How has New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, especially from the Marlborough region, become so popular with wine consumers in major markets such as Europe, North America and Australia, in the relatively short space of 30 years?
It is a combination of many factors, the principal ones being the status of New Zealand as a cool climate viticultural country, and in Marlborough the presence in the soils of a chemical compound, methoxypyrazine that adds uniquely distinctive flavours to Sauvignon Blanc grapes and wine.
In the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, when the New Zealand wine sector began to flex its collective muscle first in Britain, and then in America, we proclaimed ourselves to be ‘home of cool climate wines”, reminding people who know about wine that the advantages of cool climate for wine grape production are intensity of both fruit flavour and varietal character.
Before the emergence of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the world stage, the two main areas in which it flourished were the Loire Valley in France, and California, both of which offered restrained flavours, many masked by a little oak.
No one did more in Britain to welcome the arrival of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc than one of its leading wine commentators, Oz Clarke, who wrote in his Wine Atlas: “No previous wine had shocked, thrilled, entranced the world before with such brash, unexpected flavours of gooseberries, passionfruit and lime, or crunchy green asparagus spears . . . an entirely new, brilliantly successful wine style that the rest of the world has been attempting to copy ever since”.
Just a few weeks ago, in an interview in New Zealand WineGrower magazine, Clarke commented on “the brightness, clarity, clean flavours, that tangy, zesty ping on your palate, the way that your mouth bursts out with your salivary glands just throwing themselves into turbo-charged overdrive every time a Sauvignon Blanc came on to them. It made your eyes bright, it made you sparkle with excitement and say ‘what a wonderful flavour!’ – a flavour that you invented that didn’t exist in the world of wine before New Zealand came along.”
I am proud of the involvement of Hunters Wines in creating attention for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in Britain. It was my late husband Ernie who first brought Marlborough wines to prominence in Britain, when, in 1986, Hunter’s Fume Blanc 1985, a Sauvignon Blanc aged in oak, made history at the annual Sunday Times Wine Fair in London by becoming the first wine ever to be voted top wine of the fair on each of its three days by the attending public, and then gained an added and previously unheard-of distinction by being also selected top wine of the Fair by an eminent panel of expert wine judges.
The next Sunday Times featured a triumphant Ernie Hunter brandishing the winning trophy which had just been presented to him by wine guru Hugh Johnson, the first time any New Zealand wine had achieved such prominence in Britain. To prove it was no fluke, Hunters won the trophy again in 1987. When we made it a hat-trick in 1988, I had to be in London, because Ernie had been killed in a motor accident just north of Christchurch late in 1987.
Ernie’s introduction was consolidated by Montana Wines Ltd whose massive production of their high quality Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc gained entry to shelves of supermarkets, wine shops and restaurants throughout the United Kingdom. The UK is a world-leading, trend setting market for the world’s wine, dating back to earlier centuries when British royalty virtually owned Burgundy, held sway in Aquitaine (the area we know today as Bordeaux), and created the market for sherries from Spain and ports from Portugal. Our concentration on breaking into the British wine market was based on the belief that if we could succeed there, we could succeed anywhere.
How well we have succeeded is demonstrated by this flashback: In a speech in 1999, I said this: “In 1976, when the Institute opened for business, exports of wine from New Zealand in round figures were 300,000 litres valued at $400,000 fob. This year [1999, remember], 23 years on, the export volume is heading for 16 million litres worth well over $100 million fob. From virtually nothing, exports now represent 28 per cent of our total sales. The latest estimate of where we’ll be in 2010, is exports of at least 80 million litres, earning at least $600 million fob, selling much more wine to the rest of the world, than we expect to sell within New Zealand.”
What an under-estimate that was! By 2010, our exports in the 12 months to 28 February have reached 132.13 million litres, worth $1.021 billion. Of that, Sauvignon Blanc was 82% by volume. I do not agree with criticism that we have too many Sauvignon eggs in our export basket. Sauvignon has become New Zealand’s signature wine, just as bottle fermented sparklings are for Champagne, clarets for Bordeaux, Pinot Noirs for Burgundy.
It has been Sauvignon that has opened doors for our second largest export variety, Pinot Noir, and for expanding white varieties such as Riesling and Pinot Gris.
It is true that over-enthusiasm in planting Sauvignon has caused some temporary speed wobbles, as production in 2008 and 2009 exceeded market demand in a world in global financial recession, but our grape growers and wineries have responded to that. In Marlborough, the 2010 vintage will be down on volume from 2008/9, but we have pruned for quality rather than quantity, and we can promise the world the finest wines ever from our region.
Our task now, especially with Sauvignon Blanc, is to regain international acceptance that New Zealand, and Marlborough in particular, is the world leader in Sauvignon Blanc quality. One way to achieve this recognition is to make more of our officially recognised and practised sustainable winegrowing system in which we are streets ahead of other wine producing countries. In a world becoming more environmentally conscious, that can become a selling proposition as unique as is the flavour of our Sauvignon Blanc.