Whites of delight
Ahhh summer. There aren’t many things better than kicking back on a warm sunny afternoon and enjoying a chilled glass of white wine. More often than not that wine will be a Classic Dry White. For those of you who don’t know, this is actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (SBS or more commonly, SSB).
Did that surprise you? After all, it is the most popular white blend in the country and it has been for ages. Yep. Years, and I am talking decades, before Sauv Blanc cast its spell on us, we were downing this crisp, refreshing white by the bucket load. We still do and probably will long into the future.
What really got me thinking is the reason why it is so popular. I mean, we produce world class Semillon in Australia, but (shamefully) we hardly drink it. We also deliver pretty good Sauv Blanc, but for some reason most of us prefer to buy it from across the ditch. Blend these two varieties together, however, and its like Harry Potter has grown up to become a winemaker and put a spell on all the bottles of SSB to make them insanely appealing to the drinking public.
Bubble bubble, little toil, no trouble
Technically speaking, I can understand why you would blend these two varieties. You take the lazy grassy aromas and tropical flavour of Sauvignon Blanc and smarten it up with the structure and mouthfeel of Semillon. It’s like an overweight teenager with nice skin making use of a season pass to the gym. Conversely, and this is perhaps a reason given by those who can’t take to the super zingy freshness of young Semillon, it softens the acidic nature of Sem and endows it with a subtle fruit-punch appeal.
Value-wise, it is also very appealing. Most SSBs on the market are somewhere between $15 and $25. And while it is not the first choice match for most dishes, it goes pretty well with a range foods, especially summery fare such as seafood, salads and mezze plates. Add all that up, and SSBs seem like a pretty handsome proposition. Must be those hours in the gym!
A bit of history
While Australia has taken SSBs to its vinous heart since the 1980s, this classic white blend has actually been produced for donkeys in the south-west of France, namely Bordeaux and Bergerac. More often than not it is as the crisp, dry white that we are familiar with, but the French also blend Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc to make the sweet dessert wine, Sauternes.
Western Australia’s Margaret River virtually owns the Classic Dry White category in this country, which again, is a bit strange seeing the region isn’t really noted for producing either Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc in their own right. But, as you probably know by now, when talking about wine in this country, two plus two doesn’t always equal four.
So what gives here? Well, two things (or more if you adhere to my mathematics from above). The Margaret River region was the first to really latch onto the SSB blend. It became popular at cellar door and other producers in the region saw it as their ‘bread and butter’ wine, and jumped on board. When the region started selling their wine to the rest of the country, Margs had already established a reputation for producing refreshing and attractively priced Classic Dry White. They have been running with it ever since. But as we found out in this tasting, there are other regions starting to cotton on.
The magic of Margaret
The second reason is best answered by Kim Horton, senior winemaker at Willow Bridge Estate in Margaret River.
“You would think that by looking at the Semillons from the eastern seaboard, that as a variety it would be the least likely to sit with Sauvignon Blanc in a blend,” levels Kim.
“However the weather conditions in Western Australia’s south allow clean and longer ripening of Semillon. The Semillon aromatics are very herbaceous and grassy, but also, depending on the climate, quite lemon dominant or veering towards watermelon and guava. In short, what one variety lacks, the other can assist.”
The Tasting and the results
For this State of Play tasting we looked at SSBs from across the country. Naturally, the majority of the wines entered were from the Margaret River region, and they dominated the Top 30, with 19 wines. Five of the other top scorers were from other Western Australian regions, namely Great Southern and Frankland River. Of these WA wines, most have Sauvignon Blanc as the dominant partner in the blend.
An interesting observation from this tasting was the subtle use of oak which brings a bit of structure to the mid-palate, particularly of the Sauv Blanc dominant wines. This added complexity broadens SSB’s food matching abilities and shows the blend has an exciting future away from its ‘simplistic’ label.
The most surprising result was that two of the three top scoring wines were not from WA! The Drayton’s 2013 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc was top of the pops, wowing the judges with its savoury nose and fantastic mouthfeel. While the Grosset 2015 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc earned its spot on the podium with its thrillingly elegant purity and ripe fruit characters.
The most notable feature of these wines, as with most of the other standouts from the eastern seaboard, was the fact that the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc were sourced from different regions. For instance, for the Grosset, the Sem was Clare Valley, the Sauv Blanc from the Adelaide Hills.
“For me, the perfect SSB blend must be from two regions,” says Clare Valley winemaker Jeffrey Grosset. “Semillon from a mild climate with plenty of sunshine to achieve a generous citrus and structured palate, and Sauvignon Blanc from a cooler climate, such as the Adelaide Hills, where it can achieve tropical gooseberry-like flavours. To produce a blend from one region alone is unlikely to achieve the depth of flavour and balance.”
The sentiment is shared by Edgar Vales, winemaker at Drayton’s, who sees a real future for SSB in the Hunter.
“There is a synergy that exists between the two varieties,” says Edgar. “Particularly with Hunter Sem blended with Sauv Blanc from cooler regions such as Orange, Adelaide Hills or Tasmania.”
While you can expect to see the emergence of new names in the SSB category, the Margaret River region will continue to shine. And that’s music, a classic (dry white) hit, to the ears of winemakers like Kim, and the drinking public.
“The fact most parts of Australia enjoy six months of sunshine, a high percentage live near the coast and with our general love of fresh seafood, the Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blend is a perfect accompaniment to our everyday life.”
The Top 30 Classic Dry Whites (November 2015)
Drayton’s Family Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Hunter Valley, $20)
Howard Park ‘Miamup’ Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013 (Margaret River, $28)
Grosset Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Clare Valley/Adelaide Hills, $35)
Happs Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $24)
Redgate Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $22.50)
Vasse Felix Classic Dry White Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River, $19)
Willow Bridge Estate Dragonfly Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Geographe, $20)
Rob Dolan Trye Colours Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013 (Yarra Valley, $24)
Fermoy Estate Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River, $22)
Miles From Nowhere Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2015 (Margaret River $15)
Millbrook Winery Barking Owl Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River, $17.95)
Moss Brothers Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River $25)
Forester Estate Block Splitter Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $20).
Trevelen Farm Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Great Southern, $20)
Serafino Goose Island Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (McLaren Vale, $18)
Deep Woods Estate Ivory Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2015 (Margaret River, $14.95)
The Lane Vineyard Gathering Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013 (Adelaide Hills, $35)
Alkoomi Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Frankland River, $15)
Juniper Estate Crossing Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $20)
Rockcliffe Quarram Rocks Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Great Southern, $21)
Killerby Estate Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $26)
Driftwood Estate Artifacts Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $25)
Churchview Estate Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $20)
Glandore Estate Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Hunter Valley/Orange, $23)
Hay Shed Hill Block 1 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $30)
Evans & Tate Classic Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $14)
Pepper Tree Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Hunter Valley/Tasmania, $19)
Forest Hill Vineyard The Broker Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Western Australia, $22)
Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $25)
McWilliam’s Wines Catching Thieves Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Margaret River, $18)
See Wine Selectors complete range of Classic Dry Whites