When wine lovers think of Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends, their thoughts usually turn to Bordeaux. After all, that's where the classic blend of white varieties originated. But just as other regions have adopted the famous combination of red Bordeaux varieties--mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc--they've created their own versions of 'white Bordeaux.'
Nowhere is this fact more evident than in Western Australia. During a wine tour of the region last month, I was presented with a Bordeaux-style white wine at every winery that I visited. Not that I minded: I was instantly smitten with the wines for their crisp acidity, grassy notes and, often, hints of passion fruit and melon. The two varieties blended together create a more complex and delicious wine than either could be on its own.
In Western Australia, these blends are labeled either as Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon or Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc, depending on the dominating grape variety. Due to the Australian habit of abbreviating names, the wines are known in WA (Western Australia) as 'SBS' and 'SSB.' By whatever name they're called, they're the best-selling white wines in Western Australia. As a result, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes are in great demand there, and they command some of the highest prices. The bottled wines, however, don't reflect the high grape prices; they usually sell in Australia for $10-15 per bottle.
Unfortunately for Americans, many of the winemakers I met in Western Australia told me that they don't export much SSB/SBS to the U.S.; instead, they send us straight Sauvignon Blanc. Why? It seems the (mis)perception still exists among consumers in the United States that blends are somehow inferior to varietal wines. Such a shame!
Of course, American vintners have been producing SSB/SBS wines for years, modeled after the classic white Bordeaux blends. Some wineries label them as 'White Meritage,' while others give them fanciful proprietary names. Unlike the plentiful, value-priced Aussie wines, however, the U.S. versions tend to follow the Meritage model: small production and high-end. In style, they usually display a bit more power than their Australian cousins.
Regardless of which hemisphere they hail from, New World SBS/SSB wines are worth checking out. (If you can't find them locally, try wine-search websites like wine-searcher.com or snooth.com.) Or, better yet, catch the next plane for beautiful, remote Western Oz and drink your fill.
Following are Western Australian SBS/SSB wines that are available in the U.S., along with recommended American versions:
Chalice Bridge, Margaret River Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($20, Vinum Global): Made from 65% Semillon and 35% Sauvignon Blanc, this is Chalice Bridge's top-selling wine. It's fresh and clean, with passion fruit/guava aromas, grassy notes and good concentration.
Clairalt, Margaret River Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($20, Clairault, Inc.): A 50-50 blend, the wine has a lovely floral aroma and nice roundness, while retaining its fresh grapefruit aroma and flavor. It's crisp, but more complex and balanced than the winery's straight Sauvignon Blanc wine.
Moss Wood, Margaret River Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($22, USA Wine Imports): Made in stainless steel tanks, this SSB is heavy on the Semillon (70%), which gives it soft, round flavors of melon, along with flinty, mineral notes and balanced crispness.
Watershed, Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 'Shades' 2007 ($18, America Uncorked): With tropical aromas of passion fruit and guava, Watershed's SBS (70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon) has refreshing grapefruit/citrus flavors and a fresh, clean finish. This is one of my favorite Western Australian SBS wines.
Barwick Estates, Pemberton, Margaret River Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($13, Great Sunsan Imports): The Barwick SSB's tropical fruit aroma is accented with a pleasantly grassy edge. On the palate, it's crisp and balanced, with zesty citrus/lime flavors and mineral notes. It's a great value at just over $10.
Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 'Siblings' 2007 ($18, Old Bridge Cellars): Leeuwin's winemaker prefers to make his SBS in the grassy-herbal style, rather than in the tropical-fruit style some others prefer. The wine's aroma has notes of freshly cut grass and green beans, with crisp lemon-citrus flavor and balanced, bright acidity.
Clos Du Val, Napa Valley 'Ariadne' 2006 ($21): Named for the wife of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, the Ariadne is a blend of 68% Semillon and 32% Sauvignon Blanc. It has delicate aromas of peaches, honey and a hint of toasty oak, with round flavors balanced by fresh citrus notes and crisp acidity.
St. Supery, Napa Valley Meritage 'Virtu' 2006 ($28): Almost a 50-50 blend (the wine has 2% more Sauvignon Blanc), this SBS wine is labeled as 'White Meritage.' It has enticing aromas of passion fruit and guava, with lovely peach and melon flavors. Balanced and crisp, but not tart. Yum.
DeLille Cellars, Columbia Valley Chaleur Estate Blanc 2006 ($35): This Washington state SBS is a blend of 61% Sauvignon Blanc and 39% Semillon. It smells of vanilla custard, which made me think that the wine would be overwhelmed by oak. Not so. The wine's creamy, toasty character is nicely balanced by tangy citrus notes and a creamy texture.