Semillon Blanc and other odd things

I was led by a friend to a rather interesting article by Huon Hooke in "Business Day" (a Fairfax website) , entitled "Hunter Valley winemaker launches "semillon blanc"".  You can read it here.  Huon Hooke is one of Australia's most senior wine writers.  Largely, the story is this: Marlborough sauvignon blanc has sold devastatingly well in Australia and "home grown" semillon not so well.  Solution:  big Australian producer McGuigan brings out a new wine made from semillon and calls it "The Semillon Blanc".  Apparent result: sales go up.  The wine's label is shown in the linked article and here on McGuigan's website.

I had some thoughts on aspects of this.  First, I will let you ponder two quotes:

"If the taste of Marlborough sauvignon blanc is so popular, why is traditional Australian semillon so unpopular?"

"But Australian 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 sauvignon, really. So why is it in the doldrums?"

These comments would appear to assume that there is quite some similarity between sauvignon blanc and semillon.  Indeed, I have recently read elsewhere that "Some New World semillons are so vegetal they could be mistaken for Sauvignon Blanc".  But, to be honest, while I guess it's possible, they seem so darn different to my palate!  Semillon can be neutral, acidic and unapproachable in its youth, but can age gloriously in its Hunter Valley robes, and usually features low alcohol.  Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough conversely is instantly recognisable, perhaps even more so in blind tastings - highly aromatic, often predictable and immediately easy to drink, with aged examples more likely to be a case of "woops, I forgot to drink that" than intent.  Their similarities to me would seem to end at white and fruit driven, which also can describe many other grape varieties.

And then there are the meaty bits of the article:

"They've had no choice but to look in helpless horror as their market is progressively eaten away by Kiwi producers. Now, an Australian winery has decided to do something about it; McGuigan has launched a wine labelled The Semillon Blanc.  The packaging is clever and the target buyer is influenced by this. It looks good and has a simple message on its label. The name is The Semillon Blanc 2011 ($12.99) with the words ''Refreshing, crisp and aromatic''.

Some buyers will probably assume it's 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,'' he says ... 

The wine is already doing exceptionally well in Britain. ''This wine has single-handedly lifted McGuigan's semillon sales in the UK by 52 per cent,'' he says ... 
The 2011 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."

So, it seems here that the semillon grapes perhaps have been crafted to produce a more sauvignon blanc like result, if Huon's tasting note is anything to go by.  Even so, it appears to be a case of somewhat cheeky labelling.  While I understand why a producer might want to do this, if I saw this front label without the benefit of this context, I would think, without more, that the wine was an example of the classic blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc.  And putting to one side the merits of making one grape taste like another, I am also a little troubled by an approach which seeks to make a wine label look similar to another more commercially successful grape variety.  Perhaps others would not see these concerns and take the wine at face value - after all, it does not say it is sauvignon blanc.  And perhaps a third group would say "who cares?"

Nonetheless, I am left thinking something perhaps too obvious: why don't they just plant more sauvignon blanc and say sauvignon blanc on the label?
Wine Thoughts
July 16, 2011


Red said…
Interesting piece.

I'm really not sure how any comparison could be drawn between semillon and Malborough sav blanc. Even a semillon made in a richer style still doesn't look anything like Malborough sav blanc. When has a semillon ever smelt like passionfruit and cat's pee!
Anonymous said…
Have you tried any Hunter Valley Sauvignon Blancs lately ? There's a reason they don't grow much there, ya know.
Sean Mitchell said…
Red - I'm with you mate.

Anon - Er, that would be a "no", I suspect for the reason you imply :) That said, McGuigan produced this wine from Riverland grapes, and I suspect their scale would ensure access to grapes from all over to make whatever they wish to make.


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