Sauvignon Blanc – bigger than the All Blacks

In 2011 nearly two-thirds of the grapes harvested in this country were Sauvignon Blanc. The vast majority of those grapes were picked in the Marlborough region. 10 out of every 12 bottles exported this year were labelled as Sauvignon Blanc. Like it or not Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is now a bigger international brand than the All Blacks.

Sauvignon Blanc may be a big brand but it is also a fragile brand. Wine is a fashion industry. Short skirts were once all the rage. A few women still wear short skirts but to many they are unfashionable. Even if you believe you look good in a short skirt would you flout the fashionistas?

Sauvignon Blanc is in danger of becoming unfashionable. It took a severe body blow in 2008 when, after years of short supply, a large harvest (two-thirds bigger than the previous year) suddenly created surplus wine. Sauvignon Blanc’s image suffered in the melee of heavy discounting, bulk wine sales and desperate dumping that followed. Volume didn’t rise significantly in 2009 and 2010 but jumped 29% this year, putting more downward pressure on export prices.

If the quality of Sauvignon Blanc had dropped significantly in the big, rain affected 2011 vintage the brand would have really been in trouble. Quality did fall slightly but thankfully most of the 125 wines I’ve tasted from the current vintage are pretty good. It appears to have been at least an average vintage or perhaps a slightly better than average vintage.

Sauvignon Blanc now needs to re-invent itself if it wants to avoid becoming the short skirt of the wine world.

I have just tasted 152 samples of Sauvignon Blanc for Taste magazine. The most expensive wine in the tasting was Giesen 2010 The August 1888 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough $39.99 (tastings) while the cheapest was Fire Road 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough $14.95 (tastings). It’s important to have heroes, like the Giesen wine, just as it is important to have price-fighters, like Fire Road. However until there is a simple way to differentiate the heroes from the price-fighters the emphasis is likely to remain focused on price rather than quality to the detriment of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

A group of Marlborough winemakers are trying to develop a sort of super-Sauvignon status that will easily allow wine buyers to recognise when higher quality standards have been applied to a wine. Put simply, any Sauvignon Blanc producer who adopts an accepted set of quality winemaking standards will be able to feature a symbol on the label to identify their wine as being a cut above those without the symbol. The project does present a few challenges but I believe it is a step in the right direction.

Another step in the battle to demonstrate that all Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is not equal would be to make it clear when barrel fermentation and/or barrel maturation had been used to such an extent that the wine ceased to be “pure and profoundly fruity” and became distinctly richer and weightier with more complex bready yeast, or nutty oak flavours.

While I totally approve of this “alternative” style of Sauvignon Blanc I do think there is a danger that consumers buy a wine on the basis of its “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc” label expecting it to be pungently fruity and are disappointed when it fails to deliver. Conversely anyone looking for a less fruity and more complex barrel fermented style needs to spend a great deal of time reading through the fine print on back labels before they find what they are looking for.

It would be simple to set up a tasting panel of winemakers to approve any wine that claimed barrel fermentation influence and allow a barrel symbol to be displayed on the label.

Some examples of such wines in my tasting are:

District labelling is another way in which winemakers could differentiate wine styles. The clearly different wine styles produced in Marlborough districts Awatere Valley, Wairau Valley and Southern Valleys are readily recognised and understood by winemakers. If consumers had the same recognition of district style differences it would surely add value and interest in brand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Top Ten Sauvignon Blanc

1st Saint Clair 2011 Bell Block 21 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $25.50

Saint Clair is the uncrowned king of Sauvignon Blanc and this is their best releaser form the 2011 vintage. Pure and powerful wine with flavours suggesting gooseberry, nettle, passion fruit and just a hint of box hedge. – view on

2nd Stoneleigh 2010 Rapaura Series Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $26.99

A limited edition and very classy flagship wine for Stoneleigh. Concentrated wine with a heady mix of passion fruit, gooseberry, capsicum and box hedge characters. – view on

3rd Villa Maria 2011 Reserve Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $26.99

Villa Maria’s flagship wine lives up to its exalted status with impressive purity and power delivered with subtlety. Fine, mineral, citrus and gooseberry flavours are long and linear. – view on

4th Staete Landt 2008 Duchess Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $29.00

Sauvignon for Chardonnay lovers. It has a sumptuous texture, with great weight and terrific mouth feel. Wonderfully rich, creamy and complex. – view on

5th Clos Henri 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $29.80

10% barrel fermentation and extended lees contact adds an extra dimension of complexity while adding richness to the texture. Very impressive Sauvignon in a bone dry style. Great food wine. – view on

6th Matua Valley 2010 Single Vineyard Awatere Valley Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $29.90

A brand new label in a stylish bottle with tomato leaf, bramble, green capsicum, sweet grass and a hint of passion fruit flavours. Like a good French Sancerre. – view on

7th Cloudy Bay 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $30.00

This is classic Cloudy Bay Sauvingon Blanc – a welcome return to the style of old after becoming a bit mainstream for several vintages. – view on

8th Trinity Hill 2009 Facon Traditionelle High Country Sauvignon Blanc Hawke’s Bay $34.00

Silken-textured with appealing nuttiness as well as coffee, melon and subtle tree fruit flavourss. A big and complex Sauvignon Blanc in completely individual style. – view on

9th Framingham 2009 F-Series Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $34.95

F-Series is an “alternative” wine style not made every vintage. It’s a wine with impressive weight and a flavour profile that retains typical Sauvignon Blanc varietal character (mineral, tree fruit, melon and subtle herbal notes) with the addition of toasty lees flavours. – view on

10th Giesen 2010 The August 1888 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $39.99

Giesen’s top Sauvignon Blanc has been barrel fermented and aged in oak. It certainly has extra weight and complexity with bready yeast lees adding to the wine’s strong mineral, gooseberry and citrus flavours. – view on

Best Buys under $15

1st Alpine Valley 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $14.99

Soft, pure Sauvingon Blanc with green capsicum, gooseberry and mineral flavours. Quite a steely wine with a hint of sweetness that nicely balances fairly assertive acidity. – view on

2nd Rongopai 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $15.00

Soft, simple Sauvingon Blanc with typical passion fruit and sweet grass flavours. A hint of sweetness is balanced by acidity giving a dry finish. Great value at this price. – view on

3rd Fire Road 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $14.95

An attractive commercial Sauvingon Blanc with a little sweetness helping to soften the texture and intensify flavour. Capsicum and gooseberry flavours. Excellent value at this price. Available at – view on

4th Incognito 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $14.99

Light-flavoured Sauvingon Blanc with assertive acidity. The wine is fresh with good purity and simple grassy flavours. Good buying at this price. Available only at – view on

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Nov 2011.

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