Response to “Celebrating Sémillon”

By Jesse on May 2, 2008

I talked this one up big time, I know it, and I’m happy to report that we found some winners.  That said, there were also a few losers (and more than a couple bottles that fell somewhere in between).  So… basically just your typical night with the Young Winos.  Go figure.

First up was the 2006 L’Ecole No. 41 Sémillon (Columbia Valley), the previous vintage of which Dr. Debs really enjoyed a year ago.  Jason called the nose “very fragrant” and got some honeycomb, some oak — and some funk.  Newbie Tim got lemon, and newbie Palmer got “lemon-infused vodka.”  Not to be outdone, newbie Sara got Golden Grahams.  The palate was round and broad, with very little acidity.  In what would prove to be a repeated observation that night, Jessica claimed the palate had “some kind of waxy consistency.”  Tim referred to some “Honey-Nut Cheerios mouth-coating action,” and Sarah Warner got “Meyer lemon.”  Jason complained that it was “flabby,” with “a big setup and no delivery,” and consensus seemed to favor his claim: no one (save me and Jen) were intrigued enough to drop the $18 on a second bottle.

Next up were two Hunter Valley Sémillons, which was of particular interest to me after having read that Matt Kramer piece (can’t link to it, unfortunately, because Wine Spectator is living in the stone age and doesn’t realize that posting your articles for free online does not mean people will stop buying the actual magazine).  The one thing I will take the time to copy by hand, though, is an observation that would prove central to our tasting experience that night.  “Hunter Valley Sémillon is so low-profile it might be called Australia’s ‘stealth white,'” Kramer writes.  “One reason why is that when you taste a young Hunter Valley Sémillon, you’re not bowled over.  It’s tight, austere, devoid of oak, and tart.”

The 2006 De Bortoli Sémillon (Hunter Valley) had a nose variously described as “Champagne,” “burnt rubber,” and “opening the vacuum bag.”  I also got some lemon, Brittney got kiwi, Tim got “barnyard,” and Emily, dependably, got Mai Tai.  My Australian co-worker Kelly was hoping for fireworks on the palate, as this bottle was the third attempt on her part to get a real Hunter Valley Sem into the country with her (the other two had been confiscated at customs).  Unfortunately, she wound up resenting her efforts: like Kramer’s article had warned us, there just wasn’t much there.  “It’s all citrus, but no acidity!” marveled Jason.  “It’s a grapefruit,” complained Mary.  I got a tiny bit of acidity, but not much — nothing in the way of structure to support and highlight the faint citrussy flavors.  Maybe in five years?…

The 2004 Brokenwood Sémillon (Hunter Valley) had the benefit of a couple more years in the bottle.  I got lime on this nose, Palmer got mint, and Mary expanded that into “mojito.”  Sarah liked the herbal character, but Jason called it “acetone” and grumbled, “this is disgusting.”  The palate didn’t do much to change his mind: he claimed it tasted “exactly like the other one.”  People threw “lemon” and “tangerine” out there, but the fruit notes were underwhelming, and that waxy character returned.  Interest in paying $12 for a second go-round on this bottle proved quite low.

Maybe a change of scenery would improve our luck.  We left Kramer behind on the east coast and opened up the 2005 Torbreck Woodcutter’s Sémillon (Barossa Valley).  I got some honey and toasted oak on the nose, Erik got grassiness, and Jason got some orange.  This one felt like it had promise, so we took a sip, and…. promise kept!  Really broad, oaky and light, but that crucial acidity we’d missed was finally present, resulting in a nice balance.  Jason described “honey and lemon” notes, and said it reminded him of Roussanne (Andrew disagreed, calling it closer to white Burgundy).  Erik appreciated the mineral elements, and Brittney applauded the long finish.  I agreed — almost butterscotchy on the back end.  Delightful, and worth the $14 investment.

Not since our Wine Blogging Wednesday run-in with that Cab Franc from the Loire have we picked up as much green pepper on a nose as we got on the 2007 Chalice Bridge Sémillon / Sauvignon Blanc (Margaret River, Western Australia).  Sarah Warner also got some cucumber (“it’s like a Greek salad”), and others got parsley.  Then, as if by osmosis, the green pepper thing totally segued into grassiness, then into guava and tropical fruit, like it was in disguise!  We were more than a little nonplussed as we took our first sip.  Palmer got some green pepper right at the beginning of the palate, but it was gone quickly.  The wine was fairly sour, with hints of honeysuckle and lemon; newbie Cathy got some radish.  Jason claimed he got “cran-lemonade,” but Andrew vehemently disagreed.  What was acceptable to all present, though, was the suggestion that most of the flavors and olfactory notes seemed to be coming from the Sauvignon Blanc, despite that varietal being in the minority; the Sémillon, we then assumed, was doing the heavy lifting and providing the wine with its solid medium body.

Next up was a wine that had me on the edge of my seat.  In the meeting announcement, I’d shared with our readers a story about my family being served a bottle of 1995 Kalin Cellars Sémillon for about $30 in a small, unassuming restaurant when we were on vacation in Kona.  At the time, I was extremely skeptical that such an experiment could end positively, but the sommelier — inspiring no confidence in his gaudy Hawaiian shirt — assured me it was worth a try… and it definitely was.  I since learned from Beau Jarvis’  insightful blog that Kalin regularly waits ten years to release their Sémillons, allowing them to reach that maturity that Matt Kramer knows and loves before they ever see a store shelf.

So, on a whim, I went on the archaic Kalin Cellars website (apparently they wait ten years to release their web content as well), and learned that the only places in LA who allegedly sell Kalin Cellars wines are Silver Lake Wines and Bristol Farms… but when I called Silver Lake, they told me “no dice,” so my hopes fell to that imposing, expensive grocery store into which I’ve actually never stepped foot.  The next day, I wandered into the Westwood location and, after briefly considering buying a pineapple for $6.50, headed for the impressive wine selection.  I glanced around, feeling despondent, and asked the small old man stocking the shelves if they carried the bottle… and, lo and behold, they did!  They had three bottles of it, which they’d just gotten in the previous week!  I happily shelled out the $29 and made off with my prize, the 1997 Kalin Cellars Sémillon (Livermore Valley), which I chilled and brought to the meeting.

The pigmentation was remarkably dark, almost a tawny gold, and looked more like a golden rum than a still white wine.  “This has got the funk,” opined Jason, and indeed it did.  Katie called it “burnt toast,” and Sara said it was “like setting a whole book of matches on fire.”  Brittney got honey, Jason got crème brûlée, and Mary and I got “marshmallow fluff” (apparently our tastes are a little more plebeian than Jason’s).  I also got cantaloupe towards the end, but in general we agreed with Beau’s allegation that this was all funk and earth, no fruit.  The palate played a similar tune: Andrew got no fruit, but enjoyed some bread crust elements and remarked, “I approve of this business.”  This was a big wine, with serious body, yet with a vibrant ribbon of acidity running thorough it.  Jason got wood and mold, and then realized it smelled like a boathouse on a lake, with that damp wood slowly rotting away.  I got some cheesy character as well, and Jason complained about that element, but Brittney offered her approval: “that’s what I like about it,” she said.  “I love the funkiness.”  The finish, she pointed out, was long and “ever-changing.”  A really interesting wine — some of us loved it, and even those who didn’t admitted that it was quite an experience.

In the difficult position of following this tough act was the 2005 Peter Lehman Sémillon (Barossa Valley).  Palmer picked up some honey lemon, and several people thought it smelled exactly like the De Bortoli and Brokenwood had.  Brittney, for her part, thought the nose was softer, but Erik disagreed, picking up “something metallic.”  Jason took a taste, and called it “a little sweeter, and less rancid” than those early examples.  Palmer got soap — “but good soap!”  Several people described that familiar waxy, lanolin texture, and most Winos present were unimpressed (Palmer was the only one in the room who concluded that the $11 had been well-spent).

Next up was an interesting cuveé, the 2007 St. Hallett “Poacher’s Blend” Sémillon / Sauvignon Blanc / Riesling (Barossa Valley), a mix of 68, 21, and 11 percent, respectively.  As with the Chalice Bridge, we found that the non-Sémillon varietals were dominating the nose: big tropical fruit, such as mango and guava, and even some honeydew melon.  Jason thought the palate followed suit: “it really tastes like a Sauvignon Blanc.”  Andrew picked up some interesting sweetness, and suggested it tasted a bit like a Muscat.  To me, it was less of that extracted orange blossom character, and more straight-up citrussy — closer to a glass of orange juice than to a Muscat.  For $12, though, pretty interesting, and a better bet than many of the budget-priced Sems we’d tried.

Finally, we moved on to the Sauternes.  Jason had found us a bottle of 2005 Chateau Doisy-Védrines (Sauternes) for about $40.  Sarah found the nose “very lush” and floral, Jason got marmalade and honey, Erik got pineapple, and I got some serious golden raisin action — fitting, I suppose, given the Botrysis involved.  The palate was delicious and well-received; Jason called it “a total steal.”  Katie got apricot marmalade, and Palmer was on board with the honey.  I called it “syrupy, without being problematically syrupy,” and lots of people agreed.  A full 750-ml bottle at this price made the Doisy a doozy of a deal.

Last, Palmer was good enough to share with us an awesome little bottle of 1982 Chateau Suduiraut (Sauternes), which was probably the oldest bottle we’ve ever tasted in a weekly Winos meeting.  The nose was musky, with what I thought was a total “aged rum” character.  Palmer referred to “heavy toast,” and Brittney got brown sugar.  Tim couldn’t decide if it was bourbon, or rum or liqueur, and someone else threw “Frangelico” out there — there was some definite smokiness to it as well.  On the palate, the wine was stately and austere.  Jason said it was “less sweet” than the last one, “and more intense.”  Tim pointed out that “all the fruit has gone to wood and nutty character.”  So had the blatant sweetness; this was much more subtle in its sweet notes, less obvious, more smoky.  Mary called it a “manly dessert wine,” which drew approval from the room.  A really terrific expression of aged Sauternes, and a great way to end our exploration of Sémillon in all its forms.


  1. Thank goodness for those Sauternes or it would have been an ugly night!

    Comment by jasonm1 — May 25, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

  2. No way man… the Woodcutter’s, the Poacher’s Blend, and the Kalin Cellars carried the day. The Sauternes were just the delicious icing on a solid cake.

    Comment by Jesse — May 26, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.