Sémillon: Rediscovering An Old Argentine Favourite
La Cantina wine cellar at Bodega Michelini i Mufatto Bodega (Michelini i Mufatto)

Buttressed by its long history in Argentina, the Sémillon white wine grape is being rediscovered by the country's wineries, despite an annual decline in the vineyard surface affecting various vines. In what is touted as a well-timed revival, oenologists are becoming more attentive to the vast potential of the Sémillon with the hopes of making it another flagship varietal in the south alongside the Malbec and Torrontes. Of the 704 hectares currently planted in Argentina, 86 per cent is found in Mendoza with the remaining 14 per cent found in another 10 provinces including La Pampa, Chubut and Buenos Aires. The launch of new Sémillon wines in recent years gives credence to the 'revivalist sentiment' being expressed in wine circles globally as, despite being mostly used as an enhancer, it finds greater footing as a varietal.

The Sémillon grape, a classic from the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, has adapted well to life in Argentina, particularly the cooler regions of Mendoza and Patagonia. Though cultivated across the world, it is rarely used to make its own wine but is instead used as a vital component in other varieties, like the Espumantes of Argentina. Its aromas and subtle flavours make it ideal for defining balance while its sensitivity to water and moisture allows it to thrive in the Argentine terroir. Sémillon wines achieve their best results in both colder climates like Patagonia, where the wine has accents of apples and earth, as well as cool, sunny areas in Mendoza where it acquires aromatic tones of white fruits and honey that give them a lively expression with good maturity and concentration.

As winemakers look for new expressions of varieties and terroirs in Mendoza, many have been rediscovering old Sémillon vines in Malbec vineyards along with several other varieties including Criolla and Bonarda. In addition to the great Sauvignon Blancs and voluminous Chardonnays produced by Argentina, the Sémillon is a strain with a long history dating back 100 years when it arrived at the same time as the Malbec, brought by engineer Miguel Amado Pouget. It became one of the most cultivated strains, forming the base for most of the white wines produced in the country at that time. By the 1970s, Sémillon was the second most planted white variety and at its peak there were over 5,500 hectares planted that were largely used for light, easy-drinking jug wines and blends.

The boom in red wine production, particularly Malbec, saw a gradual reduction in and replacement of the Sémillon, leading to the just over 700 hectares still planted today. Notwithstanding this reduction, the wines produced today from these grapes are used for strictly premium, elegant wines that retain the acidity gained from the unique Argentine terroir. Despite being ahead of its time, when the making of white wines was not trendy or very successful, the renewed interest and improvements in winemaking technology have ensured the rediscovery of the Sémillon brings forth wines that are equally fresh and vibrant that are fuller and more complex. It is a fairly easy grape to grow possessing a unique feature, a tendency to develop what is called the "noble rot" or botrytis. Once infested, it develops amazing characteristics sought by lovers of sweet wines all over the world and it is for this reason why it remains, to this day, one of the most popular and important wine grapes in France. Here are but a few of the very best Sémillon produced in Argentina:

Named 'White Wine of the Year' by Tim Atkins in his 2022 special report on Argentine wines, the 2019 Michelini I Mufatto Certezas Sémillon also scored an impressive 98 points. This tan meets gold coloured wine is produced at the Finca Manoni, a 130-year-old vineyard, located in the Tupungato region of Mendoza by Bodega Michelini I Mufatto from 100 per cent Sémillon. Aged for 12 months in French Oak, the wine expresses notes of ripe apricot, pineapple, orange sherbet, lavender, yellow wax bean, and candied ginger on the nose. In the mouth, it reflects lemon balm, pineapple, caramel, rice candy, sage, and wet clay. It is very lifted with beautifully integrated acidity, has fine minerality, fine tannins, a long, dry, salty finish, and a great texture of fine grape skins.

Bright yellow and almost golden in colour, El Enemigo Sémillon 2018 is a 100 per cent Sémillon, produced by Bodega Aleanna-El Enemigo Wines, that scored 95 points from James Suckling. The winery is founded by Catena Zapata's chief winemaker Alejandro Vigil and historian Adrianna Catena who is the daughter of famed Argentinian winemaker Nicolas Catena. The idea for the joint venture was born while both were walking back from the Argentinian Embassy in London where Nicolas had just been awarded the Decanter Man of the Year Award. After aging for 17 months in French Oak, the wine presents aromas of peach, dried-mango, lime-zest, clove and flint. In the mouth, it's medium to full-bodied with zesty acidity as well as a waxy texture that is both complex and focused with evolving layers of citrus, stone fruit, almonds and minerals.

Mattias Riccitelli Old Vines From Patagonia Sémillon 2020 is greenish yellow with golden tones and produced by Riccitelli Wines from vineyards located in the Rio Negro region of Patagonia. Made from 100 per cent Sémillon, with a 95-point score from James Suckling, this wine was aged for eight months with 50 per cent in French Oak and the remaining 50 per cent in concrete eggs. Aromas of jasmine, fresh pear, lemon zest, apricot stone and hay present themselves on the nose while on the palate, it is medium-bodied with bright acidity. It also has delicate florals, creamy minerals along with seamless layers of fresh, tangy fruit and spice in addition to tropical-fruit notes on the finish. A layered yet serious wine that is both beautifully refreshing and simply delicious.

Escala Humana Credo 2019 Sémillon by Escala Humana Wines is a 100 per cent Sémillon, produced in the Uco Valley region of Mendoza, that received a 96-point score by Tim Atkins. Aged for 24 months in French Oak, this wine is grown on vineyards located 1,200 metres above sea level in cold terroir marked by thermal amplitude. 60 per cent of the grapes were directly pressed and spontaneously fermented in 300-litre barrels, while the other 40 per cent was destemmed and in contact with the skins for five days before the aging process began. The end of this process yielded a fresh, expressive and detailed wine with a lovely crystalline citrus fruit character. It is concentrated and rich with a mineral edge on the palate with some orange peel, waxy herbal notes and a bright lemony finish.

Argentina continues to be one of the main Sémillon grape variety producers in the world with the best growing conditions existing in Patagonia. Other main producers are Chile and California (where it is usually blended with the Sauvignon Blanc), along with Australia and South Africa. It is easily grown, ripens quickly and is disease-resistant making it suitable not just for dessert wines but also for producing sherry, brandy and dry white wines.

Matias Riccitelli Sémillon Rio Negro Old vines from Patagonia 2020 (Photo: Matias Riccitelli)
The vineyards at Escala Humana (Escala Humana Wines)
Sunset at Escala Humana Winery (Escala Humana Wines)
Credo 2019 Sémillon (Escala Humana Wines)
Michelini i Mufatto Certezas Sémillon (Michelini i Mufatto)
The concrete tanks at Riccitelli Winery (Matías Riccitelli)
The vineyards at Bodega Aleanna at sunrise (El Enemigo Wines)
El Enemigo Sémillon 2018 (Bodega Aleanna)

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