The interesting pleasures of semillon

In 350 years of South African winemaking, no grape has played a more remarkable role than semillon – although it’s a white-wine variety that many modern winedrinkers will be unfamiliar with, and its story is unknown to most of those few who make the stuff.

Around a century ago, following the British takeover of the Cape and the opening of new markets, the colony’s viticulture was undergoing a major, rapid expansion, and most of the new plantings were being made with what was called ‘green-grape’ (groendruif in Dutch/Afrikaans). The name referred to the bright foliage rather than to the grape – which, in fact, increasingly also occurred in a light red mutation possibly unique to the Cape.

So single-minded were the wine-farmers that by around 1825 over 90 percent of vines in the Cape were of this variety.  Not surprisingly, in the light of such ubiquity, it was often known simply as wijndruif, ‘wine-grape’. [My article “Red Semillon: Return of the Wine Grape”, published in World of Fine Wine can be accessed here.]

The proportion had dwindled by the end of the century. It still occupied over half of the national vineyard, however, when the viticulturist of Groot Constantia realised, when visiting France, that groendruif was the same as sémillon, the variety that played a major role in the famous dry and sweet wines of the Sauternes area of Bordeaux. (In South Africa the name has now generally lost the accent on the e, but retains the French pronounciation: semi-yon.)

Semillon’s decline continued, and now it accounts for just one percent or so of vines here. But they produce some truly excellent wines, made in both dry and sweet styles. The best tend to sell for about the same price as ambitious chardonnays

One of the variety’s finest roles is as a blending partner with sauvignon blanc. It’s a marriage made in vinicultural heaven, and many wines labelled Sauvignon Blanc include an undeclared semillon component to give them a little extra weight – Klein Constantia and Chamonix, for example. There are also a growing number of grand blends modelled on those of Bordeaux, containing various proportions of the two. Vergelegen was the pioneer ten years back, and Cape Point Vineyards, Constantia Uitsig and Steenberg are now also amongst the leading producers of fine – and expensive – examples.

The Constantia area also makes good varietal Semillons, generally in a powerful, “greenish” mode, and one of my favourite wines from the variety is from Cederberg – actually in the Ghost Corner range from their Elim vineyards, with an even finer version a serial item on the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction: poised, elegant and restrained, it is surely destined to age beautifully in bottle, though I actually have never tasted anything older than the current vintage.

I was recently reminded, though, at a tasting in Franschhoek, of just how superb the semillons from that other lovely valley can be. Glenwood Vigneron’s Selection 2009 has a little vanilla amongst its aromas, revealing the new oak with which it was lavished, but is well balanced, with a soft, lemony finish. Boekenoutskloof Semillon 2008, also a touch oaky, actually incorporates a little sauvignon to heighten its freshness. Judging by its track record, this wine will gain complexity for at least five years in the bottle.

Best of all, for me, of the Franschhoek semillons is Landau du Val. Fittingly so, as it comes off one of the oldest vineyards in the country – 25 years older than its 80-year-old owner, as the remarkably spry Basil Landau enjoys pointing out. (That’s Basil, standing among his old vines, in the pic.) A serene and lovely wine, with classic notes of lemon, lanolin and wax; easy, graceful and deliciously satisfying alone or with food. The forcefulness of those of those low-yielding, ancient vines shows only in the wine’s long-echoing mild intensity. We must hope that this vineyard will continue to produce a separately bottled wine.

That it does so (I’d guess not very remuneratively) is thanks not only to Basil Landau, but also Boekenhoutskloof’s Marc Kent. Basil told me that a few years back, when he needed to find another cellar in which to make the wine if it was to continue, he suggested to Marc that Boekenhoutskloof should take over the vineyard entirely, and use the grapes for that cellar’s version. That could only have been to Boekenhoutskloof’s advantage – but Marc very generously, and showing great respect for the old vineyard and its reputation, suggested rather that Landau du Val must continue to be made as a separate wine, and offered space in the Boekenhoutskloof winery for it to be made.

So that is where the charming Anina Guelpa makes, with her light and elegant hand, this wine. It is something like a national treasure. Along with the 1908 Muscadel from Rietvallei, and now one or two of the wines in the Sadie Family’s Ouwingerdreeks, it represents the oldest vineyards in the country, and is a vital link with a winemaking history that we need to incorporate into our present and future.

 

An extended version of the article published in the Mail & Guardian, 17 September 2010

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