Gagan Sharma on how Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand’s Marlborough region achieved their pre-eminent position.
In the unsettled debate of Old World versus New World wines, one argument that can’t be challenged is the New World’s proficiency in making top varietal wines. Chilean merlots, Argentine malbecs, Aussie shirazes or Napa’s cabernet sauvignons have left their mark on the global wine map.
One strong brand from this smorgasbord is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Its clean, fresh image of madly pure and pronounced flavours, its bracing acidity, youthful vivacity and ethereal spirit have captivated wine drinkers. For a love-it-or-leave-it varietal that is criticised for its strait-jacketed, unilateral profile of under-ripe flavours of capsicum, cut-grass, eucalyptus and gooseberry, the New Zealand style proves that it takes a superior craftsman to break this stereotype from the “make-it, drink-it” class.
The country stretches from north to south with climates varying from the sub-tropical North Island to frost-bitten South Island. It has exceptionally nutrient-rich soils where growing wine grapes is a challenge. New Zealand is largely a beer-drinking country where no real attention was given to winemaking until the 1970s. It was challenging enough to identify an area’s potential, let alone matching it with its best wine-producing grape. Research into soil and planting techniques is only a recent phenomenon.
North Island, thanks to heavy British and European influences, was widely and unintelligently planted with Burgundy and Bordeaux varietals to suit their fans. But the much cooler South Island was an unexplored goldmine. The cool, windy yet sunny Marlborough region was exactly what Sauvignon Blanc needed and it turned out to be a match made in heaven.
Sauvignon Blanc arrived in Marlborough in 1973. Pernod Ricard’s international brand, Montana (later renamed, Brancott Estate) and Cloudy Bay (originally a part of Cape Mentelle, Australia, now in LVMH’s portfolio) can easily be acknowledged as the two pioneers to undertake wine production on South Island. Until then, grape-growers exported their crops to bulk producers in the North. Once the potential of South Island was seen, however, new investments poured in, brands grew, and growers turned into boutique producers. Now, in a country that grows less than one per cent of the world’s vines, the Marlborough region of South Island is home to 60% of New Zealand’s vineyards, yielding 90% of the country’s entire harvest.
Within Marlborough, the best wines hail from the stony, free-draining soils of the Wairau, Waihopai and Aware Valleys. Long days of bright sunshine, cold nights, and dryish autumn weather contribute towards nourishing Sauvignon Blancs to their utmost. Crops from richer soils deliver richer fruit, resulting in commendably concentrated wines.
What we drink as Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs are usually blended wines, made with fruit from different soils, altitudes and locations. Blending removes monotony from the finished product and also works as insurance for growers in this fragile environment, which is often subject to frost and fungal infection especially powdery mildew. Lately, however, with proper soil research, clonal selection, canopy management studies, and better trellising techniques, single-vineyard Sauvignon Blancs have become the emerging trend.
Wine producers have a lot to thank New Zealand’s famed dairy industry for, especially its contribution to setting the best hygiene practices in place. These protocols have lead to the growing use of stainless steel tanks for better temperature control and for accentuating grape varietal characters, leaving out oak and malolactic fermentation.
Until the turn of the century, local producers (not only the top labels, but also the two-buck chucks) were obsessed with corks. In 2001, the Screwcap Initiative was introduced, which today has resulted in 99% of New Zealand wine being bottled under screwcaps. This has aided the country’s brand image for wine. Screwcaps signify a chic, simple, uncomplicated, and approachable product – exactly what New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs were positioned as. Today, not only does Sauvignon Blanc define the country’s wine image, it comprises 70% of all New Zealand wine exports.
The Loire Valley’s Sancerre and Austria’s Styrian Sauvignon Blancs – classy, complex and terroir driven – have for long dominated the Old World template. New Zealand’s varietal oriented, fresh, neat, in-your-face Sauvignon Blancs have now become a much loved alternative, providing a new template to inspire winemakers around the globe. These gutsy, outspoken, glistening, bright wines from the most secluded country on the planet have not been lost for wine drinkers. Although they arrived late on the scene, their rapid success has made them an indispensable part of a good wine list worldwide. The insatiable demand for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is set to increase, not only in terms of quantity but also in style and appeal, opening an unprecedented chapter in Sauvignon Blanc’s biography.