THERE’S A QUESTION I’ve been mulling over in my head for a while now. What happened to Sémillon in South Africa?
Sémillon is a grape variety that was once grown on over 90 percent of the wine farms in South Africa. It was so popular in the late 19th Century that most people simply called it ‘Wine Grape’. Then, as if disappearing into history like some redundant piece of fashion, Sémillon became the least cultivated wine variety in the country and practically nobody wanted it.
Intrigued by the mystery, I decided to see if I could find out what became of this once-enormously popular cultivar in South Africa.
The specific reason for Sémillon’s decline is uncertain. In fact there are a number of aspects working in its favour. For instance, It’s a very easy vine to grow – being consistent in production and resistant to most diseases, except rot.
So what happened?
Sémillon (also known as ‘Green Grape’) was one of the few varietals brought to South Africa by the early settlers, and by 1820 it accounted for the vast majority of the vineyards planted. According to Creation Wines cellarmaster JC Martin, the Phylloxera epidemic (a devastating outbreak of microscopic sap sucking insects brought over from Europe) that hit South Africa in the 1880s killed many vines.
The wine industry generally struggled to recover and by the mid 20th Century, when the controversial quota system was implemented by KWV, Sémillon’s reputation was in tatters, the price had dropped and the variety disappeared into the shadows. It’s stayed that way ever since.
One particular dry white wine that emerged out of the bumpy South African past is Chardonnay – a long time rival of Sémillon. Through the various ups and downs in the wine industry, Chardonnay has become one of South Africa’s most popular white wines both locally and abroad, overshadowing Sémillon by a substantial margin. Could Chardonnay be the reason for Sémillon’s fall from grace?
Today Sémillon generally relies on blends with wines such as Sauvignon Blanc to keep it in the industry. When asked about Semillon’s revival in South Africa, JC Martin laughs: “What revival?” There’s been very little evidence to support a claim that we are experiencing any sort of change in terms of public demand for single varieties. JC seems to think if there is any revival it is fuelled by the winemakers themselves.
If you look closely at Platter’s South African Wine Guide you will see an increase in the number of Sémillon listings between 1994 and now, which may suggest that JC is right and SA farmers perhaps are weaning it back onto the market.
To me, Sémillon remains a ghostly figure in South African viticultural history, with a spirit that continues to haunt the various wine blends of today, hoping to one day find its own life again.
Who knows, maybe the golden age of Sémillon is still to come.
For more information on the history of Sémillon, see here.