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Tasting Note

Posted February 23, 2018 Focused and intense, with orange zest, Meyer lemon and grapefruit notes that are sleek and crisp, with juicy acidity and plenty of persistence. A slight waxy note and a whiff of lanolin on the finish add to the charm.

And the answer is...


Varietal

Our mystery wine is focused and intense, with bright citrus flavors in a sleek yet crisp package, and a waxy and lanolin finish. What could it be?

There are only a few white wines that are known for having a waxy or lanolin note, while still retaining some fresh acidity, so let's start by eliminating those that don't fit the bill. Viognier is an easy choice to eliminate. This rich and often full-bodied white is known for its perfumed aromas and rich stone fruit and tropical flavors, which don't fit our description.

Chardonnay can also be crossed off. Unoaked and cool-climate versions can show some bright acidity and citrus flavors like we see here, but it's not common to have a lanolin finish (and Chardonnay is known far more for apple flavors over citrus elements). Chardonnay made in this style typically shows more mineral and spice or fresh herb notes. A beeswax note can come through in riper, richer styles, but that flavor has a honeylike sweetness to it.

Sauvignon Blanc fits the bright citrus and juicy acidity, but missing are the grape's hallmark herbaceous notes. And like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc isn't prone to waxy or lanolin notes, unless made in a late-harvest style, which wouldn't likely come across as sleek or crisp.

That leaves us with Riesling and Sémillon. Both are known for making prized dessert wines, and both can also be made into high-acid dry versions, or teased into a richer style.

Riesling has a reputation for bright acidity, with intense aromas and flavors. Secondary notes often include rubber or petroleum flavors. Sémillon has two typical styles: zesty and palate-cleansing, similar to Sauvignon Blanc, or rich and creamy, similar to Chardonnay. Sémillon is also known for its waxy, lanolin flavors.

Where we diverge is in fruit profiles. Riesling typically shows more orchard fruit, including apple and stone fruit, along with some citrus. Sémillon tends to center on bright citrus flavors like lemon, lime and grapefruit, with some apple and pear if made in a riper style. And as noted previously, the waxy, lanolin note is a hallmark of Sémillon.

This wine is a Sémillon.

Country

Sémillon is the third-most planted white grape in France, however, France is not one of our choices. Where else is Sémillon commonly grown? Not in Germany or Spain. Germany's government keeps a list of permitted grape varieties, and Sémillon is not on it. While there are hundreds of varieties grown in Spain, including plenty of high-acid whites like Albariño and Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon is not a principal variety.

Pinot Noir accounts for nearly two-thirds of Oregon's vineyard acreage. Leading white grapes include Chardonnay and Pinot Gris; Sémillon is very rare, so it's a safe bet that this wine is not from Oregon.

That leaves us with California and Australia. Both are vast regions conducive to growing just about any grape. California has about 675 acres of Sémillon, while Australia has more than 15,000. Acreage alone points to Australia, but to be sure, let's examine the best locales for making a wine of this style.

Thin-skinned and early-ripening, Sémillon is best-suited to warm but not hot climates. In the few California regions where Sémillon is planted, it's often used as a blending grape with Sauvignon Blanc (as it is in Bordeaux's sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac, as well as their dry whites) to lend richer flavors and textural appeal. Most California producers don't highlight the vibrant style that Sémillon can achieve, and rather lean toward a plusher version. Knowing this, and the limited acreage in the state, we can probably look to Australia.

Australia is big—420,000 acres of vines are planted throughout the vast country, and in all corners, including the island of Tasmania. Sémillon has found its niche in certain parts of Australia, particularly the eastern reaches, where there is a coastal influence from the Pacific Ocean, and a clean and bright style can be achieved.

This Sémillon is from Australia.

Age

Sémillon has the ability to age well for a decade or longer (dessert-style Sémillons can age for a century). One of the best indicators of age in Sémillon is a rich, honeyed character, sometimes coupled with toast notes, common in wines more than 10 years old but that can start to appear much earlier, even at age 3 or 5. The intensity and juicy acidity of this Sémillon point to its youth. Based on that, we can eliminate our two older categories. We're also missing that honeyed note, and while it's still a bit of a coin toss, our best guess-and the correct one-is that this Sémillon comes from our youngest age category.

This wine is in the 1 to 2 year age bracket; it comes from the 2016 vintage.

Appellation

We know our wine is from Australia, so we can eliminate Spain's Rias Baixas, California's Dry Creek Valley, Germany's Rheingau and Oregon's Willamette Valley.

We're left with Australia's Barossa and Hunter valleys.

Cool-climate Sémillon shows plenty of acidity, resembling Sauvignon Blanc, and offers abundant citrus flavors along with occasional floral notes. Sémillons from warmer climates can develop more ripe tropical fruit flavors like mango or papaya. Richer styles of Sémillon are also often aged in oak, contributing additional richness, weight and toast or smoke notes.

Barossa Valley is a hot, dry growing region well-suited to full-bodied reds like its famed big, bold Shirazes. Just 20 percent of the Barossa's plantings are white grapes. Sémillons from this area show more ripe and rich flavors, and oak treatment is common.

Hunter Valley is also a hot climate, but differs from most other Australian wine regions for its sub-tropical moisture. It also receives heat-mitigating cooling breezes thanks to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. And Sémillon flourishes here, typically harvested early, before the autumn rains arrive, yielding a crisp style high in juicy acidity. These high-acid, low-alcohol wines offer early-drinking enjoyment but also have a track record for aging, taking on rich honeyed notes and baked fruit flavors.

This Sémillon is from Hunter Valley.

Wine

This wine is the Brokenwood Hunter Valley Sémillon 2016, which scored 90 points. It retails for $20 and 500 cases were imported. To learn more about Australian white wines, read senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec's tasting report, "Australia's Awakening," in the March 31, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator.

—Aaron Romano, associate tasting coordinator

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