Babylon’s tea and Semillon gris
15 January 2014
Making our Tin Soldier Semillon gris wine this last year was quite a decision for me. I’m sure anyone taking on a wine hardly anyone knows about, let alone has ever tasted will know what I mean. It was never my intention to copy a given style of wine in making this. I felt, on tasting the grapes in the vineyard, that this would need a different approach to the more standard white wine production techniques. It’s made from a field blend of white and red Semillon grapes that were destemmed and crushed into a vat where I fermented them like a red wine (ie: on skins with punch-downs) for 10 days. The result is a pale bronze coloured white wine that has the structure of a light red wine.
‘Red’ Semillon is a fascinating thing in itself – a natural mutation of white Semillon that has happened over the course of Semillon’s more than 200 year old history here in the Cape. The red mutation is hardly found anywhere in the world barring some small plantings in Australia and probably in France. Historically, the Cape’s wine production industry was practically founded on Semillon (it was known as ‘wine grape’ or common ‘green grape’ simply because it was so ubiquitous). Tim James’ research finds that in 1822, Semillon accounted for 93% of all vines planted in the Cape. By the early 1800s, Semillon’s fast proliferation in the Cape meant that the red mutation was very common and widespread. For those interested, here is Tim James’ full article in World of Fine Wine – Red Semillon: Return of the Wine Grape
There has been a vast decline in Semillon plantings in the Cape since those times. In older vineyards planted to Semillon, it is still possible to find the odd red Semillon vine in the vineyard rows, but sadly it’s now much more of a rarity. I was lucky enough to find just such a vineyard in Franschhoek through the help of my great friend Chris Alheit, which was planted in the early 1980s and still carrying these red Semillon vines in enough quantity for me to consider making a single varietal bottling. Wow, I’ve fallen in love with this wine! It’s intriguing without being too demanding and has the kind of impact that I was really hoping to get with it. So what’s the wine like? It certainly has a unique flavour profile and draws red berry, rhubarb, licorice, pepper and tea from the red Semillon grapes, with an undercurrent of citrus and furniture wax from the white grapes. It’s surprisingly structured. Yes there are tannins here. To the tasters who would describe it as ‘phenolic’ (a negative on a white wine), I have to say that, yes, that was the intention. So it is structured, textured, but fresh and balanced all the same.
I think that our Semillon gris is a ‘marmite wine’ and a beacon wine. It’s a ‘marmite wine’ because those who taste it will either love it or hate it, and it is a beacon wine, because I hope it will draw the kind of people who want to understand this more unusual approach we’ve taken and who can find something fascinating in it’s gentle textures and unusual structure. The joy of this wine for me is that, deconstructed, a lot of the aromas and flavours do not belong in the ‘wine as alcoholic fruit juice’ model. The pleasures of this wine mostly bypass the ‘primary/juicy-fruity characters and go to the secondary pleasures of unusual flavours and textures that are stimulating without being dominating . So how does this relate to Babylon’s tea? While shooting a wedding at the incredibly stylish Babylonstoren, my photographer wife tasted a tea made of strawberries, strawberry leaves and raspberry leaves. It made a huge impact on her and we were talking about it afterwards, while tasting the Tin Soldier, when she remarked on the similarities between the two, due to the curious balance of fruit and herbal notes they both have. I really do believe that in wine as in tea, that you need a bit of ‘edge’ to get to something that is refreshing and invigorating.
It is this ‘edge’ that I am always looking for. I think that there is a big drive in industrial winemaking to eliminate these exact characteristics that make wine such a compelling drink. One of the joys of working on the scale that I do is that I can constantly seek out these gems in the vineyards and bring them out in the cellar. I’m very lucky indeed and hope you love the wine as much as I do.