Kiwis Still Ruling the Sauvignon Blanc Roost, but Looking Ahead

Tuesday, 26 February, 2019
Black may be the more familiar colour associated with New Zealand, but when it comes to wine it is All White – and specifically the Sauvignon Blanc variety which hollers louder than the fieriest of All Black Hakas.

During the recent International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration, held every three years in the town of Blenheim in the heart of New Zealand’s Marlborough wine country, American critic Matt Kramer put the profound impact of the local industry in perspective.

“Never in the history of the international wine industry have we seen something comparable with that of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” said Kramer. “New Zealand has achieved something other wine countries can only dream about, something that in my opinion is impossible to recreate.”

The success Kramer alluded to was: a lot of wine sold at high prices. As in R20bn a year. But firstly, what’s the deal with the Marlborough region?

In 1973 a winery up on New Zealand’s North Island, out Auckland way, was looking to expand. On the South Island’s north-east tip it found an alluvial bed and began planting experimental vines. The locals say this was a “piss-poor” piece of land upon which one struggled to fatten sheep. But the winery persisted, growing Müller-Thurgau and Chenin Blanc. A few other farmers got into the act, buying land in Marlborough “to give this wine-thing a go”.

But it was when the locals planted the first Sauvignon Blanc vines in 1979 that the stars began singing. This variety from Bordeaux and the Loire in France sunk its roots deep into the Marlborough soils and began producing grapes and wine that tasted like nothing else on earth. New Zealand soil types, extreme variation between day-night temperatures and extended ripening periods were what the angels had been waiting for from Sauvignon Blanc.

Then in the mid-1980s, just as a new market of younger, modern wine drinkers opened up in America and Britain, Sauvignon Blancs with names like Hunter’s and Cloudy Bay hit the scene. Cool, fresh white wines with assertive tropical flavours that jumped out of the glass and which you could spot a mile away. What’s more, these wines were from far-flung New Zealand, a new addition to the wine world from a nation more associated with rugby and sheep.

The rest is, as they say in the classics, history. Marlborough chucked everything else out and began planting Sauvignon Blanc. Today New Zealand has 38 000ha under vine, of which 26 000ha lies in Marlborough. Some 24 000ha of this is Sauvignon Blanc, complemented by small patches of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.

In an average year the Kiwis will crush 264 000 tons of Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough from which 200m litres of wine is made.

But as Thys Louw, owner of Diemersdal Estate in Durbanville South Africa and vice-chair of the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group (SBIG) said during the think-tank in Marlborough, for New Zealand it’s not only about volume. “It is the price the wine consumer in America and Europe is prepared to pay for the names ‘New Zealand’ and ‘Sauvignon Blanc’ that lies behind the country’s success,” said Louw. “Price and volume, that’s what it is about. Achieving a high price for your wine is one thing, but to be able to do it at massive volumes is another.”

Yes, and the international consumer is prepared to pay. In 2018 some 73m litres of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc were exported to the United States where it retails for between 12$US (R170) and 30$US (R420) per bottle. The Brits imported 75m litres in the same period, selling it at the same admirable price levels as America.

 “We are not willing to accept anything under a premium price,” said Patrick Materman from Brancott Estate, which is owned by global liquor giant Pernod Ricard. “The biggest challenge for us now is to ensure New Zealand continues to box in this category and improves on the success we have had over the past three decades.”

During the Blenheim pow-wow no-one could tell me exactly to what this success can be attributed. How a small country of four million inhabitants at the end of the earth could shake the wine world to its core.

As a wine farmer, Louw says the style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has a lot to do with it. “The flavour profile is so concentrated and noticeable that anyone anywhere in the world can pick-out a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” he says. “The general wine consumer likes a wine style that is consistent and recognisable.”

Dr Carien Coetzee, a wine scientist and independent consultant from Basic Wine who was part of the South African contingent to Marlborough, says the specific Marlborough style can be attributed to the high levels of thiols.

“There are thousands of aroma compounds that contribute to wine aroma in general, but for some varieties, you have a few compounds that are so powerful and pungent that it creates an unmistakable and unique character in a wine, we (scientists) call these impact compounds,” says Dr Coetzee. “Sauvignon Blanc has two groups of impact compounds of which one is sulphur containing compounds called thiols. Thiols are extremely potent at low concentrations and is very sought after due to the contribution of tropical aroma such as guava, passion fruit, blackcurrant and tomato stalk. And it is exactly these compounds (and copious amounts thereof) that makes New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines stand out from the rest.

 So, what makes the Marlborough region ideal to produce this grape variety? A sense of place is key. It seems that the region hosts just the right combination of soil type, day and night temperatures and UV exposure. The region has a long, sunny growing season with moderate maximum temperatures, allowing the grapes to ripen in relatively cool, but high UV exposed conditions. The warm day and cool night temperatures also allows the formation of aroma compounds but retains the crisp natural acidity.”

Erica Crawford from Marlborough’s Loveblock Wines is a former Capetonian who has been living in New Zealand since the 1990s where she and husband Kim built-up Kim Crawford Wines into a Sauvignon Blanc behemoth before selling it to Accolade. She reckons the Kiwis success has two other reasons.

“We were the first nation to collectively bottle under screw-cap, something novel to the traditional markets in America and Britain,” she says. “The packaging and presentation was as different and unique as the style of wine they got under the cap.”

And then, yes, there was The Lord of Things, a trilogy of films directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson that brought global audiences in contact with the visceral untamed beauty of the Land of the Long White Cloud. “As a result of the films our name became known overnight and people the world over started looking for New Zealand products,” says Crawford. “The whole national identity gained prominence, including our wines.”

But there’s no resting on any laurels or ferns. As Materman said, the work now is to keep New Zealand in its prominent place in the world wine market.

During the week Down Under, attendees to the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc Celebration were constantly exposed to wines aged in oak as well as some funky skin-contact numbers. Newer styles are being punted, while the New Zealand proposition of an isolated destination offering “pure adventure” in everything it does drives the national agenda.

Something I was left with was that the Kiwis aren’t looking over their shoulder or to what other wine countries are doing. They have a can-do, our-way pioneering spirit which for other wine nations should be as bloody damn scary as a full frontal Haka dressed in black.

* This article was translated from Afrikaans and first appeared in Landbou Burger on 22 February 2019.



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

Erica Crawford
Erica Crawford

Cloudy Bay  vines
Cloudy Bay vines


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