Semillon Gris: South Africa's Old-Vine Oddity
Decanter|October 2020
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Semillon Gris: South Africa's Old-Vine Oddity
Growers in the Cape are nurturing this red mutation of the green Semillon Blanc grape. Malu Lambert investigates the unusual phenomenon, first identified in vineyards here back in the 1800s
Malu Lambert

There’s something strange happening in South Africa’s Semillon vineyards. Green bunches turn red one year, then back to green the next. Hung like Christmas baubles on gnarled bush vines, the shapeshifting clusters are an enduring mystery.

Viticultural juggernaut and protector of old vines Rosa Kruger thought she was losing her mind when she first noticed this phenomenon, known as red Semillon or Semillon Gris.

‘I started marking the mutated [red] vines while taking cuttings for planting material,’ she explained when I asked her about the variety. ‘The following year the bunches on the vine would be green again. I thought I was making a mistake, but after a couple of years, I realised that Semillon Gris can actually mutate back to Blanc. In general, though, the Gris vineyards are fairly consistent once they’ve mutated.’

Semillon Gris seems only to occur in the Cape Winelands and appears to be an old-vine oddity. One of the Cape’s oldest varieties, Semillon was widely planted in the early 1800s. It was so ubiquitous it was simply called Groen Druif translated from Afrikaans as ‘green grape’.

These days, plantings of Semillon have fallen massively, though there are still pockets of heritage vineyards, some more than 100 years old, carefully guarded by viticulturists and winemakers.

In the early 1800s it’s said that 80% of the vines in South Africa were thought to be Semillon. By the mid-1800s, half of these had mutated into Semillon Gris.

Green and red

Is the secret the Cape’s sunshine? One such sun-soaked day before the Covid-19 lockdown, I made my way to Swartland for the weekend. My first stop was to track down Andrea Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, to pull at the threads of this red-skinned mystery.

It’s big sky and big sun country here, and the aspect of Roundstone Farm – tucked into a mountainside in Swartland’s heartland – is tilted just right to soak up those life-giving rays. Since purchasing Roundstone in 2014, Andrea and husband Chris have planted Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Cinsault, Clairette Blanche, Roussanne, Maccabeu and Semillon Gris. The vineyards fan over a bedrock of deep schist.

‘It’s all about texture,’ Andrea says of the glass of The Gris Semillon Old Vines 2018 she has poured. ‘It’s from an extremely rare, dryfarmed vineyard planted in 1960 on the granite soils of the Paardeberg. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented naturally in a single barrel.’

Aromas of pear, orange rind and jasmine tea rise from the glass, but this wine is all about the palate. There’s a tension; a pull between chalkiness and an oily glycerol roundness, with a saline edge and bright, pithy acidity.

As I leave, Andrea hands me my next piece of the Semillon Gris puzzle: ‘Get hold of Jasper Wickens. He has a wine you must try.’

Sun and latitude

Winemaker Jasper and his viticulturist wife Franziska make wines under their Swerwer label on her family farm in Paardeberg. Jasper thinks the key to the Gris mutation may lie in South Africa’s latitude.

‘For centuries Semillon was the Cape’s most widely planted grape, and as time passed in its new African environment – with hotter, more intense sun and UV conditions than in France – farmers discovered their grapes turning red or pink. My guess is the pigmentation is a way for the grape to protect itself from the sun.

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October 2020