A different sort of semillon

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In every respect save one, Semillons from Washington State are as unlike Australian Hunter Semillons as identical genes allow. The one similarity? Longevity.

Washington is well on the other side of the equator from New South Wales, and far on the other side of the International Dateline from it. Coming from different quadrispheres hardly begins to promise the degree of separation between the wines from these two places.

All 600 acres of Washington's Semillon grow in dry to semi-desertous country where deep basaltic sand is the commonest soil type, where summer is reliably hot but short and winter is episodically cold enough to kill grapevines.

The wines that come from those conditions have a decided bite rather than an opulent richness of texture. Even as the best of these wines have hit the 20-year mark, they remain not just lean, but racy.

Those from the coolest spots (around Prosser and Grandview, in the Yakima Valley, if you have a map) have flavors in the realm of leaves and stalks more than fruits. Too much canopy, and the wine can taste exactly like fresh green beans - haricots verts. Get rid of some of the shade and they can be faintly remindful of fresh-cut, raw potato. Open the clusters to sunshine even more, and you might, just might, get a citrusy or lemony overtone. Mostly, though, expect something akin to an uncommonly juicy herb.

Warmer zones (close to Pasco, near where the Yakima River joins the Columbia) give honeyed citrus. People sometimes say fig, but it is a knee-jerk reaction. Fig is a fiction in Washington Semillon.

As descriptions of texture suggest, getting the acidity to drop in cool-zone grapes can be problematic, even in middling warm years. Malo-lactic is sometimes useful in wines from warmer vineyards.

In the circumstance, a majority of Washington winemakers like to take fruit from both warmer and cooler vineyards. In a blend, the warm-zone portion gives ripe, honeyed flavors and as much lushness of texture as Washington is going to permit; the cool-zone contribution is a complicating hint of some unnameable herb and the bracing structure that permits long life. The flavors are intense enough and deep enough that oak can play, but is not required to produce an intriguing wine.

Four to five years in bottle begins to produce the beginnings of bouquet in wines made to run a long course.

Devoted admirers of Hunter Valley Semillons will not be impressed with a Washington counterpart lasting 20 years in good form. However, a short history means there are no older wines in hand, and the 20-year-olds still taste fresh enough to suppose they will go on for a good while yet.

Names to watch for: Chateau Ste. Michelle Semillon, Chinook Winery Semillon, Columbia Crest Semillon, Columbia Winery Semillon, Columbia Winery Reserve Semillon Sur Lies, The Hogue Cellars Semillon.


First published on Winepros Archive 17 April 2000


  • Hunter Valley (NSW)
  • USA - all (US)

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April 17th, 2000
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