Blind Wine Tasting Notes: Sémillon

Four people attended last Thursday night’s Sémillon tasting, where we enjoyed three pure Sémillon varietals and one botrytized Sauterne-style blend that blew our collective socks off. The interesting news, upon revealing the wines, was that none of them were produced in France.

Why is that interesting?

It’s interesting because this grape variety originates from France. Known as one of the three classic White Bordeaux grapes – the other two being Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle – Sémillon is often, however, produced as a blended wine rather than a pure varietal. In retrospect, I feel I could have announced this particular wine tasting to highlight the Bordeaux region rather than to highlight the variety itself, in which case the objective would have been to shop for, then taste, wines blended from the three grapes above.

Well, that’s how you learn, right? And learning is why we get together to explore these wines in the first place.

So, if we couldn’t find pure Sémillon varietals from Bordeaux (and believe me, all four of us found shopping for Sémillon quite a learning experience), where did they come from?

They came from California’s Napa Valley and Australia’s Clare and Hunter valleys.

Though all four wine bottles were well-covered, there were clues to suggest the wines inside. All present could see the size of the bottles, as well as the tops of the bottles’ necks. These clues suggested that one of the wines was a dessert wine – one clue being the small size of the bottle itself*, being a 375ml bottle rather than the standard 750ml size. The clear color of the bottle glass, as opposed to a shade of green, was also a clue. Pouring, however, showed the color of this wine to be quite deeply golden, and contrasting sharply with the very light straw coloring of the other three.

It was apparent to the group that pure Sémillon wines are less desirable than other pure white varietals we might have tried previously. Whether it was the citric acid, the aromas of brie, or the lack of sweetness when compared to the sauterne-style wine, we didn’t favor the pure Sémillons. Perhaps the French felt the same way about Sémillon, having long ago decided to blend it with other grapes!

Paired with our Sémillon were a sweet baguette, soft brie, and a sweet chévre topped with brandied apricots. The chévre, said the group, was perfect with the Sauterne.

About the wines
The wines listed below are ranked top-down, most favorite to least favorite; each is followed by the wine’s heat, or alcohol content. In the left column is the actual group score for each wine using my handy-dandy Wine Scoring Sheet, which is based on the 20-point Davis scale. I’ve now added bottle prices to the rankings.

Group ranking
+4 2002 Beringer “Nightingale” Private Reserve, Napa Valley, California   $23/375ml
+0 2003 Lengs & Cooter, Clare Valley, South Australia   13.5%   $22
+0 2003 Ruston, Juliana Vineyard, Napa Valley, California   13.9%   $15
–4 1999 Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia   10.5%   $35

Winehiker’s ranking
20pts. 2002 Beringer “Nightingale” Private Reserve, Napa Valley, California
12.5pts. 2003 Lengs & Cooter, Clare Valley, South Australia
11.5pts. 2003 Ruston, Juliana Vineyard, Napa Valley, California
7.5pts. 1999 Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia

For the three pure Sémillon wines, my scores matched the group’s. The sensational stand-out for everyone was Beringer’s Nightingale, a lab-botrytized blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. (For details about Beringer’s botrytis, or “noble rot” process, see “Beringer” in this story from Carolyn Tillie.) I’m not much of a sweet wine drinker, and white dessert wines tend not to disappear very quickly when I have them around, but I managed to top myself over our previous Pinot tasting by giving this wine a perfect score. Simply put, it fired on all “seven” cylinders for me: appearance, aroma, balance, body, taste, finish, and overall quality. It was truly exceptional, and therefore I recommend you treat yourself – or your sweetheart – to the Beringer “Nightingale” Private Reserve from Napa Valley.

Next week, I’ll report the results of our small-group Merlot tasting.


*My attendees don’t always follow the rules. Not that it’s a bad thing.


2 thoughts on “Blind Wine Tasting Notes: Sémillon

  1. I really like your rating sheet and the way the wine ratings are written; there is a focus and highlighting of the positive, without beating or belaboring the disappointing wines. Great stuff!

  2. Thank you, Spence! I’m glad you’re enjoying the scoring sheet. Be sure to share it with your friends, and let them know that they can download it free from this blog. Enjoy learning, and happy wine tasting!

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