virtually none of that wine is exported. Rosemount's '97 Show Reserve is about the only example one is likely to find in the Bay Area at present, and it's eight years away from maturity. When last I was in Sydney (early November '98), I went to my favorite bulk seafood noshery -- a decidedly down-market place next to the Navy Base, alliteratively named Woolloomoolloo Hotel, but we'd call it a sports bar -- and off the standard workingman's wine list bought an '89 Tyrrell's Hunter Valley Semillon for about US$28. Piece of Barramundi, Green Lip Mussels in garlic... I was transported (pun intended).

Meanwhile, as steward of America's best Semillon resource, Wente is forced to seek markets for the finished product in Europe. They do sell some of the fruit from their superb old El Mocho Semillon vines to Ahlgren and to Kalin wineries. The remainder goes into the white meritage (i.e. blended with Sauvignon Blanc) made by Murrieta's Well.

Not every Semillon winemaker agrees that longevity is an important aspect of the wine variety. Dexter Ahlgren likes Semillon as a contrast to Chardonnay, which he also makes, but he personally drinks his wines within a few years of release. "Semillon ages well for 10 to 15 years," he says. "I just prefer the opulent fruitiness it shows in youth." U.C. Berkeley microbiology professor Terry Leighton, owner/winemaker at Kalin also enjoys Semillon's textural character and flavor, at any age, as a foil for spicy food. "Hunan, Szechuan, highly seasoned Asian food simply fails to match well with most wine," he says, "but Semillon provides a remarkably different sensation." He also prefers Semillon with some bottle maturity. "I consider it the white homologue of Cabernet," Dr. Leighton explains. "We do vertical comparisons of our wines all the time. Recently I've been inclined toward the 1980."

California should be able to make artisan Semillon every bit as well as the Bordelais and the Aussies. The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. It just costs more.

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