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Life After Chardonnay


It's a mild sickness, this disease I have. I like Semillon.

Unlike most maladies, Semillonitis has no cure. Symptoms include surreptitious skulking around wine shops looking for old bottles of Semillon and trying to figure out what food goes with them.

Friends know of my ailment and tread lightly around the subject. They whisper about me behind my back; they silently pray a cure will be found. Chances of that are slim. It's a rare affliction that affects few of us, but once you have it, it's persistent.

So to avoid being cast as a curiosity, I have embarked on a plan I hope will take the onus off me. I will attempt to infect others with this malady.

However, the odds are against me. Semillonitis is an ineffectual little virus, so it's not particularly communicable. The only possibility you have of catching it is if someone should sit you down and pour you a good glass of Semillon. And since there are probably only a dozen or so of us in this country who are infected with this bug, you're fairly safe.

Semillon, in case you're wondering, is a grape variety that can produce some remarkably dull wine when it's grown in the wrong regions. We know this because it grows in a lot of places in the world where it's so warm the variety produces a liquid with a character closer to water than wine.

To most wine drinkers, the world of wine starts with Chardonnay and ends with Cabernet. Anything else is too exotic to consider. As they gain confidence, they may like Burgundy or Champagne or Port, perhaps a Rhone now and then, but after that, interest in wine wanes.

In its greatest form, however, Semillon can make classic wines, such as those of Sauternes--wines like Chateau d'Yquem--elixirs of incomparable sweetness and honeyed concentration that the rest of the world has often tried to copy (only rarely has even a poor facsimile of it been made).

But outside of the dessert wines, Semillon can also make a subtle yet flavorful dry table wine. Some of the greatest white wines I have ever had were Semillon-based wines--for instance, Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc and Chateau Laville Haut-Brion. These are so expensive, however, that they don't offer much of a lesson to budding Semillon drinkers. Moreover, these wines are just half Semillon; the rest is Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle du Bordelaise. It's the Semillon that is the heart of them for me, though.

Recently I praised the white Graves of Chateau La Louviere and Chateau de Fieuzal, both Semillon-based, and I have had some exciting experiences with Semillons from Australia, where the Semillon grape is treated with even more dignity than in France.

Semillon, when it's made dry, can take on wonderful bottle bouquet with just a few years of age, yet so few people buy them at all that almost no one has any experience with aged bottles. Those who buy a good, well-made Semillon and who "lose" it in the cellar, only to find it a decade hence, may find a wine of incomparable richness and finesse, but even then the lucky owners will likely not know they are experiencing a rare treat.

Once a year I get together with a few friends who are Semillon freaks, and we taste whatever current releases we can find. Wine shop owners scurry for cover when they see us coming. No matter how much digging we do, we rarely come up with more than a dozen each year. The nice thing is, rarely do they set us back more than $8 or $9 a bottle.

A number of California and Washington wineries have made Semillon as a varietal wine for years, but no one advertises the fact. Wine makers seem almost embarrassed they make it, even though the wines are often excellent.

A problem here is that young, dry Semillon usually needs time to show its true colors. Only after some aging will it round out and become more complex. When Semillons are released, they can be a tad on the shy side in terms of both aroma and taste.

Semillon's flavors are akin to those found in Sauvignon Blanc, though usually milder. Made from grapes raised in a cool climate, the wine can have the character of green grass or new-mown hay, not unlike Sauvignon Blanc. It can also display an even more herbal note. One word used to describe Semillon aroma is "fig," though I prefer "melon" and "pear" in many wines, with a lemony note when the wines are young.

The tasting I assembled a couple of weeks ago--called "Semillon silliness" by a close friend who shares my love for these wines--was a blind evaluation of 14 Semillons that are currently available. However, a few of them are in short supply, and a couple of others are available only at the winery.

Prices are in the $7 to $10 range, few higher; almost all are discounted. Indeed, occasionally older vintages of Semillon that haven't sold will be deeply discounted because of wine shop owners' misunderstanding about how they age, and you can sometimes get a great bargain.

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