Once heavily grown in South Africa, Sémillon is now one of the least popular varieties of grape, having been overtaken by Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Sémillon was so popular in the early part of the nineteenth century that it was known in South Africa as ‘Wine Grape’, and it was grown in 90 percent, at least, of the vineyards in the country. Since this heyday, it has undergone a severe decline, partially due to disease, so that it now only is about 1% of all the vines grown in South Africa. Nevertheless, there are still growers prepared to produce wines from this grape.
The reason for Sémillon‘s continued decline is uncertain. It is a very easy vine to grow, being consistent in production, and resistant to most diseases, barring rot. It is also an early ripener, making it a good first crop for many vineyards. However, the problem may lay in the nature of the grape, with a rather pink skin and a tendency to become sunburnt when exposed to summer sun. The grape itself has a limited acidity and a rather oily appearance and texture. It can produce a very high yield of wines, and can also be aged for long periods without losing its flavour.
The rivalry between Sémillon and Chardonnay may be part of the reason for the loss of interest in the former grape, since Chardonnay is in demand all over the world, and domestic drinkers in South Africa consume a great deal of the Chardonnay wines, either as single varietals or as blends. Sémillon, in comparison, is a relative unknown, and this can mean that drinkers just do not know enough about the wine in order to give it a chance. The only way that this can change is for more wine makers to produce these wines, but it is not likely to happen for a good few years yet.
There are a number of reasons why Sémillon deserves to be taken out of the shadows. Firstly, when it is picked early, Sémillon grapes have a neutral and rather acidic juice which can be transformed through maturity into a full-bodied wine with a delicious honey-like character. Left on the vine, it can become sweet, with a great deal more alcohol than in the early harvest. In addition, Sémillon can be left to develop the Botrytis infection, Noble Rot, which will give the grapes a very sweet, flavoursome nature, making it ideal as a dessert wine.
There are a few wine makers who are prepared to produce single-varietal Sémillon wines, such as the Boekenhoutskloof estate. Their 1999 Sémillon has a distinctively nutty flavour which is produced by leaving the grapes to ferment in new French Oak barrels. This aroma is then passed on to the taste, accompanied by a number of spices and a few fruits such as lemon. The longevity of the oak taste gives the Sémillon a smoky, toasted flavour which contrasts well with its natural acidity, and gives the wine a complexity that maturity has brought to the fore.