Dear semillon

Dear semillon, you have struggled for well over one hundred years in the Cape’s vineyards to receive the acknowledgement due to you as a classic variety capable of producing wines that blossom with age. Your abundance in 19th century Cape vineyards led to your proper name being disregarded and replaced with ‘wine grape’. By the 20th century, your popularity was on the decline, until you featured among the ‘also rans’ in the varietal status. There were a few enthusiasts, who preserved your old vines, but the wine was generally overlooked in the consumer rush for the new, fashionable other French classics, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Even when you were planted in areas such as Breedekloof, your juice was destined to be blended in generic brands, wines that in no way reflect your true quality capabilities. In the early years of the new century, there was a glimpse of positive change in your fortunes, thanks to a few dedicated winemakers, who understand your symbiosis with sauvignon blanc and who began to craft partnerships that have achieved acclaim locally and today, are receiving similar approval internationally. But, dear semillon, my heart is gladdened that there are also moves in one of your old strongholds to ensure your worth as a varietal wine will, in future, receive proper acknowledgement. Dear semillon, I think after all these years, your eureka moment has arrived.

Winners on 2014 RisCura White Hot Awards. (l - r) Christian Eedes, panel chair, Bernhard Veller Nitida, Michael White Highlands Road, Henry Kotze Morgenster
Winners on 2014 RisCura White Hot Awards.
(l – r) Christian Eedes, panel chair, Bernhard Veller Nitida, Michael White Highlands Road, Henry Kotze Morgenster












One of the blessings for both semillon and winelovers, is that the new clones, especially in cooler climates, have a taste profile very similar to sauvignon blanc, still the consumer darling. So, with a wine like Nitida Coronata Integration 2013, there is the familiarity of cool grassy, citrus flavours but with sauvignon’s usual aggressive edges ameliorated by semillon’s silkily-weighted texture, not forgetting its own lemon grass, honey and tangerine flavours.

The Veller’s Durbanville wine was one of the three winners on this year’s RisCura Hot White Awards, which focuses on Bordeaux-style white blends, a partnership of sauvignon and semillon in any proportion. The young man from RisCura sitting next to me enjoyed it particularly for the above reason. In fact, all three winners – Morgenster 2013 (Stellenbosch) and Highlands Road Sine Cera 2012 (Elgin) were the other two – already provide much drinking pleasure.

One of the other joys – there are many, price included! – of these wines, is their ying/yang of freshness and texture make them so versatile with food. Who better to show off such benefits than Foodbarn’s Franck Dangereux, who obviously had such fun (and success) in creating a variety of dishes to accompany them.

If the above names aren’t those that would come to mind automatically when nominating the big guns in this style, I mentioned to panel chair, Christian Eedes that the result illustrates the strength of the category, for those big guns were in the line up. (Eedes’ tasting report with full results may be found here).

The style has a big and glorious future and should be the way the majority of winelovers get to know and enjoy semillon; with that I have no problem.

Basil Landau in his now 108 year old semillon vineyard
Basil Landau in his now 108 year old semillon vineyard

As a varietal wine, semillon’s future lies in Franschhoek, home to probably the greatest number of old semillon vines of any area in the Cape winelands. Basil and Jane Landau’s vineyard (pictured here) is now 108 years old. A group of the younger winemakers – Craig McNaught of Stonybrook, Clayton Reabow of Moreson, Wynand Grobler of Rickety Bridge and Rob Armstrong of Haut Espoir – have started a movement to reward typicity and quality in three of Franschhoek’s major varieties, semillon being one; chardonnay and cabernet, the other two. Semillon’s major features, as identified at an initial tasting of a wide range of the area’s wines, are beeswax, lanolin and lemon, with honeyed notes developing with age.

The first Appellation Grand Prestige awards (yes, that title is far too pretentious for such a down-to-earth, worthy initiative) will be made in October to any of this varietal trio which have passed the typicity/quality test by 17 judges under blind tasting conditions; a minimum 80% ‘yes’ vote is required for an award.

What this exercise should do is not only raise the profile of semillon, but hopeful increase prices for the wine, which, in turn should encourage producers to pay the farmers more for their grapes, in turn again encouraging them to retain these old, low-yielding vines. Surely the wine community has learnt by now the value of these old vines and that everything should be done to conserve them?

The rigour of the AGP rules extends to admiting entries from only those wines carrying Wine of Origin Franschhoek; none of the parasite members of the Franschhoek Vignerons from outside the area, whose wines bear another WO, may participate. This lends the initiative a great deal more credibility and purpose.

The good folk of Paarl would do well to take note of this. Their so-called Paarl Wine Challenge is, I’ve learned, open to wines from any origin, provided they’re vinified in Paarl (what has vinification to do with terroir, as ‘Paarl’ would suggest?). Apparently this has always been the rule since their first Challenge. Their marketing being so poor, if it exists at all, this was revealed only after I’d queried whether KWV winning with their Elgin-sourced The Mentors Chardonnay wasn’t a bit of a swindle. No, that’s allowed and KWV wasn’t the only producer to win with outsourced fruit. But for so important and vastly improved a big company, I believe they were irresponsible and disingenuous to enter non-Paarl WO wines. It’s an ill-conceived competition based on origin that allows and awards wines from outside the region.

Time to re-think, Paarl.


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