By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 16 May 2020
Would you buy a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at $250 a bottle? This was one of the questions posed at a recent webinar I tuned into, to celebrate International Sauvignon Blanc Day earlier this month.
Four Masters (three Master Sommeliers and one Master of Wine) across four different time zones were discussing the popularity of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc worldwide – the country’s flagship grape that accounts for a phenomenal 87% of its wine exports.
If you thought it was just the UK’s favourite white wine, you would be wrong. According to sommelier John Szabo, it is also Canada’s number one selling white wine and US-based sommelier David Keck in Houston Texas says it has also taken USA by storm – and is even popular in Australia.
“Why is it so popular – and are we charging enough for it?”, asked New Zealand-based MW Jane Skilton, who had drawn the short straw hosting the web tasting at breakfast time 7am Kiwi time, whilst we happily sipped our evening Sauvignons at 8pm in the UK.
The story of Kiwi ‘savvy’, as it is known, is one of the wine world’s biggest success stories. In a short space of time, from a standing start with the first wines made in 1979, its unique pungent explosive flavours and zesty vibrancy dazzled the world setting a benchmark for the style. Marlborough region was the original - and is still today the biggest producer with 20,000 hectares out of 23,500 total plantings of ‘savvy’ across the country. Land prices in Marlborough have escalated 600% in 40 yrs.
But what is it about the wine that the world has gone so crazy for it? All three Sommeliers had a similar story. They agreed it was popular, but wondered why it was still not deemed classy enough to charge top dollar.
“Love it or hate it, New Zealand Sauvignon is popular as it’s such an easy wine to understand and is so consistent”, said UK-based sommelier Ronan Sayburn. “People take great comfort in knowing what they are going to get with its racy vibrancy, well defined flavours from tropical fruit, guava to passionfruit”.
US-based sommelier Keck reckoned Sauvignon Blanc has an image problem. “I think it’s quite misunderstood. It is one of the great noble varieties and can express itself in many diverse ways across New Zealand – and in Loire, Bordeaux, Austria’s southern Styria, Italy’s Friuli and Chile – but few people appreciate this”, said Keck.
They all agreed that no country has yet managed to match New Zealand’s exuberant intense style. Its closest rival is Chile, a big threat with cheaper prices, so New Zealanders need to be careful not to produce too much run-of-the-mill Sauvignon. Interestingly Sayburn also mentioned Tasmania as a place to watch for Sauvignon Blanc, he reckons the Aussies could soon be buying their ‘savvy’ from there instead.
Would people be willing to pay top dollar for a limited cuvee of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is still questionable: “maybe 50 max, but not 250”, says Sayburn. Yet producers like Napa’s Screaming Eagle in California and Loire’s Dageneau in France are able to charge astronomical prices for their top Sauvignon Blancs. “Certainly Kiwi winemakers like Kevin Judd at Greywacke (pictured right) are pushing boundaries using wild yeast, minimal intervention and well-managed oak - but the New Zealanders need to be less humble and develop more iconic wines”, says Sayburn.
“I think we do a disservice to the grape to stick to just one style of unoaked Sauvignon from Marlborough”, said sommelier Szabo. Marlborough’s sunny days and cool nights makes bright exotic styles, but even in that one region you can get tropical, citric, herbaceous and oaked styles – and we should celebrate its diversity. Sauvignon Blanc is also grown across New Zealand in Hawkes Bay, Nelson, Waipara and Martinborough. “If the Aussies have managed to show regionality with their Shiraz, why can’t the New Zealanders do that with Sauvignon Blanc?”, asked Szabo.
To celebrate Kiwi Sauvignons diversity, each Master picked out their favourite wines. Interestingly UK Sayburn chose a hat-trick of Marlborough Sauvignons. He praised the deliciously pure Sauvignon character and rich balance of Greywacke’s Wild 2017, the texture and balance of Mahi Boundary Farm Single Vineyard 2017 (pictured right) and elegant minerally acidity of Wairau River 2019.
For something unusual, sommelier Keck chose crown-capped smoky spicy ripe The Supernatural Miller Road 2017 from Hawkes Bay, rich stone-fruited Craggy Range Te Muna Road 2019 from Martinborough - and gingery limey Zephyr 2019 from a small family winery in Marlborough. Canadian Szabo headed to Marlborough choosing Dog Point 2019 for its stand-out flinty smoky character and six-year-old Giesen The August 2014 (their current release) as an example of how Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc can age well.
Lastly New Zealand-based Skilton picked from three different regions. Talented winemaker Anna Flowerday’s (pictured right) Te Whare Ra 2019 was her Marlborough favourite with its pungent Awatere valley fruit in the blend. Te Mata Estate Cape Crest 2018 from Hawkes Bay for an example of barrel fermented blend with Semillon and Sauvignon Gris added for richness – and pointed south of Marlborough to Waipara region’s biodynamic winery, Greystone 2018 for something really different: “not so punchy on aromatics, but luscious and rich on the palate”.
THE MASTERS’ FAVOURITES:
Marlborough: GREYWACKE WILD SAUVIGNON BLANC 2017
£23.50-£29.99 The Wine Society; Majestic; NZ House of Wine; Luvians; Aitken Wines; Valhallas Goat; Drinkmonger; Villeneuve; Woodwinters
Marlborough: TWR (TE WHARE RA) SAUVIGNON BLANC 2019
£16-£19 Les Caves de Pyrene; Forest Wines; Wines with Attitude
Marlborough: GIESEN THE AUGUST SAUVIGNON BLANC 2014
£22 Amazon; Terra Wines
Marlborough: MAHI BOUNDARY FARM SINGLE VINEYARD 2017
£17 Corking Wines; NZ House of Wine; Ministry of Drinks
Marlborough: DOG POINT SAUVIGNON BLANC 2019
£18.95 Berry Bros; Woodwinters; Majestic; Laithwaites
Marlborough: WAIRAU RIVER SAUVIGNON BLANC 2019
£13.49 NZ House of Wine; Wine Reserve; Roberts & Speight
Marlborough: ZEPHYR SAUVIGNON BLANC 2019
£12.80-£14.99 Flagship Wines; Borders Wines; The Drink Shop
Martinborough: CRAGGY RANGE TE MUNA ROAD SAUVIGNON BLANC 2019
£15.99/£17.99 NZ House of Wine
Hawkes Bay: SUPERNATURAL MILLER ROAD SAUVIGNON BLANC 2017
£17.50 Vintage Roots
Hawkes Bay: TE MATA ESTATE CAPE CREST SAUVIGNON BLANC 2018
£17.99/£19.99 NZ House of Wine
Waipara: GREYSTONE BARREL FERMENTED SAUVIGNON BLANC 2018
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