The future of sauvignon blanc
It might be winter, but sav blanc don't care. It's an unstoppable force. Wine mogul Dave Brookes comes to grips with what's in store for New Zealand's favourite adopted grape variety, at Marlborough's International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration. This 'lightning in a bottle' variety has taken the world by storm, with global markets scrambling to get rained on. Find out why, and how, sauvignon blanc will continue to change the wine world.
I’ve got a confession to make. When it came to sauvignon blanc, I was burnt out. I thought we’d reached 'peak savvy b' with too many wines exhibiting a clone-like quality. Varietal homogeneity. It was messing with my melon.
I do get it. Sauvignon blanc is an easy variety to wrap your head around. It overdelivers. Even for those still sporting their vinous training wheels, it provides an instantly recognisable, refreshing and enjoyable wine at an accessible price. And that is undeniably a great thing. You see a sauvignon blanc on a retail shelf or at a fine retail website such as Vinomofo and you pretty much know what you're getting yourself into. Its consistency and what-you-see-is-what-you-get-ness is the variety's key advantage.
But man, there’s a lot of it out there. The 'sauvalanche' is real and I'm sure you can at least have a little bit of compassion for my grapey angst. There were a three key moments that shook me out of my existential crisis:
- First was a visit to France's Loire Valley, which rekindled my love for the variety. Such was the diversity of styles and minerally/savoury lines of the sauvignon blancs of the region.
- I realised I was being a bit of a wine ponce and got over myself.
- Finally, I headed over the ditch and went along to the 2019 International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough.
New Zealand has some 38,000ha of grapes planted with around 30,000 of that figure as white grape varieties. Of those white varieties, just over 23,000ha is sauvignon blanc. A whopping 296,573 tonnes of it was crushed in 2018 and when bottled, a huge chunk of that New Zealand sauvignon blanc heads overseas.
So I expected the question on everybody's lips to be whether NZ is too heavily weighted towards sauvignon blanc, the variety that catapulted the country on to the global wine stage…. and are they buggered if the fickle wheels of fashion turn and sauvignon blanc goes out of favour with consumers? Kind of like the 'anything but chardonnay' movement of the late 90s.
I expected much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. But in fact, the assembled crowd of wine critics, winemakers and consumers were quite buoyant about the future of sauvignon blanc.
As mentioned previously, aromatic, easy-drinking and unpretentious wines play a huge part in the success of the grape variety, but how are wineries to convince the consumer that there is greatness in sauvignon blanc?
But do consumers even want greatness in sauvignon blanc?
France has the savoury, mineral-laden examples with great velocity and sapid verve on the palate but what the consumer loves about New Zealand sauvignon blanc is the pungent aromatic profile and zesty demeanour. Meanwhile, much work is being done on clonal selection, the use of wild yeast, barrel-ageing, the use of lees, skin contact and better farming (organic, biodynamic, closer planting and decreased yields, etc) to up the ante quality-wise.
Add in the exploration of terroir in Marlborough – the engine room of sauvignon blanc and the New Zealand wine industry – and other NZ wine regions and the grape is in a pretty good space. Of the keynote speakers, U.S. wine critic Matt Kramer spoke of building a culture around sauvignon blanc. He said:
"New Zealand sauvignon blanc is the most preposterous, unpredictable success story in the history of wine. You took the world by storm with lightning in a bottle. No one has achieved the same thing in the last 40 years, not even Napa. There’s a sense of impatience, but in wine time you only started last week."
"The future of New Zealand sauvignon lies in getting a premium, as a commodity wine is a race to the bottom, which you don’t want – and can’t afford – to do. There is no culture of sauvignon blanc anywhere in the world, which is your biggest challenge in terms of being able to command a premium for your wines."
Although you could say sauvignon blanc suffers from an image problem, this can be overcome with increased nuance and quality. Culture builds with time and there is a good chance that the variety will be able to pull it off. There are plenty of obstacles (climate change being the most pressing): Brexit, potential asteroid impacts... but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Better farming, exploration of site and wine style and just keep making it delicious.
Don't worry. Sauvignon blanc will be ok. In fact, it might be only up from here.