By Cameron Douglas, New Zealand’s first and only Master Sommelier.
Despite the current restrictions on travel around the globe, I look forward to the time when I can hop on the plane and get back to the places I love.
Like many Kiwis I love to travel and the USA is a favourite destination. In the USA, New Zealand wine is quite well-known, especially Sauvignon Blanc.
A general assumption among consumers and many restaurateurs there is that all New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the same. Fortunately, that is not true, there are regional differences and even sub-regional differences to discover. Unfortunately, the opportunities to showcase this and modern styles of Sauvignon Blanc are too few.
At the inaugural Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in 2016, American wine critic Kramer said: “There’s some sense of a mid-life crisis here in Marlborough… a sense that somehow you’ve missed something”.
At the second celebration in 2019, he said: “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”.
Kramer does have a point, but he doesn’t manage a wine business either – he only comments on them.
The reality is we are not dealing with a ‘crisis’, but the reality of finance and market pressure. The competition for wine sales where volume and margin seem to lead decisions for shelf space and wine list space doesn’t leave much room for investment and exploring new style boundaries.
What I believe Mr. Kramer was getting at, and what I believe too, is that the best stories we can tell as benchmark producers is who we are, our special geography, our sense of place and how this is expressed through wine. These are some of the keys to the security and future styles of Sauvignon Blanc.
Also, let’s not forget we are a wine industry of bespoke producers first. While there are some larger volume companies, we can only compete with the larger exporters when importers and distributors overseas begin to read and learn the foundation stories of wine brands from New Zealand and retell them to their consumer and gatekeeper buyers.
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a globally recognised benchmark, but it has become more than what the brand and style of the early 1980s was. It is still a classic and there are certain expectations when it comes to taste, texture and ultimately enjoyment.
To that end the New Zealand wine sector will always provide a classic. I have to use the word classic loosely though because it all depends on which style are you referring to. Regionality is now easily recognised, for example Central Otago vs Marlborough. Within Marlborough, a Wairau expression is quite different from a Southern Valleys or Awatere Valley one. The same can be said within Nelson, Canterbury, Auckland and Hawke’s Bay.
New Zealand producers and wine companies need to deliver on consistency, mostly through excellent viticulture, to be able to deliver on the promise of style. The tropical passion-fruit and fresh herb expressions of the Wairau Valley vs the savoury, mineral style of the Awatere are well-known.
It is fair to suggest that New Zealand winemakers know Sauvignon Blanc well and how growing conditions, vintage and soil influence style and flavour. They also like to explore and push the boundaries of style when they can and this is perhaps why we are encountering some wines with extended time in old oak barrel, more lees contact time, less preservative and less fining so the pure voice of this variety can show in a different way.
So long as the wine can tick the boxes of varietal recognition, crisp clean aromatics, high acidity and a degree of herbaceousness, citrus and tropical fruit markers, consumers may enjoy these new expressions. That said even I have friends who will only drink the ‘classic’ Marlborough version.
The future of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is not set. The future, I believe, lies in how we tell our story of wine, how we showcase and promote new styles next to old and the opportunities to reach new drinkers of wine.
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