It’s been pretty definitively established that so-called “red semillon” is … red semillon. It doesn’t clear up all the mystery around it, but it’s good to know. You might recall that a few months ago I described the old West Coast vineyards that included vines of the variety that would have generally been called “greengrape” a century back – a variety that included both white and red (red, that is, as opposed to black) grapes.
Perhaps the less important part of the follow-up news is that L’Ormarins viticulturist Rosa Kruger sent samples of both the red and white vines over to France to have DNA testing done, to just check that the offical South African position is, in fact, backed up (DNA testing has revealed some surprises in recent decades). But it did: both samples matched the standard semillon pattern.
Quite by chance (some people like to call it serendipity) I recently came across perhaps the moment when the identification was first recorded. The viticulturist J P de Waal, who’d been manager of state-owned Groot Constantia, did some travelling around the winelands of the world towards the end of the nineteenth century, and in Bordeaux he realised that the grape he knew from the Cape Colony as greengrape looked remarkably similar to semillon. He’d meanwhile written a chapter on viticulture for a book called Cape Colony for the Settler, giving guidance to prospective new farmers, in which he’d mentioned that greengrape was “most likely Weisser Elbling of Germany and Vert doux or Gouais blanc”. But a different chapter of the same book records de Waal’s discovery in Bordeaux, and also, sadly, tells of his death soon thereafter.
So now, modern science confirms de Waal’s acute observation.
An intriguing question remains: has this red mutation of semillon happened elsewhere in the world? I’d never heard of it (though I’d read somewhere that Australia had also had some – but that would probably have been through importsd from the Cape). I asked British guru Jancis Robinson, who knows a thing or two about vines and about the world of wine, and she put me in touch with a noted grapevine authority, José Vouillamoz. Dr Vouillamoz didn’t know much about this, but found that the Vitis International Variety Catalogue (probably his bedside reading, but not mine) lists a Sémillon Rose, available at three grape collections: two in France, and one at Nietvoorbij in Stellenbosch. He says “I could not determine whether the mutation occurred in SA only or also elsewhere. Both French accessions could indeed represent imports from the Cape, but I could not find more details.” So nothing definitive yet – and maybe there never will be.
But, intriguingly, Dr V did come across an interesting wine made by Château Brethous in South-West France, claiming to be made from: Sémillon Blanc 40%; Sémillon Rose
30%; Sémillon Gris 30%.
And the wine
The other important (more important?) follow-up news is that Eben Sadie has made wine – various wines, in fact – from those obscure West Coast vineyards. Together with a few other wines from old vineyards (including the chenin already known as Mrs Kirsten’s Old Vines) they will be released in a six-bottle collection. The fundamental aim of the project will be to help save some of these very old (by local standards) vineyards, as part of the Cape’s heritage. Don’t expect the wines to be cheap: the input costs are enormous, something that not everyone realised when commenting on the high price of the Mrs Kirsten wine – an unusually small percentage of which was profit. And quantities will be tiny. I’m willing to take a bet that this will be the hottest six-pack in the Cape. Especially as there’s going to be something very special happening for the labels of the wines too – but that’s a story for a later date.
Unfortunately there was not enough of the red-grape material on the particular Skurfberg vineyard (in the pic) to harvest for separate vinification, so that – just as in the good old, bad old days – the red and the white semillon were vinified together. I haven’t sampled the result, but Eben swears that it’s the best white wine he’s ever made.