Land of the long white wine party

Sauvignon NZ 2019 was an eye-opening look into the dynamics of an entire wine industry. Felicity Carter reports.

Sauvignon NZ 2019
Sauvignon NZ 2019

Every event in New Zealand, no matter how small, begins with instructions on how to survive an earthquake. Maybe this is why New Zealanders worry so much. 

For three days this January, New Zealand’s wine industry came together in Blenheim, Marlborough, to talk about Sauvignon Blanc, their great export success. Speakers from viticulture, meteorology, marketing and winemaking discussed the wine from every angle.

And worried. A lot.

The challenge

“We need to overcome headwinds,” said Patrick Materman, chair of the event. “Brexit, for example. New consumers.” What he wanted from the event, he said, was for people to be “critical and challenge the status quo”.

Emma Jenkins MW, the brilliant event moderator, cut to the heart of the matter: “How do we maintain control, so that Sauvignon Blanc becomes a cultural treasure in New Zealand, instead of a cash cow?” 

Matt Kramer, the American wine critic, had some ideas. “Some of you may have heard me speak three years ago,” he said, referring to the previous such event. “And I said, very presumptuously, that you were having a mid-life crisis. You seem to be getting over that now.” He agreed that Sauvignon Blanc needs to command a premium if it’s to avoid the commodity wine trap. But, he said, it takes time to be recognised as a fine wine, and New Zealand producers were suffering from a sense of impatience. “Really, you’ve caught lightning in a bottle in the last 40 years; it’s the most preposterous, unpredictable story in the history of wine.” 

Kramer suggested that New Zealand needs what he termed a culture of Sauvignon Blanc. “There is no culture of Sauvignon Blanc in the world.” Whereas Pinot Noir producers in the New World “have downloaded a culture of Pinot Noir that was simply handed to them,” Sauvignon Blanc has no such history, he said. But while this gives producers the freedom to work however they like, it makes it hard to command a price premium, because the wine lacks the cultural trappings that come from a long history. “I know what you’re thinking – what about Sancerre? Forgive me, there is no culture of Sauvignon Blanc there,” he said. “Effectively they didn’t grow Sauvignon Blanc in any quantity until after phylloxera. They made Sauvignon Blanc as a commodity wine.” While Pinot Noir is exalted when it is site-specific, “we have no such truths with Sauvignon Blanc”.

The big question, said Kramer, was whether Sauvignon Blanc should follow the Burgundy or the Bordeaux vision. “We now live in a world where the Burgundian vision of greatness and quality is ascendant,” he said, meaning that it’s single varieties from single sites that are most prized. “When I started writing,” on the other hand, “it was the Bordeaux vision” of blends that inspired. Maybe, he suggested, New Zealanders should think about taking the Bordeaux road, and blending grapes from different sites together, rather than following Burgundy. “That blend may be the vehicle by which a culture of Sauvignon Blanc – created by you, with all of your research and your hospitality – is delivered. When there is a culture of Sauvignon Blanc, you won’t have a problem commanding a premium.”

It was hard not to thrill to the vision Kramer outlined, especially as he has an excellent, measured speaking voice. 

And then wine consultant Sam Harrop MW, whose English reticence was a contrast to Kramer’s American optimism, got up to present the opposite view. “Let’s take a moment to reflect and consider the place where you’re from. The place where you make sense, where you feel grounded and aligned, where you can be the fullest expression of yourself.” Harrop MW urged wine producers to treat Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc as less a “wine of style” and more a “wine of place”. While he rejected the idea of appellation rules, he suggested it was important to communicate a passion for specific sites, whether sub-regions or specific vineyards. Harrop MW said it was also important to “create a movement and progression towards changing the view of the elite journalists” about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, referring to the way critics often dismiss the wine. 

Kramer later added that endorsement from cultural figures was extremely important. “No wine has ever commanded a premium without outside validation,” he said. “In the old days, it was the validation of the Church or the aristocracy. In the 20th century, it was the Robert Parkers. But those people are going by the wayside and are not going to return.” What Sauvignon Blanc really needed, he said, was “a rap star who loves Sauvignon Blanc”.

The environment

The second day focused on sustainability. That New Zealand takes sustainability seriously is not in doubt and speakers emphasised water, carbon and chemical management. Even the break time coffee cups were recycled: the paper cups were hand washed and re-used.

Steve Smith MW said that by 2050, water will be a problem. “We cannot survive without irrigation and by 2050, either our rivers and lakes will not be fit for purpose, or we will not have the social licence for extraction,” he warned. “We need to invest in the science of water use. We need to look at our rootstocks again.”

Jonathan Hamlet, chair of Organic Winegrowers New Zealand, said the country has a little more than 1,700ha of certified organic vineyards, or 4.5% of the total vineyard area. Originally, said Hamlet, it was only artisan producers who were interested in going organic, “but now we see most of New Zealand’s large wineries producing organic grapes and some organic wines” whose export value is about NZ$46m ($30m). The organic market is an important one to be in, he noted, as “organics is also being used as a tool for market access. The best example is the Swedish alcohol monopoly.” Consumers are also more demanding. “They are increasingly seeking ethical products. The way we grow grapes today will not be acceptable in the future and we have to adapt to that.”

Hamlet acknowledged the challenges of converting to organic, including the cost. “In my experience, the consistency of yield is what we’re most challenged with and something we’re still fine-tuning.” He noted that while organic yields were generally down – “over a large range of Sauvignon Blanc, they were averaging about 13 tonne per hectare” – grape growers were receiving an average of NZ$300 ($199) more per tonne. “If the reality is that our growing system has to change, these costs of production may just be a given for everybody. We need to protect and strengthen our New Zealand brand and champion our unique environment. We need to focus on value over volume.”

What about the consumer?

Dirceu Vianna Junior MW presented a collaborative study involving the St Clair Family Estate, Lallemand and MW student Sarah Benson, aimed at understanding what consumers want to drink and contrasting their preferences with those of wine writers. The study used four distinct styles of Sauvignon Blanc: tropical, herbaceous, citrus, and, finally, a barrel-fermented wine.  “The wines were clearly different,” said Vianna Junior MW. “We sent the wines to analysis – done in Montpellier – and we found that the tropical wine was the most exuberant, followed by the herbaceous, the citrus and then the barrel-fermented.” The wines were presented to 247 engaged customers and 24 journalists, all from the UK. “We gave them a hedonistic scale to see how much they liked the wine and gave them descriptors.”

Overall, both consumers and journalists had a clear preference for wines that were more elegant. When it came to flavour, consumers preferred the more tropical style, followed by citrus. Journalists preferred citrus and then tropical. “What are the main conclusions here?” asked Vianna Junior MW. “The first thing is that intensity did not correlate with popularity. We think the consumer wants the powerful, intense, exuberant styles of wine, and that’s not the case.”

Interestingly, consumers were able to differentiate between wine components as easily as the experts. “They said pretty much the same things as the journalists – in some cases, better. They were the ones that picked the floral note from the barrel-fermented wines, and no journalist picked that up.” The main difference, said Vianna Junior MW, was that consumers used simpler words, “like fresh, fruity, sweet and subtle. One lesson for us is to consider the terminology when we consider the consumers.”

A thriving industry

These were only a few of the talks delivered during Sauvignon NZ 2019. The New Zealanders also know how to throw a party, so there were also tastings, gala events and winery visits. Debates came fast and furious. Yet much of the discussion tended to focus on problems rather than opportunities, particularly the threat of Sauvignon Blanc being shipped out of the country as anonymous bulk.

It’s what made it such a thought-provoking conference. If there’s one thing that’s been true in wine, it’s that great successes come at great cost. From Liebfraumilch in the 1970s, to Beaujolais Nouveau, to Australian Shiraz in the 1990s, blockbuster success is inevitably followed by a crash. The one exception to this rule has been Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which has been a hit since it first appeared on UK shelves in 1985. This is despite the acres of articles asking when Sauvignon Blanc’s charmed run will come to an end.

Which suggests, perhaps, that the constant fretting is New Zealand’s greatest strength. In all other cases, as sales rose, corners were cut and quality dropped. The New Zealanders are vigilant about that possibility, and events like Sauvignon NZ 2019 push them to make ever-greater improvements.

It turns out New Zealand already has a deep wine culture--one of collegiality, where ideas, research and knowledge are shared. Maybe their road to the future doesn’t run through either Burgundy or Bordeaux, but through Marlborough. 

Felicity Carter

Felicity Carter attended as a guest of New Zealand Winegrowers. 

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