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Semillon Blanc is the new Sauvignon Blanc

Neil McGuigan, the multiple award-winning winemaker and new interim CEO for Australian Vintage, talks to Felicity Murray about his plan to revolutionise the Australian wine category

Neil McGuigan Australian Vintage

Neil McGuigan, the multiple award-winning winemaker and new interim CEO for Australian Vintage, talks to Felicity Murray about his plan to revolutionise the Australian wine category

Now that Constellation Brands and Australian Vintage have agreed to not agree on a merger it’s time to “stop sitting on our hands, get off our butts and make some decisions” according to the former production manager now acting CEO for Australian Vintage, Neil McGuigan.

“What I want to do is put the wine back into the wine business,” he says. “My view is that the wine should be the hero – if you make the wine the hero the business will look after itself. I want our brand to be respected and recognised as one of the greats at every price point.”

“However,” he adds, “quality is one issue, revolution and innovation is another.”

He believes Australia must evolve its wine styles to keep up with consumers’ changing tastes and expectations: “We have already evolved our big jammy wines into something more elegant so that we’re giving the consumer a wine with all the character they expect from the variety but much more refreshing and at a lower alcohol level.

But, he says, Australia also needs to be much more innovative in its wine styles if it is to find a “fight-back” in white wine to compete with the popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines in the UK.

So what was it going to be? He had considered a number of varieties: “Riesling has a fair bit of baggage (that sweet stuff from Germany), Pinot Gris – the Italians have that cornered, Voignier – no one can pronounce it, although,” he adds, “my colleague did came up with a marketing campaign ‘good on yer Viognier’ to get people to pronounce it! Then there’s Semillon – its beautiful crisp and lemony and wins lots of awards, but it’s the wrong style for the average consumer,” he explains.

Neil decided to make a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc style of wine from Semillon, because, he recalls, back in the 1970’s Australia used to sell wine mainly by generic style – rather than by variety. In white wines, for example, Lindeman’s was producing a white Burgundy, a Riesling and a Chablis style all from the same variety – Semillon.

So he presented the spec he wanted to a number of his wine-makers each to produce a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc style wine from Semillon grapes.
The final selected wine certainly has all the qualities of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but, instead of a short finish on the palate, it has great length.

“Semillon ticks all the boxes,” says Neil, “it’s a recognisable classic grade A grape variety that isn’t too difficult to pronounce, it’s fresh and zesty, has a full flavour, lower alcohol (11-11.5%abv), longevity, no oak and no luggage (unlike Riesling, for example) and we can do it at all price points and different styles.”
The name for the new wine is McGuigan Semillon Blanc and it will carry a neck collar to explain the new brand and the new wine style to consumers.
It has proven an instant success with the trade with Dan Jago, head of Tesco's Wine, Beer and Spirits division, requesting it as an exclusive for six months (from July) as he believes it to be ‘the most exciting white wine to come out of Australia in the last five to six years.’

Neil is now working on the evolution of the company’s red wine varieties with new varietal plantings and different viticulture techniques to produce a truly ‘soft’ Merlot.

Australian Vintage bottles its fine and premier wines in traditional heavy weight glass but for its £6 and below bottles, the wine is shipped in bulk instead of glass, which saves costs in both logistics and environmental impact. Some 55m cases are packaged in the UK, which has represented in a saving of 1,300 tonnes in the last 12 months. The company has not only reduced its glass weight substantially but also its carton weight by 20 tonnes.

1 May 2010