The first wine you probably tasted from New Zealand was probably Sauvignon Blanc, and probably it was from Cloudy Bay from the Marlborough region. People know this wine style and recognize it as being from New Zealand. But are consumer and sommelier’s expectations changing with regard to this wine from New Zealand? I attended an online wine seminar about New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to see where it has come from and where it is going. Is Sauvignon Blanc expanding beyond the Classic style? Is it still an important wine on a restaurant’s wine list?
This webinar had discussions between David Keck MS (USA), John Szabo MS (Canada), Ronan Sayburn MS (UK) and Jane Skilton MW (New Zealand), while the virtual audience listened, but as well submitted questions online for these Masters of Wine.
I believe all 4 experts noted that Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc was their gateway into this grape in New Zealand. Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc when it was first released was in much smaller quantities and was sought out as it was so different. The Sauvignon Blanc grape variety they noted is a misunderstood grape. It does show different aromas and flavours based on how ripe the grapes are upon harvest. Marlborough has the highest amount of sunny days compared to any other grape-growing region which produces aromas and flavours that are not quite matched from other regions.
How Is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Viewed In Your Market?
Ronan noted that NZ Sauvignon Blanc is a great teaching tool as it has well-defined flavours. Plus no oak ageing and high acidity. It is a wine that is easy for new students to wine to understand. John noted that the well-known aromas and flavours can be an advantage and a disadvantage to wine drinks. Wine drinkers are diverse. Some prefer an easy to understand wine, made in a classic style. It is consistent. While other people prefer quirky wines; wines that have unique aromas and flavours, maybe were made with oak or some other treatment. John noted that Kim Crawford is the #1 NZ Sauvignon Blanc sold in Canada. He also mentioned that NZ Sauvignon Blanc has the highest average bottle price in the world. It is premium quality but not too expensive. David also mentioned that the NZ classic style can be a double-edged sword. You do get recognition of the wine and style from Marlborough, but it may cause some wine drinkers to overlook Sauvignon Blanc made in other regions of New Zealand, which can have different aromas and flavours.
David indicated that the tropical fruit character has the most allure to him, and that the green flavours are less appealing to Americans. For David having nothing in excess and many flavours all balanced is appreciated. Dry is good and he doesn’t mind higher acidity. A balance between tropical fruit with herbaceousness is ok.
John said that we can’t have too much of a good thing, e.g. too much gooseberry flavour, and lose nuance. Toned down and more balanced is better. He liked dry, higher acidity with nice mouth texture and layers of flavours for Sauvignon Blanc.
What is the Future of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?
Should New Zealand continue with a classic style regardless of region, or should winemakers show more site specificity and regionality? Do people want to explore the different wine regions in New Zealand?
John indicated that even within Marlborough there are sub-regions that show different characteristics for the grape. Just like Pinot Noir can taste different based o soil type and weather, the same can happen with Sauvignon Blanc. It can change the texture of Sauvignon Blanc. Martinborough has less sun compared to Marlborough and shows different flavours for Sauvignon Blanc. You get more pyrazines in cooler regions (that gives you green pepper and other vegetal & herbal aromas and flavours).
David thought that people generally don’t know or care about different regions. Regionality is more important for sommeliers, who can then guide people to try different wines based on people’s past wine preferences. He showed a Craggy Range Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc and noted how it is richer and more concentrated. More stone fruit flavour as it was from the Martinborough region. And had some oak treatment.
Ronan showed a bottle of Mahi Sauvignon Blanc, which was more on the textural side and less on showing off big grassy or tropical fruit flavours. More balanced overall.
John showed a bottle of Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc. It stands out with a unique smoky character. he noted that the owners used to work at Cloudy Bay and know well the Classic style. But they wanted to make a different wine. John noted that this alternative version of Sauvignon Blanc can be polarizing to some people. It has a more mineral or sulfide character.
Jane showed a bottle of Greystone Sauvignon Blanc from North Canterbury. She noted that this is a small winery using biodynamic principles. The wine is not too different from the Classic style but is not quite as punchy on the aromatics.
Can Sauvignon Blanc lose its identity if there is too much winemaker manipulation?
Ronan pointed out with the Greywacke Sauvingnon Blanc that it is oak fermented and undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation. It is different from the Classic style but is still very flavourful.
There was a discussion of why/when winemakers use oak barrels? The answer is only if the wines can handle the oak. Can the grapes benefit from the oak rather than make it something it is not?
John noted that why not celebrate diversity and show off the different regions and what they offer? Sauvignon Blanc has lots of character so it is hard to lose it with winemaker’s methods. He showed a Millar Road Hawke’s Bay The Supernatural Sauvignon Blanc. Hawke’s Bay is a warmer region known for red grape production. This wine is riper and richer in style and was made naturally with skin contact.
Can regions be identified by wine drinkers? Again, the general public may not be able to, but sommeliers do as they are more interested in regionality, and they can then guide people to try specific wines. They can encourage peoples’ interests.
Can New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Prices be Increased?
The premiumization of wines was discussed. There was a discussion that unless the particular wine is available only in a small amount and is very distinct then it is hard to charge a premium price. Developing a pedigree behind a particular wine label can help an entire region. A halo effect, like you get in Napa Valley. Once the one wine reaches a cult status, it is easier for other wineries in the region to increase the price per bottle.
There was also some note about redefining what is fine wine? New Zealand is known for being clean and green and sustainable. It could be that these features add value to the market. People may be more interested to pay for New Zealand wines if they value care for the environment.
What would erode New Zealand’s position producing Sauvignon Blanc? There are other regions producing similar styles at a lower price, for example, Canada, Chile and Tasmania. But it could be New Zealand’s extra care for the environment that could help drive people to continue to purchase their wines. The other risk to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is if sommeliers become less interested in the Classic style and want to try something new from the Sauvignon Blanc grape.
Overall this was a very lively discussion and quite interesting as we had Masters of Wine from different regions of the world. It looks like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is well regarded by the public and sommeliers, regardless of the Classic style or other style. New Zealand’s clean, green, and sustainable character can help value-add to their wines and keep or grow public interest. You can watch the full video discussion at this link.