Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Sémillon

35-Semillon-grapesThe Soundbyte:  Sémillon is a golden-skinned white wine grape known primarily for its close association with Sauvignon Blanc, as in the Sauvignon/Sémillon blends of White Bordeaux and its many imitators worldwide.  Sémillon is increasingly seen as a stand-alone varietal, particularly in the Hunter Valley Region of Australia, where it seems to have found its “second home.”  Sémillon has a well-documented susceptibility to Botrytis, and is often made into dessert wines.  It is the most widely planted white wine grape in Bordeaux, particularly in Sauternes.  Fans of Sémillon like to brag that the most famous dessert wine of all, Château d’Yquem, is 80% Sémillon.

Typical Attributes of a Sémillon Based Wine:

  • The grapes are hardy in the vineyard and relatively easy to culitivate.  They are fairly resistant to disease, but as luck would have it, are quite susceptible to Botrytis.
  • Sémillon tends to have moderate acidity, which is most likely why it became the world’s best blending partner for Sauvignon Blanc, which tends to scream with acidity.
  • Sémillon tends to have good extract, and a rich, “oily” texture or weight,  sometimes referred to as  “waxy”.
  • Varietal wines tend to have medium to high levels of alcohol.
  • Sémillon tends to be low on aromatics when made into a varietal, which is another reason why it does so well with the intensely aromatic Sauvignon Blanc. 
  • It has been described as rather “bland” in its youth, but is one of the rare white wines that can transform with age.  Older versions can take on a hazelnut, toasty richness. Oak aging also helps create a more complex wine, and, along with  malolactic fermentation can encourage aromas of butter, cream, vanilla and smoke.
  • An interesting wine-tasting term that is often used to describe Sémillon is “lanolin,” which is actually a substance found in wool and used in cosmetics (!).  In “WineSpeak” the term refers to a smooth, creamy impression that might be considered to opposite of “tart” or “sharp”. 

semillon bottlesTypical Aromas of a Semillon Based Wine:

Fruity:  Apple, Pear,  Lemon, Nectarine, Grapefruit, Melon, Fig, Date  

Spicy:  Saffron, Vanilla, Dried Herb

Vegetal:  Green Grass, Asparagus, Bell Pepper 

Botrytis Affected Versions:  Apricot, Dried Apricot, Quince, Peach, Honey, Pineapple, Vanilla, Butterscotch, Curry

Oaked Versions:  Vanilla, Sweet Wood, Toast, Smoke, Oak, Coconut

Where The Best Sémillon is Grown:

  • The Southwest of France, particularly Bordeaux, where it most likley has its native home.  Sémillon is the most widely planted white grape in Bordeaux, particularly in Sauternes where it may claim up to 80% of the vineyard property.  Of course, it shares the white Bordeaux blend with Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes a dash of Muscadelle, so it has remained somewhat out of the spotlight. But be sure…Sémillon rules the white Bordeaux world.
  • Australia’s Hunter Valley, which has become Sémillon’s adopted home in much the same way that Malbec has taken to Mendoza. Hunter Valley is well-known for being a leading producer of 100% varietal Sémillon.
  • In other parts of Australia, Sémillon is used as a blending partner for Chardonnay as well as in Bordeaux-inspired Sémillon-Sauvignon Blends.
  • The Côtes de Gascogne, a Vin de Pays produced in the Armagnac region, is heavily planted to Sémillon.
  • The Loire Valley has a smattering of Sémillon, as does Portugal, Israel, Argentina, Chile, California, Washington State, New Zealand, and South Africa.

semillonFood Affinities – Base Ingredients:

  • Roast Chicken with Herbs!
  • Seafood of all kinds…try Classic French Steamed Mussels
  • Poultry, Duck, Veal, Pork…

Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

  • Corn, Pumpkin, Squash, Polenta
  • Coconut, Apples, Pears, Pineapple
  • Nutmeg, Saffron
  • Hazelnuts, Cashews, Walnuts, Pecans
  • Bacon, Mushrooms, Sweet Onions, Garlic
  • Lemon and Grapefruit make excellent flavor bridges, but try not to overdo it on the acidity (remember, this is a low-acid wine)
  • Tarragon, Basil, Thyme, Lemongrass, Basil, Rosemary, Fresh herbs of all kinds 
  • Butter, Brown Butter, Cream, Sour Cream, Olive Oil

If your Sémillon-based wine is more “Sauvignon” than “Sémillon” – check out the food pairing advice on the Cheat Sheet for Sauvignon Blanc.

If your Sémillon is botrytis-affected, well…I promise to post a Sauternes version of “Perfect Pairings” soon!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” of Austin, Texas

missjane@prodigy.net

 

 

Wine Grape Cheat Sheets: Gewürztraminer

The Soundbyte:  Simply stated, Gewürztraminer is an enigma.  It is the one wine you either love or hate.  The wine has a tendency to have a flavor quite different than what is expected from its rather forward floral, fruit, and spicy aromas; and your first sip can be quite a “shock” to the palate, to say the least! This is not to say its not a delightful wine; it can be a delicious wine indeed, and in my opinion a fantastic partner for many otherwise hard-to-pair foods. 

The French region of Alsace has seen the most success with Gewürtraminer, and the name is obviously German, but the grape’s history began in Italy, somewhere in the Tyrollean Alps, near the village of Tramin in Alto Adige.  Like many grapes, Gewürztraminer tends to mutate based in its surroundings, so the grapes themselves may be golden yellow, light pink, or even pinkish-brown and spotted.  It also tends to be a difficult vine in the vineyard, being quite susceptible to poor fruit set, frost damage,and certain viral diseases.  However, the grapes, with their thick skins and blotchy colors, can attain very high sugar concentrations and those amazing aromas, which can lead to some pretty interesting wines!

Typical Attributes of a Gewürztraminer Based Wine:

  • The one thing that cannot be denied about Gewürtraminer is its spectacular fragrance.  Be prepared for a waft of rose petals, exotic fruits, and spicy perfume aromas that seem to leap out of the glass. 
  • Gewürztraminer’s Lychee aroma is legendary. It has even been reported that Gewürztramier and Lychee share a common chemical structure responsible for the aroma. If you’ve never sniffed a lychee, go grab a can from your neighborhood grocer’s Asian Foods section and prepare to be amazed!
  • Gewürztraminer is made in many styles, from bone dry to very sweet.
  • Guard your palate, and brace yourself.  Even in dry styles of the wine, Gewürztraminer’s aromas smell sweet, but the flavor can hit the palate with a bombshell of dry spice and perfume.  I’ve often compared it to eating pure ground cinnamon.  Not entirely bad, but kind of weird if you were expecting cinnamon cookies.
  • Gewürtraminer tends to be low-acid, which can be problematic in some of the sweeter wines.  However, at the same time the wine tends to have a bit of bitterness to it.  This can lend a needed balance to a low-acid wine, especially those of the off-dry or sweet styles. However, when pairing the wine with food, remember that acidity and bitterness react to food pairings in very different ways.
  • The amazing ability of Gewürztraminer to attain high sugar levels means that dry versions of the wine can be misleadingly high in alcohol…this is a wine to watch out for!
  • Sweet versions of Gewürtraminer are made from late harvest grapes and botrytis-affected grapes.  In Alsace, these wines might be called “VendagesTardives”or “Sélection de Grains Nobles.” 
  • Gewurz also makes a very nice ice wine is made as well.

 Typical Aromas of a Gewürztraminer Based Wine:

Fruity:  Pear, Lychee, Peach, Apricot, Guava, Pineapple, Passion Fruit, Mango, Grapefruit, Sultana (Golden Raisin)

Floral:  Roses, Rose Petal, Gardenia, Carnation, Jasmine, Honeysuckle, Honey, Perfume

Spicy:  Ginger, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, White Pepper, Allspice, Clove

Strange but True:  Coconut, Pond’s Cold Cream, Cheap Rose Perfume, Nivea Cream, “Cosmetics,” “Old Lady Perfume” (don’t try to deny it), Church Incense, Petroleum, Turpentine, Diesel, Gasoline.

Where The Best Gewürztraminer is Grown:

  • The Alsace region of France, which  many people consider to be the place where Gewurztraminer finds its “perfect expression”.  (By the way, in the French language there is no “ü” in Gewurz, so don’t let anybody tell you it is spelled wrong!)  In Alsace, Gewurztraminer accounts for about 20% of the vineyards, making it the second-most planted grape of the region.  Riesling, the number one grape, accounts for 23% of the vineyards.
  • Austria, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Luxembourg and many of the smaller wine producers of Eastern Europe also grow Gewürztraminer, but it may be going by any one of the following aliases:  Roter Traminer, Drumin, Pinat Cervena, Livora, Tramini, Mala Dinka, among others.
  • True to its history, the grape is still grown in the Trentino/Alto Adige areas in Italy. 
  • Areas of Canada, such as Vancouver Island, The Okanagan Valley, and Ontario, as well as New York’s Finger Lakes and Long Island Wine Country. 
  • The Cooler regions of Australia and New Zealand  
  • California grew Gewurztraminer back in the 1870’s; a well-regarded version was produced by Charles Krug in Napa and Jacob Gundlach in Sonoma.  These days, the cooler regions of California, including Mendocino County, Monterey County and Sonoma, also do quite well with small plantings of the grape.

 Food Affinities – Base Ingredients:

Crab, Mussels, Shrimp, Salmon, Smoked Salmon, Sushi, Tuna, Sturdier Fish

Smoked Food  

Pungent Cheeses, Smoked Cheeses (Roquefort, Muenster, and Gouda among the favorites)

Chicken, Turkey, Duck

Liver, Chicken Liver, Foie Gras

Just about anything made with Pork

Salami, Paté, Bacon, Pancetta, just about any type of Charcuterie

 Food Affinities – Bridge Ingredients:

  • Tropical Fruits, Orange, Lychee
  • Ginger, Fennel Seed, Cinnamon, Clove
  • Onions, Garlic
  • Smoked Gouda, Smoked Mozzarella
  • Asian Flavors, Curry, Spicy foods
  • It seems that the pungency of many foods actually cuts the pungency of Gewurz, which does not always happen in the food-and-wine world but this is a great example of a “flavor bridge” being a good thing!
  • French Onion Soup and Gewurz is one of the best food pairings on earth! Click here for My Favorite French Onion Soup Recipe.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” of Austin, Texas

missjane@prodigy.net