A Savvy Sidestep

If the taste of Marlborough sauvignon blanc is so popular, how come traditional Australian semillon is so unpopular? This is the question that has plagued producers and lovers of semillon – especially Hunter Valley semillon – for the last decade or so, as Kiwi sauvignon blanc has blithely taken over the world.

“Savvy”, as the Kiwis call it, now accounts for 70 per cent of the New Zealand grape crop and Marlborough, thanks to sauvignon, now produces more than half of all New Zealand wine. The world has fallen in love with the stuff, no people moreso than Australians. Here, our biggest selling wine is a Marlborough savvy (Oyster Bay tastings) and five of the 10 top whites in bottle are also of that type.

The mystery is that Aussie semillon is also a light, fresh, fruit-driven style of dry white, which has a lightly herbal fruit character, not a hell of a lot different to savvy, really. So why is it in the doldrums?

Hunter wine producer McGuigans (tastings) estimates sauvignon is selling 3.4 million cases a year in this country, while semillon is doing about one-hundredth of that – 40,000 cases. In dollar terms, sauvignon is worth $438 million compared to semillon’s $5.6 million. The picture is healthier if you include blends of sauvignon blanc and semillon (just under a million cases, worth $104 million).

While semillon sales fall, semillon sauvignon blends grow at a healthy rate but not as fast as sauvignon which powers along at 18 per cent a year. It’s enough to scare the daylights out of Australian winemakers.

They’ve had no choice but to look on in helpless horror as their market is progressively eaten away by NZSB. Now, one Australian winery has decided to do something about it. McGuigan has launched a clever new wine, labelled The Semillon Blanc.

What’s clever about it? The package for one thing – and the target buyer is no doubt influenced by this. It looks good, and it has a very simple message on its label. The name The Semillon Blanc 2011 (tasting), and below that, three words describing what you can expect: “Refreshing, crisp and aromatic”.

The name is also clever. Some buyers will probably assume the wine is a semillon sauvignon blanc blend, but that’s not the intention, according to chief winemaker Neil McGuigan. “It could happen, but it’s not a concern.” If some people assume it’s a sauvignon blanc, that’s probably not a concern either. It can only help the wine sell, and it probably stops short of being a misleading tactic. “I would like to see it displayed (in shops) in the sauvignon blanc-semillon sauvignon blanc area,” he says.

The smartest thing is the wine itself: it’s 100% semillon, but McGuigan decided that his base (and the traditional home of semillon), the Hunter Valley, could not make the wine he had in mind. As he says, it’s not a traditional Tyrrell’s style of 10 per cent alcohol, a pH of 2.9 and a Chablis profile. “That would be too lean; too light.” Instead, the grapes are mainly from the Murray Valley (the Riverland and Sunraysia) with a little Barossa Valley. It’s 11.5 per cent alcohol, which is still a very light wine, but the warmer growing climate means the pH is higher – 3.35 – which means the wine is softer and tastes less acidic. There is a smidgin of sweetness, between four and five grams per litre, but it is sub-threshhold, meaning most people won’t notice it. The overall effect is lightness with softness, and a clean finish. Unlike traditional Hunter semillon it probably won’t age well, but that’s not the objective. As McGuigan jokes: “From the day we bottled it, we have 364 days left to sell it”.

He could have achieved a similar result by blending in a little chardonnay, perhaps, but I suspect it’s a point of pride to a Hunter boy that the wine is all semillon… and when some tasters commented that its aroma reminded them of sauvignon blanc, he retorted “There’s not a berry of sauvignon blanc in it.”

The wine is already doing exceptionally well in the UK, according to McGuigan. “This wine has single-handedly lifted McGuigan’s semillon sales in the UK by 52 per cent,” he says.

A 2010 vintage was test-marketed through Tesco supermarkets at Stg 6.99, and quickly became the second-biggest selling McGuigan wine after shiraz. Tesco competitor Sainsbury’s were unhappy that they didn’t have it, says McGuigan, and influential UK wine-buyer Dan Jago reportedly described it as the most exciting new white wine from Australia in 10 years.

The 2011 itself is quite fragrant, in a citrus, passionfruit, gooseberry sort of way, with a hint of semillon varietal straw. It’s delicate and finely textured, but also soft and round, with gentle acidity and immediate drinkability. It’s $12.99 in Australia.

The launch of The Semillon Blanc follows a dream run for McGuigan and its sister label, Tempus Two (tastings). The week before, Tempus Two Copper Zenith Semillon 2003 (tasting) was named International Best Semillon at the International Wine Challenge in the UK, and the 2011 of the same wine won a gold medal at the Cairns Wine Show. The ’03 was also NSW Wine of the Year in 2010.

But, will The Semillon Blanc lure any drinkers away from the dreaded Kiwi sauvignon blanc? That remains to be seen. It’s also hoped the new wine may act as a bridge to serious, traditional Australian semillon – which has always been an aficionado’s wine, never a tyro’s tipple.

Aussie winemakers scan the sauvignon blanc sales figures the way an outback cocky scans a drought-parched horizon for a cloud, hoping for a glimpse of a long-waited sag in the graph. Right now, they’re just a little excited: after several years of growing at 25 per cent a year, savvy sales are faltering. Woo-hoo! But hang on a sec: they’re still growing at 18 per cent a year. Don’t spike the keg just yet!

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 12 July 2011.


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