The Imbibe Debate: KiwiSauvigon

Drinks: Wines

Iconic it might be, but Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is not without its detractors. James Lawrence asks two industry experts whether it’s time for the country to shed its Sauvignon obsession

Does New Zealand produce too much Sauvignon Blanc and not enough of everything else?

Gérard Basset MW MS, Co-founder of Hotel du Vin and owner of Hotel TerraVina

New Zealand is a country of incredible diversity and physical beauty. The quality of its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, not to mention Syrah, has arguably never been higher, and great progress in winemaking and viticulture continues apace. And yet, this icon of the wine world may be in danger of being associated with a monotone category of wine – an image that New Zealand must quickly dispel.

Business leaders are very fond of the expression ‘never put all your eggs in one basket’ and Chardonnay is a classic case in point. I remember when consumers couldn’t get enough of this wonderful variety and yet, today, a sizeable majority of consumers refuse to touch it. Imagine if New Zealand had planted mainly Chardonnay – we would undoubtedly see quite a few wineries out of business.

Fashion conscious
Certainly, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has found enormous favour with consumers in the UK, and there are no signs that this will change in the short term. But wine drinking, like any cultural activity, is subject to the vagaries of fashion. Taste is fickle and in 10 years’ time consumers may well tire of the grassy, green gooseberry character and long for the broad, buttery notes of Chardonnay. New Zealand could then be in serious trouble, especially if it continues to produce enormous quantities of Sauvignon Blanc as the overriding driving force behind its global brand.

Diversity is the key and, as any sommelier knows, New Zealand can be relied on to produce ripe but structured Pinot Noir, Syrah and Riesling – to name but a few – of varying styles. And this is a credit to the hard work and talent of its winemakers, not to mention the exceptional terroir. My concern is that too many wineries will continue to jump on the Sauvignon Blanc bandwagon, which may lead to a loss in quality. At the New Zealand Trade Tasting this year I tasted some excellent examples, with Astrolabe and Jackson Estate clear leaders. However, I also tasted quite a few indifferent or
even bad wines; green and bitter notes and a lack of depth were apparent – not an association the Kiwis want to foster.

Taste is fickle and consumers
may tire of gooseberry character

Beaujolais was once held in great esteem by wine consumers and the trade alike, but today its fortunes have declined. [Though it’s time to rethink Beaujolais with the 2009 vintage as our tasting on p.144 shows! – Ed] New Zealand does not want to go down the same path. Its winemakers need to shout loud and clear: ‘We are a land of diversity, not monotony.’

At the trade event I also tasted some exceptional Grüner Veltliner. It is perfectly suited to the terroir, producing wines of vitality and raciness as good as any produced in Austria. NZ Riesling continues to impress too, and has helped to bring that much-misunderstood variety slowly back into consumer favour.

The Kiwis have started to get this message across, and winemakers such as Tony Bish of Sacred Hill should be commended for producing a range of iconic wines that don’t rely on the Sauvignon Blanc mass appeal. For example, consumers are increasingly aware of the quality of the Pinot Noir, and the challenge now is to expose the broader appeal of New Zealand to a much wider audience. We need to convince the sommelier, the buyer and, of course, the consumer to delve deeper into what New Zealand has to offer.

There is no doubt in my mind that Grüner Veltliner and Syrah are the future calling cards for New Zealand. Although, if I had one wish it would be for wineries to plant Spanish and Italian grape varieties. New Zealand’s terroir is so varied, and time and time again its producers have proven they can grow more unusual varieties. We already have good Pinot Gris and Riesling, why not Kiwi Verdejo and Cortese? Meanwhile, the Bordeaux blends continue to represent such fantastic value, and are wines of such inimitable class and style, that I often recommend them to my friends as better than Médoc alternatives.

Time for Change
The country’s achievements command great respect, not least because of how rapidly New Zealand has progressed into a top-flight wine country and a global brand to be reckoned with. Simply put, I love good wine and I return to New Zealand time and time again for the quality of its wines. I only hope that further Marlborough expansion and vineyard planting does not continue, as the quality of the wines and terroir will undoubtedly suffer. Ultimately, I cannot pretend that I know the future, but I will say this to my Kiwi friends: reflect on the lessons of past mistakes made in other successful wine-producing countries, and there will be no stopping you.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – still hot or getting cold?
David Cox Director – Europe, New Zealand Winegrowers

There are few commentators in the UK wine trade who have not, at some stage, used words such as ‘iconic’ or ‘phenomenon’ when describing the incredible growth of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the past 15-20 years.

Quite simply, the cool-climate style that New Zealand has produced from this grape variety, especially in Marlborough, has completely captivated the palates of the UK consumer. It commands a premium price, but consumers love it and there is no evidence that this will change.

Some say this success means that Sauvignon Blanc is the only grape variety that people think of when considering wines from New Zealand, and there is no doubt that one of the priorities of the generic body New Zealand Winegrowers is to broaden awareness within the UK wine trade of the country’s other varieties, such as Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Bordeaux blends.

We have only just begun the
journey with NZ Sauvignon Blanc

But does this mean that Sauvignon Blanc is going to get lost, and will some of the recent retail discounting dampen the ‘shining star’? I would argue ‘not at all’.

First, we have only really just begun the journey with NZ Sauvignon Blanc.  Let’s not forget that Marlborough was sheep-grazing land just 30 years ago. We know that Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is not a one-dimensional taste sensation and that because of the purity of the land and vineyard sites, we really can demonstrate regional and site differences in taste and texture. Even within Marlborough there are some genuine sub-regional differences between Sauvignon Blancs produced in, say, the Awatere Valley versus the Wairau. And Sauvignon Blancs from other well-known regions of New Zealand, such as Hawke’s Bay, Central Otago and Nelson can and do offer tangible stylistic alternatives to Marlborough.

Ongoing innovation
There are now very credible reasons why a restaurateur or sommelier should have a broad range of NZ Sauvignon Blancs present on the wine list, embracing the full spectrum of regional diversity, taste delivery and price point.

Some Kiwi producers are experimenting with different oak or lees regimens to produce more complex and food-friendly wines, and these developments are definitely helping the grape to be viewed in a different light.

So, while we shall not shy away from continuing to tell the world about the other magnificent varieties, Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc will remain our signature grape; it is alive and kicking and has a long, prosperous life ahead of it.

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