Monday, April 23, 2007

Semillon: Plain Jane or Belle of the Ball

Tonight’s wine tasting gives new meaning to the word “contrast.” On the table are two wines from Down Under: a Parri Estate and a Noble One Botrytis Semillon from De Bortoli. Both wines are 2004 vintages, both are 100% Semillon, and that’s about where the similarity ends.

First up is the Parri Estate (shown at the right with a magnificent gum tree in the foreground).

According to the Parri website, this wine has citrus, gooseberry, and grass aromas. One whiff is all it takes to get the citrus. One sip and Frank face contorts into that lip-puckering expression usually reserved for the big, fat, tannic-laden Shiraz wines I’m so fond of. “High acidity – yup, we’ve got that.” He grabs the bottle to read the label. “Well structured, the palate is driven with whips and chains and wooden sticks by fresh citrus.”

I’m still trying to figure out why it reminds me of Riesling, so it takes a minute before I catch his ever so slightly embellished commentary regarding the whips and chains. “But that said,” Frank carries on still absolutely deadpan, “it would be a great wine paired with the right foods – like those tiger prawns with chili sauce at Joe Forte’s or a seafood salad.”

Following our usual tradition, the next thirty minutes are consumed with cross checking all possible references we can find among the ever-expanding library of reference books. (Although we do take a few minutes to check out the photos of hand picking grapes at the Parri Estates - shown at the left)

“In most of the vineyards Semillon sits around sullenly like an overweight schoolgirl, showing awkward fatness or just plain dullness in the wine it produces. In odd places though, as if under the spell of a fairy godmother, it can be transformed into a raving beauty,” says Jancis Robinson in Vines, Grapes, and Wines.

According to Oz Clark in his classic Oz Clark’s Encyclopedia of Grapes, Semillon is “a grape that doesn’t like to do it the normal way. It will grow just about anywhere and reckless produce gigantic crops of grapes that taste of …? er, nothing really.” He adds that winemaker Michael Hill Smith succinctly describes the flavour of unoaked Hunter Valley Semillon as “battery acid.”

However, we also discover that in Argentina, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are frequently blended and sold under the guise of being Riesling. Ah ha! I feel vindicated. Apparently the combination of 50% wild yeast with 50% Alsace yeast contributes to the Riesling illusion in this particular wine.

We agree the Parri Estate Semillon is a wine that begs for food. Perhaps buttery, fatty oysters which, alas, are not to be found at this hour of the evening. We try it with prosciutto (a good match) and a slice of parmesan (disaster – don’t even think about trying this combination).

This wine should also come with a big warning label: Do Not Serve Too Cold! As it warmed, the nose became more complex, the taste less overwhelmingly acidic. The finish is definitely longish on the mid-palate, but this is not high on our list of sipping wines. And the slight fizz that seemed to last for the entire hour we spent with it was somewhat distracting although we believe it was more a quirk of the wine than an actual fault.

As Frank pops the cork – yes, that’s real cork – on the De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon, we both suppress a sigh of anticipation. “I just love noble rot wines,” he says as fragrances of apricot, nectarine, and peaches float out of the bottle filling our nostrils.

We don’t talk much for about 15 minutes – this is simply too delicious to interrupt with words. Frank’s descriptor is finally “an angular schoolmarm who’s been softened up with Botrytis.” I prefer to think of it as “a Chippendale in a bow tie and nothing else.” And if both are both sexist descriptions – who cares? Certainly we don’t.

We spend a few minutes attempting to find the perfect musical pairing – Etta James doesn’t work, nor does Edith Piaf. Ray Charles and Diana Krall’s duet, You Don’t Know Me, is close. Eventually, we settle on Nat King Cole.

The finish is still lingering on our palates after an hour as the word “heavenly” comes to mind. The contrast between this and our previous selection is astonishing. I would have never batted an eye if Frank had simply poured and told me it was a French Sauterne. Luscious, rich, full, the sugar lingers on the lips but not on the palate.

Later, with a bit of investigation, we find out that the vintage filling our glasses has accumulating over 320 Gold Medals, 98 Trophies, and 95 International Awards including being named a three-time winner of the International Wine and Spirit Competition for Best Botrytis Wine. No question this is one Semillon that definitely qualifies as a ravishing beauty under the spell of a fairy godmother.

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