The Feat of Sémillon

Monday, 29 May 2017 09:13

There used to be over 30,000 hectares under vine in Chile. There’s less than a thousand today. Yet, a handful of wineries are committed to rescuing this variety from oblivion so that it can reclaim its rightful glory among the heritage cultivars on which the character and identity of Chile’s winegrowing tradition was built.

In French, this word is accented on the first syllable: Sémillon! With an area under vine exceeding 20,000 hectares, most of them in Bordeaux, this variety deserves to be called by its name. Not only because it is a prevalent variety, but because of its deliciously fruity, creamy character. So, there. Sémillon it is. Sémillon is multi-faceted. Sometimes it is blended with Sauvignon Blanc to produce some of the best dry whites from France like Château Haut-Brion Blanc and La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc; in other cases, it is an essential component of some of the world’s best sweet wines, like the traditional wines from Sauternes and Barsac, where its usual partner Sauvignon Blanc is joined by a dash of Muscadelle.

In Australia, the country with the second largest area under vine in the world, Sémillon is a one-hundred-year-old institution. In Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, Sémillon develops a fresh, light, and outspoken personality. In other valleys, like Barossa, it expresses remarkable fruitiness and an all-embracing texture. In more continental climate, in line wit the Sauternes tradition, Sémillon contributes to the making of epic sweet wines, like my all-time favorite from the New World: De Bartoli’s Noble One. The “Sem-Sav” style (Sémillon/Sauvignon Blanc) enjoys tremendous popularity and not only among wine-savvy consumers, as it is regrettably the case almost elsewhere.

In Chile, South Africa, the U.S., and Argentina, Sémillon was one of the most prevalent and consumed white varieties until it lost ground to the “more commercial” Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. In our valleys, its downfall has been apocalyptic. In the 1960s, the area under vine was 30,000 hectares. Today, according to the figures managed by Agricultural and Livestock Agency –SAG–, we barely have 958 hectares. I believe we can dispense with euphemisms here. It was mass extermination.

UNITED WE STAND

Juan José Bouchon, general manager of J. Bouchon, told us that it took them a while to grasp the potential of their old Sémillon vineyards. “We had a Sauvignon Blanc – Sémillon blend, but we didn’t push it hard enough. It went barely unnoticed for a long while. With Las Mercedes Sémillon 2014, sourced from lot 1 in Batuco, we started to realize that we had an amazing wine in our hands. At the time, there was no other winery bottling Sémillon, so it was a golden opportunity to stand out,” he explained.

Today, J. Bouchon leads a small group of wineries that are striving to recover and add value to this old winemaking tradition. “Little or nothing at all was being done with Sémillon. How come? Vigno had already succeeded in reclaiming Carignan. We really needed to get together and do something. This was not meant to be a one-man show, so we invited other wineries to join our effort. Each winery has its own style of Sémillon and we seek to promote that diversity,” Juan José Bouchon explained after the second annual seminar called “Sémillon Day,” in which the winemakers of J. Bouchon, J.A. Jofré, Aresti, Carmen, and Casas del Toqui participated.

Juan Alejandro Jofré, owner and winemaker of J.A. Jofré had a different reacquaintance experience with Sémillon. He needed a white wine for his Vinos Fríos del Año three-variety line. Honoring his innovative style, he was looking for a variety that would stand out from the rest of the Sauvignon Blancs produced in Chile. One day in 2014, he was at the top of the Verde hill in the Itata valley watching the ancient Muscat vines that spread as far as the horizon. It was then that he felt that it wasn’t his thing. That he needed to focus on his family’s home valley, where he could find his own identity.

Eventually, he found three hectares of Sémillon in the Romeral area, towards the Andean foothills in Curicó, that were only spared because the former owner did not manage to finish uprooting. Those ancient vines produce the grapes used in J.A. Jofré Vinos Fríos Blanco, a co-fermentation of Sémillon and Sauvignon Vert (another variety looked down upon by history) aged on its lees for 5 months. “They had already uprooted the center row, when I got there. Just in time. The producer believed in my project and we agreed on a long-term deal. Sémillon is a variety that needs to be reclaimed, but I focus on the wine itself. I don’t care if it is aged on its skins or following the Sauvignon style. What matters to me is the character. It has to be an interesting wine,” he explained.

This recovery adventure is already bearing fruit on the commercial front and proving that success does not come from selling more of the same, but from penetrating other niches, standing out, and offering a wider selection. Just an example. Las Mercedes Singular, with an annual production of 1,500 cases in 2017, is almost sold out at USD 60 FOB/a case. “Everybody is after our Sémillon, plain and simple. We had a rough start, but when you do things right, results eventually come along. Ours is a wine intended for a specific niche, but it can be sold for a very good price. It can outsell the Sauvignon Blanc from Leyda,” Juan José Bouchon affirms. Building on that approach, the winery is already producing three Sémillon labels: Las Mercedes, Las Mercedes Singular, and Granito. They are also about to launch Skin, a Sémillon, País, and Sauvignon Blanc blend aged for a year on its skins in clay vats.

Juan Alejandro Jofré believes that not only differentiation is important, but also consistent quality. “Selling a Chilean wine for a good price can be challenging, but I have done very well with Sémillon. This year I’m aiming at selling 800 cases for USD 90 FOB/a case. I have no idea what the ceiling will be. It is a wine for a specific niche, so I can’t just double my production from one year to the next. That’s not happening. On top of everything, I don’t have the kind of resources other wineries have. I have to move slowly. For me, this is more than just business. It’s a life-time plan.

Their “Chilean Sémillon Sessions” proved very successful at Descorchados in New York and joint activities are also planned for the UK and China. With the support of ProChile, this group of wineries is organizing a seminar led by British MW Richard Hemming to promote their own Sémillon offerings and a selection of wines from Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and France. They know what they have to do, no doubt about it. Collaborative work is their strength and their message will be loud and clear: diversity, recovery of a heritage variety, and most of all excellent wines.