The historic home of sémillon

If Stellenbosch is the Kingdom of Cabernet, Elgin the Epicentre of Chardonnay–then is Franschhoek the Stronghold of Sémillon? Well, kind of. According to many well-learned palates Franschoek is making South Africa’s best examples. What we do know for a fact is that it’s the region with the oldest sémillon vineyards, with the oldest clocking in at 1902.
One of the front-runners making successful single varietal wines of the grape is Boekenhoutskloof, and I’m here today to taste why. The wine estate is currently being revamped with an additional cellar, but it’s into the current one with its tulip-shaped fermenters where chief winemaker, Gottfried Mocke leads us. He pushes open the door to the ‘egg room’—like some kind of hatchery the nomblot fermenters are neatly lined up in rows. This is sémillon central. 
“The majority of what we do here is with sémillon,” says Mocke gesturing at the eggs. “It’s quite a neutral variety so our approach is to make individual wines that are pure in character. We pursue more of an oxidative profile. The primary fruit style is not the way; for us white wine is about texture.”
We head upstairs to the tasting room (tastings are by appointment only—Boekenhoutskloof did things the other way round by going from public to private). It’s an understated, stylish space, rammed with personality: from bottles of favourite wines displayed behind the tasting counter, to its red walls, graphic drawings on the walls and to miniature replicas of those famous Boekenhoutskloof chairs you see on the label.
We sit at the long tasting table of polished oak that stretches to make an optical illusion, seeming as if it’s suspended above the vineyards. 

“There are so many good examples sémillon coming out of Franschhoek,” says  Mocke, swirling the estate’s 2015 vintage in his glass (in his hand-blown Zalto I might add.) “The character of Franschhoek sémillon is distinct, you can’t replicate it. It’s this lanolin, waxiness on the mid-palate, that’s so typical of the style.
He ponders that this character can be attributed to the nature of the mature vineyards. “Sémillon has been in the valley for so long, that it has mutated and it actually becomes a part of the region and produces its own character.”
We get back to what’s in our glasses. “We mature all our sémillon for a year before we release it. Our style is based on old Bordeaux traditions.” The ferments are all spontaneous—barrels (Austrian oak only) as well as eggs—and the percentages that are blended of each differ depending on the vintages. The vineyards used are also a blend—with ages 1902, 1936 and 1942.
“A lot of the flavour profile we attribute to the vineyards. We aim to make a more gastronomic style, based on secondary and tertiary flavours with plenty of texture. It’s all about the palate.”
Though sémillon can be notoriously difficult to sell, Mocke says this isn’t a worry for them as the allocations are pretty much sold out before the release, having gained a loyal following.
“Now I’m going to show you something really special,” says Mocke with a glint in his eye. “This is what sémillon does in Franschhoek that you won’t find anywhere else.”
“The grapes for our Noble Late Harvest come from the vineyards right over there,” he says pointing to the scene below. He goes on to say that the high water table and proximity to a stream creates the perfect conditions for botrytis.  “You’re not going to find this style anywhere else in South Africa, it’s classic Bassac style. 
The wine has fine, sweet flavours without being cloying. The acidity is low, but the low PH gives the impression of more acidity than there is. 
The wines we’ve tasted have been nothing short of illuminating. When I ask him what he thinks the future holds for sémillon as a category in South Africa, he says that people were asking that same question about chenin blanc five years ago. “And now look how well chenin is doing!” 
“Sémillon is gaining traction, there are lots of interesting winemakers working with the variety.”
So come to Franschhoek, and you’ll soon discover a wine with imitable character: and that there’s nothing straightforward about our sémillon.
Tip: Try sémillons from these wineries doing the variety justice.
  • Boekenhoutskloof
  • Landau Du Val
  • Rickety Bridge
  • Stony Brook
  • Franschhoek Cellars
  • Haut Espoir 
-Malu Lambert