Dave Cleary, West Cape Howe Wines, WA

Dave Cleary, West Cape Howe Wines, WA

Name: Dave Cleary

SSB jostles for position among most popular white varieties

Blends of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are fast becoming one of the most popular styles of wine in Australia. They now represent the third largest selling white wine behind Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. What has caused this apparent surge in popularity and is it likely to continue? Or is the bubble about to burst as the consumer finds its next fad or exotic white varietal?

While Chardonnay is far and away the most popular white varietal, almost 3.5 times greater in Australian wine sales than second placed Sauvignon Blanc, there is plenty of jostling for positions amongst the also rans. Semillon Sauvignon Blanc (SSB) blends are leading this charge, and when combined with Sauvignon Blanc Semillon (SBS) blends, are within a whisker of taking outright second place*.

The origin of this blend in Australia is hard to pinpoint, but the early years of Western Australia's winemaking industry would have to take some of the credit. The Classic Dry White styles that have become synonymous with WA whites were often based on the two varieties in question, as well as generous portions of Verdelho and Chenin Blanc. I've heard many a winemaker argue, in hindsight, that these wines bore only one of the qualities their name suggested, as they were neither classic, nor dry. Thankfully the industry and consumer's palates have since matured and the quality of this style has improved dramatically.

However, this style did provide a great launching pad for the modern day Semillon Sauvignon Blanc. These wines are often dry and refreshing, fruit driven and with no, or only very subtle oak influence. Those with oak are considered a more serious style and often command a higher price, but only represent a very small portion of this market segment. Interestingly, these oaked blends are often Sauvignon Blanc dominant and are perceived as being of a higher quality. They also command a higher price, with their average being almost $30 per dozen higher than the Semillon dominant blends.

The Australian consumer's palate has matured greatly in the past 40 years or so. From the fortified and Ben Ean Moselle days of the 1960s and 1970s, through the over-oaked Chardonnays and 'sunshine in a bottle' styles of the 1980s and 1990s, to the current more subtle and fruit driven wines we enjoy today. So too has their knowledge and understanding of wine increased. Never before have we seen so many wine articles, books, reviews, television segments or wine writers as we do today. Consumers are being bombarded with information and opinion, continually drinking it up and constantly seeking more. Our current generation of customers are the most informed, knowledgable and confident wine drinkers we have seen. Our industry, especially here in Australia, has lost much of the elitism and pretentious stigma it once carried. Consumers are far more confident about wine and are now often prepared to talk aloud about a wine's virtues, even if they may be paraphrasing their favourite wine scribe.

The emergence and popularity of the SSB style is evidence of this, providing consumers with an easily understood wine. The back labels on these bottles often provide strong, obvious and recognisable descriptors of the wines attributes, as opposed to the 'subtle nuances' and similar such waffle offered by other varieties. The style is usually vibrant and rich in clean fresh flavours with a refreshing palate that is far from offensive. It is neither aggressive nor harsh, and mostly generous in flavour that is nicely balanced by acidity. Perhaps it's biggest criticism is the lack of complexity that some connoiseurs demand, yet for the most part this style is more about everyday drinking than special events. It is a wine to be drunk and enjoyed, rather than cellared and pontificated.

Global warming and climate change are currently major topics of public debate. They are also quite passionately discussed in everyday conversation around dinner tables and barbeques. But is it going too far to suggest climate change may be responsible for increased sales in SSB blends? As the majority of our country swelters in drought conditions, consumers are looking for a refreshing drink to moisten their parched palates. What style of wine should one reach for on these hot, dry afternoons? Full bodied whites with broad oily palates and lashings of oak? Or something with bright refreshing flavours? SSB's are the perfect style to solve this quandry. Fruit driven, dry, refreshing styles with intense flavours ranging from green bean and cut grass through citrus and on to tropical notes. Zesty acidity, moderate alcohol levels and residual sugar levels kept in check, combine for a refreshing consumer experience, and one where you can easily enjoy a glass or two....

Or are the Australian consumers a little more simplistic in their decision making and want something familiar and easy to say? The oft-maligned lazy Australian trait of shortening every name possible may have even impacted our wine market. It is much easier to ask a retailer for a Sem Sauv Blanc, a Sem Sauv or better yet an SSB, than risk the embarrassment of incorrectly pronouncing one of those fancy new varieties of Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Rousanne or Arneis!

For many years Semillon has been out of fashion with consumers, and by some even seen as a little geeky. Despite being the workhorse of many blends, it has had to define its own truly Australian style in the wines of the Hunter Valley to finally gain some, albeit limited, consumer acceptance. Its appeal has always been limited though, as it has often been seen as one of last season's fashions. Recently however, it has chosen its friends very wisely. By linking arm in arm with its new partner Sauvignon Blanc, arguably the current leader in wine pop culture, Semillon seems to have redefined itself and appears to be mixing it in the cool part of the wine world. With no pretentious edge, it displays the relaxed and down to earth characters consumers are chasing. It appears to be a case of what you see is what you get.

It is difficult to isolate any one reason for the increased popularity of the SSB blend style. And to suggest it was the result of just one factor would probably be a little too naive. Many have argued a varied range of reasons, but whichever combination it is, we can be sure that Semillon Sauvignon Blanc wines are certainly winning in the popularity stakes with Australian consumers. How long it will last is anyone's guess. But while it does, I'll certainly continue to enjoy the reliability and value for money this style provides.

* AC Neilsen, August 2006

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