Selling semillon

Sales and marketing are often conflated, cancelling out the effect of either on consumers, who fail to respond. Yet, at the recent Vinpro Information Day, Ultra Liquors Mark Norrish, explained their respective roles are quite clear. ‘Sales is getting goods on to retailers shelves; marketing is the art of getting those goods off the shelves.’ In other words creating consumer demand.

Marketing remains a challenge for many (most?) South African producers. It’s often winemakers with great personality who attract the public attention; many make some of the country’s best wines, so are worthy of such attention. In today’s crowded market, even a producer with a quality range, can be overlooked if not featured regularly on social media or in the news: perception is all important.

Would semillon be an easier sell under a brand rather than varietal name?

Much the same roller coaster applies to varieties or wine styles. I often bemoan the seeming inertia of some of the interest groups; the Chenin Blanc Association and Méthode Cap Classique Association are admirable exceptions, promoting chenin and bubbly respectively to consumers as well as research among their members to improve quality.
Sadly, semillon has no such producer fan club. It’s ironic that semillon and riesling, two varieties the media, both local and international, regularly enthuse about, struggle to gain similar enthusiasm from consumers. And that’s not for want of highly-profile producers making super wines from these grapes.

A discussion on Facebook involving retailers, consultants and experienced winelovers, all of whom enjoy semillon, has thrown up a variety of thoughts. Firstly that semillon has never been fashionable; it deserves its place in the market but needs to be hand sold by someone who believes in the wines and is able to tell the stories behind them. Another detraction for today’s ‘immediate’ society is that semillon requires several years to show at its best. In its youth, traditional semillon from Hunter River in Australia’s New South Wales, for example, is rather neutral. With lowish alcohol and unoaked, it’s not a promising start; 10 years and more down the line, it’s a different story, with all sorts of toasty, nutty flavours developing, which lead many to think it’s been in oak, turn the wine into a flavoursome individual. White Bordeaux, usually sauvignon-semillon blends, fuller-bodied and oaked, likewise needs those pesky years to turn from chrysalis to butterfly.

The view of one retailer is that consumers do buy semillon, but not because it’s semillon, rather because of the brand behind it. Where on Eben Sadie’s Old Vine Series Kokkerboom does the word Semillon appear? Yet that wine is as popular as the others in the range. Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh, Boekenhoutskloof (Semillon) or Landau du Val; winelovers are buying on those names rather than because of the variety, so says my retailer.

Landau du Val’s semillon vineyard, planted in 1905

Landau du Val Semillon comes from a vineyard planted in 1905, one of the oldest in the Cape. Basil and Jane Landau bought the Franschhoek farm, La Brie in the mid 1980s and with it this four hectare semillon vineyard (there is also some pinotage on another block), which they have nurtured ever since. The first vintage under their ownership was in 1995 and over the years a series of winemakers in various cellars have been responsible for its vinification. My ten-year-old 2009 was in the hands of Anina Guelpa, also winemaker at then Anatu Wines.

These and the many other old semillon vines in Franschhoek produce wines with a very particular character. They are flavourful rather than fruity (semillons from new clones and cool, coastal vineyards are reminiscent of lemon grass, tangerine and more than a nod to sauvignon blanc as well), with a broad, heavy silk texture, emphasised by the concentration of old vines.

Tim James, who tasted the 2009 for Platter 2011 edition, describes it as: ‘Always serene & lovely. 09 no exception, with its classic notes of lemon, lanolin & wax – &, in youth, a hint of oak (ferm/9 mths, half new). Satisfying, easy drinking with the force of ancient vines shown only in long, lingering subtlety.’

With age has developed a ripe, honeyed note, adding another dimension to the ever-present lemon, lanolin and wax. The oak is fully assimilated, as one would hope, now evident only in the wine’s extra breadth. To an extent, the serenity Tim writes of is still there, but this is a big wine, 14.5% declared on the label, with apparent lowish acid and lacking freshness, so his ‘easy drinking’ is less easy to reconcile. By no means a sipping style, it went very well with my pork rasher and veg; it does need food to bring out the best in it. Despite semillon’s record for longevity, I’d rather drink this over the next year or two before the alcohol glow becomes too pronounced. That said, it is an authentic example of old vine, Franschhoek semillon.

For those who believe I’m a diehard purist, enjoy the following. I like to drink a glass of white wine as I cook my supper, but the Landau du Val being unsuited to such aperitif sipping, I had opened a 2018 fresh, 12.5% alc chenin; perfect from a refreshing point of view, but rather rawly youthful after the semillon. Cheekily, I added a few splashes of chenin to the semillon. Bingo! Who says age and youth can’t make perfect partners.

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