The 1906-planted Sémillon vines are in bud burst, acacia blossom permeates the air, hinting at spring, and the copper hues of a 1942 vintage from this vineyard – currently submerged under flood irrigation – twinkle alluringly in a crystal glass. But where in the world are we?
Malbec heartland, Luján de Cuyo in Mendoza, is the answer; specifically Bodega Lagarde, producer of that 1942 icon. This winery has tended 2.5 hectares of Sémillon for over a century, but the story of this versatile white in a country where red is now king, doesn’t begin – or end – here.
History has a habit of repeating itself and while just 781 hectares* are currently planted, down from 30,000 in the 1950s, Argentina’s Sémillon aficionados are certainly hoping it can stage a revival. From still wines to easy-drinking blends, sparkling wine and even a D.O.C. produced in Mendoza, it’s certainly proven it’s up to the job for the past 170 years.
The Argentine chapter starts in 1853, when agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget was tasked with kickstarting the country’s viticultural industry by the soon-to-be president Sarmiento (whose surname curiously translates as ‘vine shoot’ in Spanish). The Frenchman returned from Bordeaux armed with an array of migrant vines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec – and Sémillon.
Besides its illustrious beginnings with Pouget, Sémillon was also touted as Argentina’s great white hope in 1911 when ampelographer Leopoldo Suárez named it ‘the best white’ in Estudios Ampelográficos. “It adapts admirably to our terroir and climate… In Mendoza and San Juan, Semillón [sic] has become widespread and, as in its country of origin, produces the best white wine elaborated in the region,” he wrote in his ampelographyguide. One Suárez ancestor later cultivated five hectares in Uco Valley’s Altamira, another had 20 on the go: after planting in the same zone three years ago, the fourth generation released its first vintage in September 2016, notching up 92 points from Chilean wine critic Patricio Tapia.
It certainly offered promise, according to INTA agricultural technology institute’s now-retired vine experimentation head Carlos Catania. The self-confessed Sémillon aficionado who studied the varietal closely throughout his career and now leads a Facebook fan page, says: “Malbec is the star these days but we used to have two stars: Malbec and Sémillon. They have the same background: popular wines, widely consumed. Sémillon was even mentioned in three tangos [including Cacho Castaña’s Entre Curdas]. It was our white.”
Juan Roby, agronomist and head winemaker at Lagarde, agrees. “Sémillon was considered the white that would perform best in Mendoza, the great white hope, like Malbec was to red.”
A team player
Sémillon’s beginnings demonstrated its ability to be a team player. While grapes from Lagarde’s 1906 vineyard went into easy-drinking white blends – the 1942 vintage was produced as a vino blanco fino, according to a lab report – Sémillon also batted for the red team and was often planted among Malbec vines to enhance that grape’s hues.
At De Angeles Viña 1924, a vineyard planted in 1924 in Vistalba, Luján de Cuyo, for example, owner Guillermo Barbier says: “When these Malbec vines were planted, vintners included a little Petit Verdot for acidity, Tannat for tannins – and Sémillon to protect and stabilise color. We still harvest all these grapes together today – our Malbecs are essentially field blends.”
As bodegas caught on to its potential, Sémillon’s role grew. Some 30,000 hectares were under plantation in the 1950s, including a substantial number of vineyards in Patagonia’s Río Negro province, according to winemaker Marcelo Miras. And by wine consumption’s heyday in 1970 when Argentines would guzzle 90 liters per person a year, wineries such as Bodegas López were already sourcing grapes from Cruz de Piedra in Maipú and Tupungato in Uco Valley.
Eduardo López from the 1898-founded winery, says: “Between the 1930s and 1950s, the grape used in ‘common’ wine was Sémillon; only later did it become a stand-alone varietal. Our Rincón Famoso line appeared in the 1950s and the Blanco still uses around 30 percent Sémillon today.”
Besides easy-drinking blends and complex varietals, versatile Sémillon has also played a vital role in Argentina’s sparkling wine production. Chandon, whose Mendoza setup was the first to be located outside France, used to depend on Sémillon to produce its bubbles. But the great white took another pasting, this time to Champagne’s traditional grapes.
Onofre Arcos, Chandon’s chef du cave since 1994, says: “When Chandon opened here in 1960, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir barely existed, but there was plenty of Sémillon so we used it for most of our whites. But, over time, Chandon incentivised Chardonnay and Pinot Noir cultivations and by 2000, we’d phased out Sémillon.”
The winery giant still dabbles in the white, producing a single still wine, Latitud 33 Cosecha Tardía late harvest, which is turn is used as liqueur de tirage for Délice, a sparkling wine designed to be consumed with ice and a slice.
Chandon isn’t the only bodega to have drawn from Sémillon for its bubbles. López says: “When we started producing sparkling wine in the 1970s, we sourced grapes from Cruz de Piedra for complexity and structure, and Tupungato for aromas and higher acidity: today, Montchenot Extra Brut uses 20 percent Sémillon.”
The romance is over
But the glory days wouldn’t last forever and the romance with Sémillon faded, vines ripped up to make way for more profitable whites. According to the INV national wine institute, 1,255 hectares were under plantation in 1990, a figure slashed almost in half to 781 hectares by 2015 (1.9 percent of white-grape vineyards in Argentina). That magical figure of 30,000 flourishing hectares back in the 1950s, the stuff of memory. Catania says: “As the new wave of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc became more popular, Sémillon started to be eradicated.” And not just to make way for more profitable whites. Argentina’s future kingmaker Malbec took over the storyline: 10,457 hectares in 1990 skyrocketed to 39,486 hectares in 2015.
But one Mendoza whites expert, who started out his career making Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Sémillon at Bodega Weinert in 1985 with his father and is widely acknowledged as the latter’s modern-day champion, kept the faith. It’s paid off. These days, Roberto de la Mota’s Sémillon, which started out as a third party’s sparkling wine, is religiously snapped up by the UK’s Wine Society while the 2015 vintage was awarded 94 points in Tim Atkin MW’s 2016 report.
With 30 years under his belt producing Sémillon, De la Mota, winemaker and co-owner at Mendel Wines, calls it a great product. “A lot of white was produced in the 1970s, but Sémillon started losing out as it was often oxidised – it wasn’t made like it is now.
“When I purchased Finca Remota vineyard in Altamira, Uco Valley, in 2004, I didn’t look after the Sémillon much as a bodega was buying it for sparkling wine. But I looked into it in 2009 – and that became Mendel’s first Sémillon. I fermented some juice in stainless steel tanks and 15 percent in French oak for six months with battonage – and I liked the result.
“Altamira has limestone like Bordeaux but as the climate is different, it’s more like Graves than Sauternes as our areas are drier and fresher given that they’re located at 1,100 metres above sea level. The other important advantage in this cool climate is that grapes mature with good acidity levels, leading to a fresh wine.”
Besides central Mendoza, other wine-producing regions have also played their part in Sémillon’s Argentine story. According to Catania, the grape adapted extremely well to Tupungato’s 1,600-metre altitude in Uco Valley, where Bodegas López and Matías Michelini from Passionate Wines source grapes from. But Patagonia also has a story to tell.
The Patagonian leg starts in Río Negro province at the turn of the 20th century, according to winemaker Marcelo Miras. “After the Conquest of the Desert ended in 1884, orchards and vines were planted in the region, among them apple trees and Sémillon. In the 1950s, 30,000 hectares of Sémillon were under plantation around the country, which shows just how important the grape was – and Río Negro had a lot of them.”
But it remained an easy-drinking wine best consumed within the year, says oenologist Antonio Mas, whose first job in 1969 was at a Río Negro winery that split a million litres a year. He says: “Sémillon had a problem when I worked in that valley, because it receives a certain amount of humidity in February – and it’s death for the grape. It grows well and the fruit is covered very well, but if you don’t strip the leaves, it rots a lot. The concept of keeping juice cool didn’t exist at the time so we made wines for rapid consumption, harvesting early.”
Miras’ stint at Humberto Canale winery located in Alto Valle del Río Negro started in 1990, and although Canale has produced Sémillon since its 1909 inception, it was already producing a 100 percent varietal sourced from vines planted in 1945 by the time he started working there.
He adds: “INTA agricultural technology institute did an interesting job cultivating Sémillon so it adapted to Patagonia. It had a trellis arbor Sémillon and that old vine gave us a lot of crops that ended up as vineyards.
“Canale has produced Sémillon since 1909 when it was sold in demijohns. It wasn’t until 1975 that it made the first such varietal, which was a new way of seeing whites in Argentina.”
Miras was then instrumental in introducing the grape to a second Patagonian province. He says: “Bodega Del Fin Del Mundo’s founder Julio Viola asked me about varietals we could successfully cultivate in San Patricio del Chañar in Neuquén. I proposed Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Sémillon. At the start of the 21st century, Patagonia had 14 more Sémillon hectares courtesy of Bodega Del Fin Del Mundo.”
As it did in Mendoza, the white has proved its versatility on Patagonian terroir. Miras adds: “The continental climate in both Río Negro and Neuquén is good for the grape as it’s dry and windy, staving off illnesses – we don’t get botrytis cinerea – plus it matures well. I’ve used it as a sparkling wine base by picking early but also for late harvests. San Patricio del Chañar’s sandy loam soil gives fresh wines with good acidity and subtle aromas.”
These days, the enologist is dedicated to an eponymous project producing 3,000 bottles sourced from his own two-hectare Sémillon plot as well from producers with older vines. “It’s the great white varietal for Patagonia: here, we can make sparkling wine, fresh young wines or more elegant styles, plus it has great ageing potential. The truth is, it’s incredible.”
On the rise
The past few years have seen Sémillon’s profile start to rise again. In 2013, Nieto Senetiner launched Argentina’s first white D.O.C. using the grape, while Lagarde hedged its bets for the first time in more than a decade, even incorporating some botrytis-affected grapes into the 2015 vintage.
The younger generation of winemakers including Matías Riccitelli from Matías Riccitelli Wines has also fallen for Sémillon, while Finca Suárez’s aforementioned 2016 vintage completes the circle, historically speaking, for the vintner family. Matías Michelini’s Vía Revolucionaria Hulk Sémillon takes a different angle as it’s picked very early to ensure high acidity and isn’t filtered; Atkin gave 93 points to the 2013. Meanwhile, 2017 will see Guillermo Barbier from De Angeles Viña 1924 plant some rows of Sémillon**, if only to make enough for personal consumption, and Santiago Bernasconi from Bodega Aniello will investigate some old vineyards in Alto Valle del Río Negro.
Matías Riccitelli’s Sémillon love affair is a Patagonian one, first bottled in 2015. He says: “After finding out about some very old vines that had been badly treated and weren’t being used in Río Negro, it seemed crazy that we might lose our heritage. I thought ‘why don’t we do something because it has a good climate for Sémillon? Let’s go there.’”
Back in Luján de Cuyo, after a decade garnering Sémillon expertise under Roberto de la Mota, enologist Santiago Mayorga created that white D.O.C. – which follows Malbec’s controlled designation of origin rules – at Nieto Senetiner. “The winery has used Sémillon for sparkling wine since 1960 but had never made a still one. Given my experience, [Nieto enologist] Roberto González encouraged me to go for it,” he says. To date, the bodega has produced two such D.O.C.s.
Looking forward, this comeback kid has a future as bright as the acidity and flavours it produces, given the talent and dedication backing it. De la Mota is hopeful: “The revendication of this varietal, which had lost value but is seeing a resurgence, is really interesting.” It’s certainly proved its mettle across the style spectrum and in an array of Argentine climates and terroirs.
But by reflecting on the past, we already knew a revival was potentially on the cards, and Lagarde’s 1942 vintage certainly boosts its profile. Uninterruptedly and inadvertently aged for 50 years in an 1,800-litre oak cask, it was unexpectedly unearthed 20 years after the current owner, the Pescarmona family, purchased the winery. Bottled in 1991, it remains South America’s oldest and most revered white, a copper-coloured icon whose acidity continues to refresh and surprise 74 years after it was harvested. We only needed to analyse the past to predict Sémillon’s future.
* in September 2016
** After hearing that 600 75-year-old Sémillon vines in Paraje Altamira were due to ripped up, Guillermo Barbier went on to rescue those 600 plants and transfer them to his De Angeles vineyard. He produced two barrels’ worth in 2017.