Semillon enjoying California resurgence 

click to enlarge Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery produces a light and bright style of semillon white wine from the Gamble Vineyard in Napa Valley. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • courtesy photo
  • Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery produces a light and bright style of semillon white wine from the Gamble Vineyard in Napa Valley.

We should be growing more Bordeaux grapes in California. If I had said this five years ago, many oenophiles would have had me lynched. But some of the best California wines lately have been made from cabernet franc and semillon, two important blending grapes in Bordeaux.

You might know semillon as the grape that dominates in Sauternes, the Bordeaux appellation that makes the famous golden-colored, honey-scented dessert wines. However, it also plays an important role in the dry white wines that are made in Pessac-Leognan, Graves and Sauternes itself.

Dry versions of semillon have a signature waxlike nose. Vanilla, citrus, grass, floral and sometimes green pepper aromas can be noticed. While usually full-bodied with a round mouth feel, it can be deceptively high-acid.

Semillon found a hospitable home in the Hunter Valley of Australia, where, without any oak, it creates wines that improve over the course of a decade and can age even longer. It also has been grown in California since the 19th century. But semillon faded into the background as sauvignon blanc, its usual partner in crime, caught on. Wineries like Clos du Val, which at one time made a delicious semillon, started blending it with more sauvignon blanc to the point where it is now called something entirely different, Ariadne. Kalin Semillon, which meets the minimal requirement of 75 percent semillon, is a classic — hard to find, but well worth the search.

Happily, a new generation of winemakers has rediscovered this phenomenal grape and is using it to produce some of the best white wines in the state. Unfortunately, since so few are willing to take a chance, just a handful are available. And while not very expensive, they are pricier than the wines I usually recommend in this column. However, given their potential to age and the complexity in comparison to similarly priced wines, there is justification.

Forlorn Hope Semillon, Old Mill Vineyard, Nacre, 2011 (Napa Valley): Matthew Rorick makes a number of wines, including several from difficult-to-pronounce Portuguese varietals, so his semillon is relatively mainstream. While still young, this honest effort reveals semillon's waxlike character with a lemon meringue-style flavor on the palate. Suggested retail: $24

Dirty & Rowdy Semillon, Gamble Vineyard, 2012 (Napa Valley): This is a lighter, brighter style of semillon, one not seen here before. It takes a while to open up, but if patience is one of your virtues, give it a try. After five hours it turns into a fresh, grapefruity, exotic wonder. Founded in 2010, Dirty & Rowdy does not have a track record to help predict this vintage's trajectory, but my guess is that it will kick into gear in another couple of years and continue to soar for five to 10 after that. Suggested retail: $28

Saxon Brown Semillon, Fighting Brothers, 2009 (Sonoma): Founded in 1997 by veteran winemaker Jeff Gaffner, semillon has been a staple at Saxon Brown since the early years. A field blend with muscadelle du bordelaise and sauvignon blanc playing backup, it has a spectrum of peach, tangerine, honey and fig aromas, with firm acidity and almond crumbs on the finish. Suggested retail: $30

These wines can be found at Acme Fine Wines, Arlequin Wine Merchants, Biondivino, Bi-Rite Grocery, The Cheese Shop (Healdburg), Little Vine, Paul Marcus Wines, Ruby Wines and St. Vincent Tavern and Wine Shop.

Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.

About The Author

Pamela S. Busch

Pamela Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched
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