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The sommelier suggests… Semillon by Florencia Rey

We invite a leading sommelier to pick a go-to, personal favourite grape variety or wine style.

Argentinian sommelier Florencia Rey has led the beverages team at award-winning Maido restaurant in Lima, Peru, since 2014. The Nikkei cuisine by chef-owner Mitsuharu Tsumura allows her to play around with sake as well as South American and European wines; she also runs an alcohol-free program. In November 2023, Florencia was named Beronia Latin America’s Best Sommelier 2023 as part of the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.

While its origins are in Bordeaux and it makes some of the world’s greatest wines of their type, today Semillon is also deeply rooted in the New World, in countries such as Australia, Chile, South Africa – and my home country of Argentina. I adore this white grape for its versatility because, on the one hand, it’s associated with legendary botrytised wines such as Sauternes and Barsac, but as a standalone variety it also offers up fresh, dry expressions typified by jasmine and camomile characters. And it’s a fantastic component in blends, too, most often supporting Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay.

Brought to Argentina in the mid-19th century along with the red Malbec, Semillon develops well in fresh-to-moderate climates such as as those in Mendoza’s Uco Valley and Río Negro’s Alto Valley. A low-to-medium acidity grape, it bursts with fleshy orchard fruits, depending on its origin and the stage at which it’s picked. While it’s usually aromatic and fresh, I tend to perceive honeyed notes and lemon or lime peel aromas.

It wasn’t very long ago that Semillon gained traction in Argentina, in table wines and as a base for sparkling wine. However, its use does date back further. One legend is Bodega Lagarde’s 1942 Semillon, forgotten about until new (the current) owners discovered it in a foudre, a gem with amontillado-like notes. Then in 1976, Humberto Canale in Río Negro became the first winery to bottle the variety as Semillon Blanc; it was produced exclusively for export, another first.

Sadly though, in Argentina few producers attached much value to Semillon as a variety, and cultivation dwindled over the past three decades – in 2022, just 578ha were cultivated around Argentina, an almost-tenfold decrease compared with 5,486ha in 1968, according to the  national wine institute. But fortunately it’s regaining popularity.

Argentina’s contemporary Semillon champion is Roberto de la Mota of Mendel Wines. He sourced grapes from Uco Valley in 2009, a pioneering move for the time. Other winemakers later followed suit, such as Riccitelli Wines’ Old Vines From Patagonia, from Río Negro (2021, £36-£39 Shelved Wine, Vin Cognito, Wine Republic), and Passionate Wine’s lower-alcohol, old-vine Via Revolucionaria Hulk from Tupungato, Uco Valley (2021, US$17-$20 Bottle Barn, Solano Cellars, Wine.com).

Going back to the Old World, thinking about sweet wines such as Sauternes, who doesn’t want to try a Château d’Yquem? Its vineyards are planted to about 80% Semillon – and it’s so delicious with blue cheese and dried fruit. And how about these for wonderful matches: Zuccardi’s Polígonos del Valle de Uco Tupungato Semillon with a salad of rocket (arugula in the US) topped with baked pears, Gorgonzola and caramelised almonds, or with grilled trout; or fatty fish accompanied with a yellow chilli pepper sauce (like we prepare in Peru), passion fruit and capers with Le G de Château Guiraud Bordeaux Blanc blend (2022, £21-£22 Davy’s, Frazier’s, Palmers, Thos Peatling).

Discovering Semillon: Rey’s top picks

I still remember the tension of Château Climens, Premier Grand Cru Classé Barsac 2014 (£49.95/ 37.5cl The Fine Wine Co). The dehydrated orange and lime notes and ripe papaya in the mouth paired particularly well with a lemon cream tartlet.

Bottle of Château Climens, Premier Grand Cru Classé Barsac 2014

I really like the freshness of Zuccardi’s Polígonos del Valle de Uco Tupungato Semillon; it’s rich like a green apple and bears white floral notes. The 2022 (£27.50 Christopher Keiller) is very vibrant and while it’s versatile, I enjoy it as an apéritif.

Bottle of Zuccardi’s Polígonos del Valle de Uco Tupungato Semillon

Winemaker Leo Erazo’s Revolver Semillon comes from La Consulta in Uco Valley and it really expresses these limestone soils’ minerality. Its nose is quite honeyed and complex, and the 2018 has plenty still to give. I’d pair it with a prawn risotto.

Bottle of Revolver Semillon

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