The timing of my Family of Twelve scholarship was finally determined by the dates of the International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration which was held in Marlborough on the first three days of February 2016. Fully subscribed at over 300 delegates this brought together speakers and wine makers from around the world with a substantial Kiwi presence. Billed as a celebration of the variety which put New Zealand on the wine map, the format was a fairly concentrated dose of presentations and tastings and a big social event on each of the three days. This post concentrates on the insights and knowledge quotient. The next one will focus on the celebration. For me the highlights were:
- Oz Clarke kicked off the conference in his usual eloquent style. Sauvignon Blanc is the true revolutionary grape variety of the last generation. It gives more pleasure than Pinot Noir to drinkers around the world, despite the scorn of many Pinotfiles. Pinot sets a technical, intellectual and emotional challenge giving rise to too much debate and not enough laughter. Sauvignon is fruit and fun, amusement, wit, and innuendo.
- And he also reminded why Marlborough is Sauvignon’s place: the right variety and the right clone in the right place at the right time (Alastair Maling, ex-Villa Maria). Marlborough has the perfect combination of 30-40% more UV light, a maritime climate with prevailing breezes, infertile soil, a long growing season (120-130 days compared to Sancerre’s 100), up to 300m of altitude, innovative farming culture and a range of sub-regions which in time could rival Napa’s 15 AVAs. As was seen in the tastings diversity of styles can be achieved by playing with levels of ripeness, yeasts, lees-ageing, use of oak, levels of sulfides, skin contact and more
- a tasting of typical styles of the variety which could have been designed for MW students: Napa Valley; San Antonio Valley Chile; Sancerre; Styria, Austria; Friuli, Italy; Tygerberg; South Africa, Tasmania and of course Marlborough. The examples were highly typical of their regions – with the exception of Brancott Estate Terroir Series, Marlborough Awatere Valley 2015 which was very powerfully ‘green and stony’ without the balance of tropical fruit so typical of this region – to the consternation of many locals. No doubt it was chosen as a good example of emerging regional styles
- Jamie Goode and Wendy Parr did a good job explaining the science of Sauvignon: did you know that machine-picked Sauvignon has ten times as many flavour precursors as hand-picked? Or that thiols are perceived in a spectrum that includes sweat and tropical fruit? Or that thiol levels in finished wine drop dramatically if the wine is stored at above 18º C, with huge implications for bottling times and wine transport? Or that the aromatic imprint of Kiwi Sauvignon is objectively different from French wines if you plot the chemical composition?
- David Gleave of Liberty Wines tracked the great success of Sauvignon in the UK on- and off-trade. It accounts for 11% of the UK share of UK still wine market with a price which averages a whole pound a bottle above the all-conquering Pinot Grigio. He saw the future as complementing that success with diverse styles and regions and warned against trying to compete with Chile on price.
- Jane Thomson of the Fabulous Ladies Wine Society spoke trenchantly about sexism in the Australian market’s attitude to Sauvignon (‘bitch diesel’). Like national icon Kylie, Sauvignon is recognisable, uncomplicated, has the support of women and the gay community and meets with similar derision from men and too many in the Australian wine trade. There is a huge opportunity to market Kiwi Sauvignon to men in Australia. The challenge is the same as with rosé: real men drink pink. Great stuff Jane! She could have added the affront to Aussie pride that the biggest seller in the Australian white wine market is, of course, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
- Leslie Sbrocco was compelling on the opportunities in the complicated US market, the most valuable wine market in the world and with big growth potential especially to millennials who are finally coming on stream in numbers. 25% of US wine consumers use a smartphone to inform their choices according to a Sonoma University study.
- Alexandre Schmitt dazzled us with the breadth of his vocabulary about aromas, having switched his professional attention from perfumes to wines. Gallic charm and wit and a well-organised team of helpers allowed all 300+ of us to guess what the Sauvignon-related aromas were, conveyed to us on aroma sticks. Sadly nobody plumped for ‘blackcurrant bud’ as opposed to mere blackcurrant …
- US wine writer Matt Kramer shared his pithy and entertaining insights. Sauvignon Blanc is the world’s most reliably good dry white wine. It’s the go-to variety when nothing else springs off the restaurant wine list. But NZ and especially Marlborough is having a mid-life crisis over its own success. In phase 1 of Marlborough’s Sauvignon story, LBT > TBL. Nobody knows what they were doing – other than replacing dull Muller-Thurgau – when Sauvignon was first planted in Marlborough so in phase 1 ‘luck beats talent. But in phase 2, TBL, talent beats luck. As in every other regional success story, the next phase will be about the move from the general to the particular, to sub-regions and site-specific wines. But get over your mid-life crisis: with Sauvignon Blanc, you took a second-order grape variety from an obscure region and turned it into a wine which is instantly recognisable, difficult to replicate and sells in large quantities at a very good price. It is distinctive, profitable and successful. What do you want? Mermaids?
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