Semillon is one of the easiest grapes to grow. It produces abundant grapes, flowers later in the spring thus avoiding frost, and resists many diseases. Very little of it is planted in North America, which is why you might be surprised to see this grape in this list. As a dry wine, it is fairly unimpressive in its youth. Aged versions are more interesting, yielding aromas that might remind you of lanolin and nuts.
Semillon's greatest expression — and the reason it is on this list — can be found in the Sauternes sub-region of Bordeaux, where it makes late harvest dessert wines prized as far away as the Russian imperial court.
The Gift of Thin Skins
Semillon is susceptible to one grave disease, but it's a disease growers want the vine to get. The condition is Botrytis bunch rot, and if your goal is a dry wine, this is devastating, but if your goal is something sweet, Botrytis bunch rot is a godsend.
Because Semillon has such thin skins, in damp conditions it succumbs easily to the fungus Botrytis, which shrivels the grapes and concentrates both the sugars and the flavors. These Botrytis-infected grapes produce precious little juice, and the winemakers want every last drop.
The resulting wine is sweet, rich, and lasts forever. Chateau d'Yquem is the most famous and most expensive of the Sauternes Semillon wines, but fortunately there are others for mere mortals to enjoy.
DRY AND SWEET SEMILLONS
Plantagenet “Hazard Hill” Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc; dry (Western Australia)
Chateau Sigalas Rabaud; sweet (Sauternes Bordeaux, France)
Far Niente “Dolce”; sweet (Napa Valley)