The 'Unfashionable' Semillon Grape Gets Dirty and Rowdy in Napa

Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.


Hardy Wallace (aka "Dirty"), winemaker at Dirty and Rowdy Family Winery, donning his Semageddon shirt and enjoying chicken wings with his 2012 Semillon. [Photograph: Stevie Stacionis]

"Semillon is not a fashionable variety," announces Wine Grapes. "Nowhere outside Sauternes," the book continues, "does there seem to be a groundswell of enthusiasm for this noble variety."

Time for a re-write, Wine Grapes.

A "Semageddon" party went down in Napa last week, devoted entirely to this oh-so "unfashionable" Semillon grape. The party was attended by wine lovers and winemakers—many of them among the most influential in California today. There were four picnic tables, three ice buckets, and two coolers filled with bottles of Semillon gathered from around the world. The clincher: custom-made Semillon T-shirts!!

Groundswell of enthusiasm??

In your face.

Originally from Bordeaux and used in both dry and sweet wines there, it's true that Semillon isn't exactly mainstream in California (yet?). Wine Grapes says that less than 900 acres of it existed in the state in 2010. So at Semageddon, I asked winemaker Hardy Wallace (a.k.a. Dirty from Dirty and Rowdy wines), about the grape of the hour and why on Earth he decided to make wine from it in the first place.

Quick background: the Dirty and Rowdy wines are pretty new on the scene. Their first vintage was 2010, when they took the burly Mourvèdre grape and coaxed it into a light-bodied, low-alcohol beauty that quickly became a clamored-after wine world darling (it sold out almost immediately).

In 2011, Dirty and Rowdy thought they'd try their hand at a small batch of white wine fermented in a special concrete egg-shaped vat. They negotiated for some fruit from a little chunk of vines in a Sonoma vineyard called Compagni Portis, but when harvest time came, yields were down... way down. There wasn't enough fruit from the vineyard to go around, and Dirty and Rowdy were left empty-handed, scrambling in the eleventh hour of harvest to find grapes elsewhere.

Hardy pulled up the wine-grapes equivalent of Craigslist and dialed the first listing. Roughly two tons of Semillon were available from the rocky Gamble Vineyard in Yountville, Napa Valley. Semillon??

What the hell, Hardy thought. They needed the fruit, and it was from good dirt, grown by a farmer they knew and trusted. How bad could it be? Sold.

Dirty and Rowdy divvied the grapes up into two batches. The first was pressed and then tossed into the concrete egg to ferment, while the other was crushed by hand and foot but left on its skins and fermented in an open-top container; both fermentation methods are known for contributing added flavor and texture to wines. When all was said and done, they pulled the juice off the skins, mixed the two batches back together and bottled the wine without any filtering.

As the D&R website perfectly states, "In color and opacity, this looks like an Allagash White. The Mars Curiosity Rover couldn't shine a laser through its Semillon haze."

I didn't get to try the 2011 premiere, but lucky for me, Dirty and Rowdy's second Semillon go from the 2012 vintage was in full-force at Semageddon, rocking a similar, compelling golden fog and made in much the same fashion though with a higher concentration of skin-contact juice. This wine has a salty, lime and jalapeno thing going on, coupled with under-ripe, almost crunchy peach flavors punching up through a rich, honeyed texture (though without any sweetness). A resinous, pine forest scent cues up at the finish and promises this is only going to get more interesting with a little age in the bottle. Hopefully they stashed some, because the brigade of bottles they brought to the party has been quickly—and enthusiastically—drained.

On that note, Hardy and I toast, speculating about the future potential of the wine and the destiny of Semillon to come.

Here's looking forward to Semageddon 2023. Next stop: world domination.

2012 Dirty and Rowdy Semillon
The Grape: Semillon
The Region: Yountville (Napa Valley), California
Retail Price: $30

About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in the new Wine Grapes tome. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.