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Semillon lost in the name game


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“Pinot Riesling doesn’t mean very much at all.

“Chardonnay’s not Pinot Chardonnay and I don’t think Riesling in the context of Pinot Riesling means very much. I mean Riesling is Semillon and Pinot is Chardonnay, and we have more Semillon in the wine than Chardonnay, so it should be Semillon Chardonnay.”

It was 1983, and that was Mark Cashmore’s response to my question about why he’d changed the proprietorial brand name of his Richmond Grove Hunter Valley Pinot Riesling blend to Semillon Chardonnay without any change to the wine’s actual composition.

Although that answer may not have provided Mark’s burgeoning Richmond Grove with much instant market leverage, it was an attempt to clear some of the bullshit that choked the Sydney wine market of the day. At that stage, Sydney’s most popular white wine was called Traminer Riesling, when in fact most of it was actually a blend of any one of the so-called muscat family with Semillon, the premium white variety of Bordeaux.

Semillon, the wine grocers say, is too hard to sell because of its name, which they claim is too difficult for Australians to pronounce. It doesn’t end in O, for starters. If we listen to the purveyors of the new tribe of immigrant varieties that end in O, you could be forgiven for thinking the market finds them fairly easy to pronounce and therefore accept, regardless of their actual difficulty or style. I’d love to see some scientific research into consumer reactions to, say, Semillon versus Zemio or even Ze Million, million being a word not much of Australia had difficulty pronouncing.

If you blur your ears in Bordeaux, you may think the proper pronunciation of Semillon is actually ze million.

This O thing is not confined to grape varieties. Look at the way even newsreaders mispronounce the peninsula Captain Nicolas Baudin named after the sponsor of his expedition, Charles Pierre Claret, the Comte de Fleurieu. Perhaps it’s just the bogan in us, but somehow we find floo-ree-oh easier to say than fler-ree-er.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that any grape variety that ended in ay as in eh not aye was like excellent. Like Chardonnay and Cabernet. Indeed, it you go back a little longer to the days of South Australian wine pioneer Sir Samuel Davenport, and consult his imposing ampelography in the State Library, you’ll find the page called Chardonet. An ampelography is a scientific compendium of grape varieties, and this Family Bible-sized volume was given to the energetic migrating investor by, I think, the professor of viticulture at Dijon. So given the unlikelihood of Australians being able to properly pronounce any foreign word, it’s a wonder really that we didn’t end up pronouncing the hard t in the end, not just of Cabernet, but also in Chardonet.

I suspect Davenport, just by the way, was the first grower of Chardonnay in this colony, and I reckon he grew it at Macclesfield, but cannot yet find secure proof, which is a fair enough disclaimer to cast over many of the unproven suppositions I make here.

Beneath its entry in his ampelography, Davenport has scrawled in pencil his belief that Chardonet would become “the variety” in the new colony.

While it took an extra 150 years for Chardonnay to actually dominate the South Australian vignoble, it looked for a very long time that Semillon, the premium white grape of Bordeaux, would fill that leading role, and perhaps it did, but under many names.

In the very early days, the grand men of the South Australia Company called a meeting in the parliament at which they agreed that they needed more white varieties. They passed the hat, filled it with funds, and sent Captain Charles Sturt to South Africa to buy some. He returned with some 60,000 cuttings, neatly bundled into different varieties. But South Africa’s vignoble at that stage grew overwhelmingly Semillon, which they happened to call Greengrape, so it’s likely that Sturt’s collection was, in reality, many different clones of the same variety: Semillon.

It’s confounding to try to track down this stuff, but it appears that in the Barossa they called Semillon Clare Riesling, while in Clare Crouchen was called Clare Riesling. This may be due to the fact that when it was introduced, the Clare vignerons thought Crouchen was Semillon. By that stage, Hunter Valley vignerons were accustomed to calling Semillon Hunter riesling, Hunter River riesling, Shepherd’s riesling or Shepherd’s white.

To make everything easier, the pioneering vignerons of Western Australia were calling Chenin blanc Hunter River riesling. They’d probably also got their cuttings from South Africa, where Chenin blanc  gradually became prolific under the name of Steen.

South Australia was also guilty of planting true Riesling as Semillon. But it had various names for the actual Semillon, like Madeira and Sercial, indicating that some of the cuttings may have come from Madeira, which was a popular port of call for early vessels travelling south through the Atlantic.

Madeira is certainly the source of most of Australia’s Verdelho. We think, too, that what early vignerons called the Madeira and Sercial varieties are what the Barossa now calls Red semi, or Red zemillon by those old Deutschers who refer to the place where dishes are washed as the zink.

Like the Pinot family, which includes grey and white types, Semillon also has pink to reddish forms. In Rutherglen, one of these was called Barnawartha pinot. I suspect that the grape the Hunter called Verdielhao, with or without the i or the a, was actually the same as these reddish Semillons, but I don’t think there’s any of the old bushvine Verdielhao left there among the coalmines of the beleaguered Hunter.  The Barossa’s Red semi – actually a pinkish grey – is a favourite of mine, producing wine of great structure and rigidity, with acid that keeps it true to form for many years in bottle.

Which is what made Semillon so popular in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. Picked early, before the onset of the moulds brought by destructive vintage rains in that sub-tropical environment, Semillon held an acidity that could see the wine through years of thick or thin.

Given the right amount of that added preservative, sulphur, the Hunter also sold its Hunter Riesling  as Hunter Burgundy (less sulphur) and Hunter Chablis (more sulphur).

I’m sure that’s cleared everything up for you. I shall write more about Semillon soon. It’s time we took it a lot more seriously.

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