Semillon Side-by-Side Tasting: Torbreck 2009, and Kalin Cellars 1998

Semillon Side-by-Side Tasting: Torbreck 2009, and Kalin Cellars 1998

Post edit with more technical info on Semillon at the bottom of this post.

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Torbreck 2009 Woodcutter’s Semillon

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The Torbreck 2009 Woodcutter’s Semillon is fresh, with green–dried grass, and vegetal–elements on both the bouquet, and palate. The scents and flavors of citrus juice and oils are rounded out by pear, pineapple and toasted nuts. The pleasing minerals, and acidity keep the flavors distinct.

These grapes are grown primarily from Madeira clones, then whole cluster pressed after careful selection. Half the juice is placed in stainless vats, while the rest is transferred to neutral French oak barrels for a slow, cold fermentation.

Drinking a 100% Semillon varietal is an unusual, uncommon treat. I have to admit I was fascinated. Torbreck is one of the few wineries to offer such a selection.

Torbreck’s wine maker David Powell says this is the wine he likes to drink at the end of a hard workday. I love the way the name implies scents of fresh cut wood, and hints of a sweating, big muscle work day. The wine’s personality carries both. It’s the perfect wine for the end of just such a day–refreshing, woody, and crisp–or, to drink alongside fresh fish sashimi. The acids compliment fatty tuna, while the sea flavors of the fish would reciprocate the favor.

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Kalin Cellars 1998 Semillon

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Using vines brought from the famous Chateau d’Yquem vineyards of Sauternes, Kalin Cellars focuses on artisan style production techniques. The owners, and wine makers, Terry and Frances Leighton, hand select all their grapes, and produce the wines themselves (though purchasing these grapes from the wine growers). Once the grapes are in the barrels, they make a point to intervene as little as possible.

The Kalin 1998 Semillon is softened with 25% Sauvignon Blanc. The grapes are hand selected, and fermented in new French oak barrels for 10 months. The wine was then bottled, and held until late 2011, allowing a deepening of the oak effect, and a softening of the acids.

The wine shows secondary oak elements, with scents and flavors of citrus peel and pith, smoke, roasted almonds and honeysuckle. There is also a beeswax candle smoothness on the nose, and touches of oak heat in the mouth. The spice, citrus, and woody elements of this wine beg for curry.

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The Grape

I was fascinated by both wines, and by the opportunity to taste two Semillon-focused wines from such different areas of the world, and produced under such differing styles as well.

Though Semillon long stood as one of the most widely grown grapes in the world, it more recently has fallen out of favor. It still has small footholds in various growing regions, but is predominately used as a blending grape to add body to other white varietals. This variety, however, still plays an important role in Bordeaux where it lends its vigor to the dry-style wine, Bordeaux blanc blend, and to the world famous sweet wine, Sauternes. In Australia, Semillon also appears as a straight-varietal grown in both Hunter Valley, and a little further to the West in Barossa Valley.

Semillon’s favor in the wine world originated partially from its voracious growing inclinations. Its disfavor originates partially from the over abundant plant often producing under developed, and even mushy flavors. The plant, it turns out, needs a struggle in the soil to invigorate distinctiveness, and complexity.

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Side-by-Side: How do the Wines Compare?

In the case of both these wines the acidity brings crispness, and balance to the rich flavors. The Barossa Valley Semillon offers a bit more acidity lending a balancing tang to the citrus oils bite. The Kalin Cellars Semillon, on the other hand, has a slightly higher alcohol content showing a bit more heat in the mouth.

Semillon is a wine often described with a ‘take it or leave it’ flavor. That is, people often either love it or hate it. If you’re open to trying Semillon, which of these two wines you’ll prefer depends on your tasting style. I’m inclined to say the Torbreck is the more approachable of the two. The Kalin’s oak influence, followed by the thorough aging, bring rich layers of secondary characteristics resembling both bitters and spice. The strength of these notes carry a bite that will turn some people off. I have to say though that because of the strangeness of these elements, I was fascinated by the Kalin.

In either case, I recommend keeping the wines well chilled as you drink them. The heat and bitter plus woody notes of the Semillon grape really takes over the other flavors as it warms up.

So, which wine when?

I’d describe the Kalin as more of an intellectually focused sensuous wine. I want to drink it when I’m ready to think about what I’m drinking, and be taken by a multi-layered richness of strange flavors as well. The fruit here shows as the riper of the two wines.

The Torbreck, on the other hand, is fresh, approachable, with pleasing complexity. This is a wine to relax with while you reflect on its flavors. I want to drink it with friends, as the sun lowers, and someone offers up a few light hearted jokes, followed by a comment like, “this is an interesting wine!” The fruit here is fresher.

Truth? I am thrilled I got to taste the Torbreck alongside the Kalin. They’re both fascinating wines, made even more so by tasting them side-by-side. With my bad habit of loving to learn something while I relax, I got my fill from the Semillon, with a whole mouthful of fascination-joy too.

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Thank you to the several friends that tasted these wines with me, and shared their thoughts on the flavors.

Thank you to Dan Fredman for suggesting the Kalin.

Thank you to Torbreck Barossa Valley Wines for sending me the sample of their Woodcutter’s Semillon. I really appreciate it.

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Wednesday we’ll take a break from the focus on Bordeaux blanc grapes to do a red wine interlude–we’ll be looking at an Italian Amarone alongside a south American Amerone-style wine. We’ll get back to Bordeaux blanc blends on Friday with a Semillon characteristics card too.

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POST EDIT:

Because of the question found in the comments on this post about aging I thought I’d post more information specifically about the grape in this regard. Some of the information that is only implied in the original post about the grapes structural components I’ll make more explicit here as well.

Semillon is a low acidity grape, but the acid levels can be increased to some degree depending on the soil in which it is grown. Acid levels, of course, impact at least two things in the final wine: how well it ages (acidity generally contributes to aging potential), and how distinctive the flavors tend to be. Certain areas are known for successfully producing Semillon with higher acid levels–Hunter Valley is one. Columbia Valley is believed to be another. In Hunter Valley, however, wine growers pick the grapes slightly under-ripe in order to keep the acid levels higher. A number of producers in Washington have actually relocated their Semillon vineyards in order to up the structure of their grapes after realizing the potassium levels of their original vineyard soils were too high (potassium ‘blocks’ acid production in the grapes).

Semillon is generally understood to be one of the best white grapes for aging. According to Mike Januick of Chateau Sainte Michelle in Washington, Semillon tends to do well from the bottle in the early 1-3 year range when it shows pleasant citrus and melon notes, or after 8 years bottle age when it often shows the deeper secondary characteristics including honey or beeswax. As Januick describes, In between the early and the later periods the wine has lost its freshness but not developed its secondary notes yet. According to wine maker Dexter Ahlgren, we should expect Semillon to do well with aging 10-15 years in bottle.

Semillon is a grape that likes to over produce so it does better in soils that demand it to work for its nutrients (and that have lower potassium), but also in climates, or vineyards that have less water. When the grape readily captures its water supply the fruit gets larger and larger dramatically lowering both the concentration of flavors in the grape, and the acidity as well. So, you end up with fruit that offers either watery and/or mushy flavors. The lower water supply also keeps the cell size of the grape itself smaller contributing to the woody elements of the wine, but also to the hardiness of it through the season, and in the bottle. This also correlates with lower sugar levels, and so a crisper style wine in the end.

Regarding color: semillon varietals tend to have a distinct golden color from the beginning, but that deepens with aging. The Torbreck showed gold but clear, while the Kalin was a reach deep golden honey color.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The age has an effect certainly. I’ve been thinking about this though and I’m inclined to say that on this grape the region plays an even bigger role. Semillon seems to develop quite different characteristics depending on the ground it’s in which it’s been grown. Some people think of it as having mushy flavors (indicating lower acidity) but from what I can tell that occurs when it’s grown in an ‘easier’ environment that allows the vine to over produce. It used to be a favored grape because of the incredible volume output it offers, but with that higher output the grapes create softer flavors too.

    Hunter Valley in Australia apparently produces incredibly acidic Semillon that cannot be consumed with any real pleasure when they’re young. The Barossa Valley, however, shows this grape very well offering wines with lighter acidity and still distinctive flavors. So, it seems to have a good balance.

    Kalin grows their Semillon grapes in incredibly challenging soil that demands the vines to push quite deep to get the nutrients. The vines are also over 90 years old. I believe both of these heighten the complexity of flavors, but also ends up meaning the juice needs aging to mellow and balance. The oak again adds more depth, but then shows better with the fruit when aged too, from what I can tell.

    Super interesting grape. Not many people write about it though because it is less popular now. There are some tasty Semillon wines coming out of Washington now too but I haven’t had the opportunity to try those yet. I’m looking forward to it though to see how they compare.

  2. The Kalin is so old. Had it begun darkening?
    The age difference alone would have made for a giant contrast between the two examples.

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