The Force of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – but is it Culture?

BLENHEIM, New Zealand. – When renowned American wine writer and critic Matt Kramer referred to it as the biggest single success story the modern wine world has seen, he wasn’t kidding. The category known as New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has in 46 years grown from literally zero vines and nada litres to 24 000ha of vineyard planted in the dry alluvial and clay soils on the South Island’s Marlborough region, seeing 340 000 tons of grapes crushed annually and making 255m litres of wine.

But in his address to the 2nd International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Blenheim in the heart of Marlborough wine country, Kramer wasn’t referring to volume  but to the P Factor. Thing is, all this deluge of juice has garnered a premium image, his home-country being a case in point. Some 30% of all Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is exported to the States where on-shelf prices average between the mouth-watering tags of 15USD to 30USD a bottle.

The premium image continues through to the other markets of Britain and Australia, with total exports of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc currently pegged at 1,8bn NZD (R18bn) in value, with the objective of eclipsing 2bn NZD by 2020.

All this that we’re talking of is, take note, Sauvignon Blanc.

Still, according to Kramer there’s something missing. “Sauvignon Blanc is a wine lacking a culture,” he said, causing the Sancerre-fans in the audience to wince into their frothed lattés. “Unlike the wines throughout the world associated with Bordeaux and Burgundy, there is no culture of Sauvignon Blanc,” said Kramer. “Here, in Marlborough, you have the opportunity to develop a true Sauvignon Blanc culture.”

Andy Erickson from Favia, Thys Louw, and Sam Harrop MW.

During a tasting of Sauvignon Blancs from around the world, Thys Louw, cellarmaster at Diemersdal Estate in Durbanville, South Africa who was invited to the event on behalf of the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group, told the audience the culture Kramer had alluded to earlier was already present.
“If you smell and taste this wine,” he said pointing to the glass of Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc 2018, “anywhere in the world this would stand-out as a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. And now that, I think, is what one can call culture.”

Other wines in the comparative tasting were Winkler-Hermaden Steirischke Klassik 2017 (Austria), Favia Linea Coombsville 2017 (Napa, California), Vincent Pinard Chêne Marchand Sancerre 2017 (France), Martinborough Vineyard Te Tera 2018 (Martinborough, New Zealand), Zephyr MKIII 2017 (Marlborough, New Zealand), Château Doisy-Daëne Grand Vin Sec 2016 (Bordeaux) and Diemersdal Winter Ferment 2018 (South Africa).

Also included was Kramer’s wild-card, a French Sauvignon Gris from Guilhem&J-Hugues Goisot Saint-Bris Corps de Garde Blanc 2015.

This was a spectacular array of wines doing a neat demolition job of certain aficionados’ fingering Sauvignon Blanc as boring and one-dimensional. Tim Atkin MW famously said he would not be attending the first International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in 2016 as he had a sock-drawer that needed rearranging. Which neatly complemented Burgundy boffin Remington Norman once telling me that “there is only one time to harvest Sauvignon Blanc, and that is never”.

Forget about it. The variety can show. The Favia Linea from Napa had a sunny New World plushness, broadened by 10 months in barrel, 25% new. That Sancerre was a beaut, having the assembled crowd commenting in hushed tones on the spice, hay, wild grass and tingling wetness of the wine from a category of French greatness.

Diemersdal’s Winter Ferment was pegged as one of the stand-out wines in the line-up, Sam Harrop MW commenting on its exact varietal characteristics and exuberance. The Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough on the New Zealand North Island, Te Tera 2018 displayed its cooler environs and lengthy hang-time with enough tropical character to apply for a Hawaii holiday.

But it was Marlborough that brought us here, and Wairau River wine showed those leafy green features, elevated by stones, gooseberry, cut tomato vines and a bracing freshness.

With the audience subdued after the stunning array of wines from one variety, Kramer raised the interesting point of Where to Now for Marlborough? At this stage Thys and I were looking at each other with surprised frowns: such a bloody successful industry, what happened to “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”?

Marlborough country.

Turns out, the next big is the questions surrounding the possible need for a move to site-specific bottlings from various regions within Marlborough country. Currently the Champagne model is predominantly used, with cellars drawing-up wines from vastly diverse patches of vineyard. Is the single vineyard, terroir-driven Burgundian model on the cards for the future to create a bit of X-factor?

Personal observations are that the success of Marlborough lies in the way that region and variety have combined to create one behemoth of a quality, premier wine brand resonating loudly and viscerally to global consumers. Even Cloudy Bay Wines’ magisterial Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc, a beautiful wooded wine, is made of various vineyard blocks that are not the same every year.

While wine-makers and growers might enjoy the game of single-vineyard and differently flavoured juice from diverse patches of dirt and climate, at this stage the success lies in the region’s focussed simplicity, as well as superbly made big-volume wines that play a major role in driving the global wine category.

At this stage, the force is with Marlborough and doesn’t need changing.

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3 thoughts on “The Force of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – but is it Culture?

  1. We love unwooded NZ Savvie and drink a lot of it. We love the racy green goosberry and (yes) cat’s pee flavours.

    The only region that produces equal wines is the Cape; in particular Springfield Esate (usualy prefer Life from Stone otherwise Special Cuvee), Diemersdal, Nitida, Spier, Southern Right – oh th elist goes on. Cracking good savvies

    1. Agree 100% Peter. The NZ sauvignon blancs range between very good and outstanding and have a very distinctive flavour – I would add grassy to your descriptions! The local one that comes closest for my liking is Life from Stone with Cederberg a distant second.
      A pity it’s so hard to find the NZ brands here.

  2. RE what next. There’s been huge savvie over production in Marlborough. I’m guessing they are thinking of a time when the buying public tire of SB. The memory of the ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) mood is at the front of their minds and other varieties are being planted in Marlborough.

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