washington wine grapes: sémillon

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Part two in this week's quick tour of the five most essential varietals grown and made in Washington. I am often asked to name Washington’s signature grape, or to predict the next great varietal to emerge from this state. But sometimes it is more instructive to think about the most notable underperformers.
Sémillon belongs at the head of that list. Neither obscure, nor marginal, sémillon is the backbone of Bordeaux blanc, and also exceptionally popular in Australia, whether barrel-fermented or done in stainless tanks and blended with sauvignon blanc (often labeled simply SBS).

But here in the U.S., not so much. It’s a shame, because Washington’s sémillons deserves a place with the best efforts from elsewhere in the world. Among all this state’s other white wine varietals, it stands out as something uniquely expressive.

Like sauvignon blanc, with which it is often blended, sémillon can be made into a lightly grassy, dry white table wine, or it can be late-harvested, shriveled with botrytis, and turned into a sweetly honeyed dessert wine. In general it is best drunk young, when sémillons taste of figs and melons, with a rich, textural mouthfeel, and hints of vanilla and honey.

Sémillon has enjoyed a long and successful history in Washington; it was one of a handful of varietal wines to be released from the watershed 1967 vintage, the first commercial vintage for both Ste. Michelle Vineyards (now Chateau Ste. Michelle) and Associated Vintners (now Columbia).

Today L’Ecole No 41 is the acknowledged pace-setter, offering up to four different sémillons annually, in a variety of styles. Many wineries are choosing to do Bordeaux blends, barrel fermenting the grapes and incorporating substantial percentages of sauvignon blanc in the finished wine. I’ve recommended an outstanding example of each style below.

Benchmark: L’Ecole No 41 2008 Semillon; $16. This is rich and ripe, a mouth-coating wine loaded with pear and melon fruit flavors, lightly spicy.

Icon: Buty 2008 69% Sémillon/26% Sauvignon/5% Muscadelle; $25. Beautifully floral, fragrant and evocative, with lush and complex aromas of honeycomb, cracker, and citrus, this gorgeous blend is bursting with rich, bright, detailed flavors. Stone and mineral elements are woven throughout, and the barrel fermentation adds hints of toast.


Unknown said...

I need to try that Buty bordeaux blend. very exciting. Thank you for putting it out there.


Sean P. Sullivan said...

Nicolas and Elizabeth, I will second your thought that you need to try the Buty wine. You truly do. It is magnificent.

Jared said...

The Buty white bordeaux blend is absolutely fantastic and I've enjoyed it many times over many vintages but the benchmark for me in Washington for this blend is the Delille Chaleur Estate Blanc. Easily, the best white made in Washington. If you've yet to try it, seek it out!

PaulG said...

Jared - You are absolutely right. The DeLille Chaleur Blanc was my other choice for an iconic wine - I flipped a coin on this one. Both are terrific.

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