Hunter Valley Semillion

I wrote this for Wine Australia’s Sommelier Immersion program.

Sorry I’ve been so busy. Regular updates will occur. For ‘rizzle.

A Vieux Certainty:

Some Suggestions for the Development of Hunter Valley Sémillion in the American Market

By Morgan Harris

For the Australian Wine Sommelier Immersion Program

February 28th, 2011

I believe that Hunter Valley Sémillion (hereafter, HVS) to be one of Australia’s greatest opportunities to expand in the US market, but caution must be taken in how this marvelously unique style of wine moves into the American market. Most of this burden falls on the shoulders of the producers of HVS. They must continue to focus on quality wine production, re-orient their distribution structure to afford for library releases, and travel to the American market to show their wines in vertical tastings.

Firstly, to discuss my understanding of HVS as a style, Sémillion is a fairly early-ripening, high-yielding grape variety with relatively thin skins. From it, generally medium-to-full bodied wines are made with dominant citrus and apple-and-pear orchard fruit notes. In its traditional home of Bordeaux, the wines are mixed with Sauvignon Blanc (for acid balance) and Muscadelle (for aromatics). The best examples are always oaked. Besides the Hunter and its expression in Bordeaux, its not grown and labeled varietally in significant quantities anywhere except perhaps Washington State, but it used to be grown in large quantities in South Africa and Chile. Being a low-acid grape, it favors soils of relatively low pH in order to make structured, balanced wine. In the Hunter, James Halliday suggests that these take the form of sandy, alluvial flats.Climate in the Hunter is moderated by river and ocean breezes, afternoon cloud cover, and humidity. This helps the wine maintain a healthy acid-alcohol balance, as well as assisting in consistent phenolic development. Oak is never used in classic HVS and many are malo-blocked in order to maintain structurally desirable acid.

The best examples of HVS are fully structured and mineral, with bracing acidity. They’re quite primary in their youth, displaying lime, lemon notes as well as under ripe pears and green apple. After five or six years, the wines begin to uncoil from their youthful bindings, yielding a stunning cornucopia of fruit flavors: lemon curd, kafir lime, yuzu, peach skins, tart nectarines, just to name a few. More important (for me, at least) are the secondary elements of beeswax, toast, dusty chalk minerality, and intense hoppy-herbal notes which are nothing like aged white Bordeaux. The wines undoubtedly have the structure to develop for decades. The ’74s and ‘77s from top-notch producers are widely sought-after by collectors. Aged HVS is truly a singular wine, and this fact lives at the core of my proposal for their development in the American market.

As a marketing minor in college, my professors instilled in me the importance of understanding how products function relative to the marketplace, both within their category and within the general economy. Interest in wine in the US market in wine is unquestionably on the rise. Marketers can count on this being the truth as larger portions of America embrace the foodie lifestyle. Moreover, wine consumers are consistently more curious and looking for products based on tradition, unique qualities, and above all, deliciousness. Consumers are less interested in point scores and more interested whether or not the wine is good and a value. The development of HVS in the American market must capitalize on these factors.

The principle strength of HVS is the fact that it is the category. Most other varieties have to compete with other expressions of the grapes from around the world (Bordeaux varieties, Burgundy varieties, etc.), but HVS is the sole quality example of the style. Much like Château Musar in Lebanon, or the white wines of López De Heredia in Spain, quality producers of HVS have very little competition in terms of similar wines. White Bordeaux is oaked (generally a disadvantage for whites in the American market), and has reached such absurd prices in recent years that you can hardly compare it to HVS. With the exception of Grosses Gewächs dry Riesling and perhaps Savennières, there are very few wines which display any similarity in terms of structure and longevity, let alone aromatics.

And here we have the next key, Hunter Valley Sémillion is a quality wine. Increasing production without regard to quality will be the ruin of HVS. Trying to turn it into the next New Zeland Sauvignon Blanc would be disastrous (at least in the American market). Producers must continue to focus on quality by only planting on the best sites, restricting yields, avoiding botrytis, and practicing all the other tenants of quality viticulture and vinification for dry white table wine.

Certainly the most difficult part of my proposal is the focus on holding wine for ex-cellar library release. Unfortunately, HVS is a remarkably miserly wine in its youth. I identify the structure and pedigree in young HVS, but aromatically, they’re simply ungenerous. Only at 5-10 years of age do they begin to develop the sublime aromas which make old HVS of the most revelatory wines I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. This, again, is the burden of the producers. Hopefully, their cash flow will allow them to begin to hold wines for later release ex-cellar. If not, they should make an effort to restructure their business plans to afford this luxury.

And then comes the most important part about moving HVS into the American market: the people. The day that my colleagues tasted through our HVS flight, there were definitely some very wide, surprised eyes. We were definitely jazzed about the wines and the tasting was a first for many of us. The quality was undeniable. This needs to be shown! Producers need to make library releases available to taste the American market, even if there’s not enough of it cellared to actually sell in quantities at the moment. The work that Australian Wine’s immersion program has done definitely put HVS on the map for me, and I think that allowing more sommeliers and retailers to taste older, mature vintages of these wines will enable the category to blossom. Young HVS will never sell itself, but the older wines definitely do. Wine professionals who work in markets with large amounts of storage space will definitely begin to pick up wines from recent releases for cellaring. Unfortunately, in a market with real-estate prices as astronomic as New York, I simply don’t have the facilities to cellar wines for 5-10 years before putting them on our list. I also don’t have any interest in putting young HVS on my list, unless perhaps I was working in a high-concept, all-Australian restaurant.

If you get the wine professional understanding and enthusiastic about the majesty of HVS, the rest will follow. The wines are not a far deviation from mainstream American palate in the way that many wine nerd and sommelier darlings are. This is not voile-wine from the Jura. This is not extended maceration Ribolla Cialla from Friuil. This is not off-dry Méthod Ancestral Gamay from the Savoie. These are wines that the average consumer will unquestionably enjoy. I believe aged HVS to be incredibly saleable in the American market (especially in restaurants, given its food-friendly qualities) if back-vintages of the wine becomes available for purchase.

To conclude, the general nature of this market positioning is one of “Blue Ocean” strategy. Aged HVS shouldn’t compete with an existing sector of the wine market, because it doesn’t have to, due to its unique qualities. Aged HVS must create its own category. Unfortunately, as a young wine, it doesn’t do this very well because it’s too similar to many other full-bodied, clean, aperitif-style whites (unoaked white Burgundy, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, etc.).

Aged HVS is the definition of its category. It stands alone. Aged HVS will compete with other wines on a general level, but that’s a given in any market. There’s really nothing similar to aged HVS and expansion of the style in the American market should rely on this. HVS Producers would do well to look at certain German producers’ (Zilliken, etc.) focus on library releases, as well as the aforementioned Château Musar of Lebanon and López De Heredia in Spain to get a picture of how HVS might most successfully function in the American market. Tyrrell’s seems to be one of the few producers in the Hunter to have already developed this model, and I advise other producers to follow their lead. Furthermore, education and marketing should focus on getting wine professionals in major metropolitan areas to understand how HVS develops in the bottle, because as it stands, HVS’s potential (one might say necessity) for cellaring is widely misunderstood.

About Morgan

Liquid enthusiast. Sommelier and wine communicator living and working in New York City.
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