The Search for Life Beyond Sauvignon…

Marlborough sauvignon blanc is one of a number of wine styles that has prospered from a global shift toward more refreshing white wines around the world.  However, should this shift accelerate, Marlborough sauvignon blanc may instead suffer from its limitations.  Should consumers lured to wine by sauvignon blanc’s zip of fresh and abundant flavour start to want to try other alternatives, where is New Zealand’s Plan B?

The world red wine market is full of variety, stylistic as well as varietal.  If the world wants more red wine then there is a veritable ocean of alternatives from proven quality sources in several countries.  There is the stylistic spectrum from ethereal pinot noir to more austere, majestic cabernet to fruit driven shiraz to over the top zinfandel with a host of world renowned merlots, brunellos, nebbiolos, malbecs and other not so obscurities in between.

The global trade within the white wine world, by comparison, would largely re-adjust within its existing portfolio of choices.  Most of the variety tends to be in varieties that are largely for local consumption with far less breadth of market development.

However, were the world to shift focus more intensely toward whites, not inconceivable in the event of climatic warming, we believe this would expose the stylistic cloisters of the white wine world.  From a varietal perspective a far smaller varietal core dominates white wine sales, and this is what would lead to risk if there were a global search for suitable varieties to replace red grapes currently planted in warmer climate regions.

In a world clamouring for new tastes, for the latest Austrian gru-vee or Galician Albariño, where would New Zealand sit?

Given that New Zealand grows grapes on the knife edge that should be expected of a maritime climate with significant wind exposure and also marked seasonal variation in terms of wet or dry, warm or cool years through most of its length there should be the ability to do justice to a wide variety of varieties.  The surrounding ocean nullifies the worst of our temperature exposure, but we nevertheless often forget that New Zealand’s latitude ranges from the equivalent of Burgundy to Morocco.

The Role of Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is today unquestioned as the cornerstone of the New Zealand wine industry.  The industry is blessed by the fact that sauvignon blanc has found a “sweet spot” in the Marlborough Region. 

It is the industry’s strength and its weakness.

Even when there seemed no end within sight for the world’s demand for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, there were voices within the New Zealand wine industry drawing attention to the hows and wherefores in the event world demand is sated, or the possibility of competitor market share ingress into Marlborough’s higher value niche.

New Zealand and Marlborough’s good fortune has been aided by the fact that the strongest growth in demand in most of the major wine consuming countries is in the categories of light and refreshing white and rosé style wines.  Sauvignon blanc is just one of these (as is German Riesling, Italian pinot grigio and a number of more exotic European and Mediterranean varieties). 

Sauvignon blanc is not the only one that is clearly “in fashion”, and this should provide some comfort that the current position is not purely fashion, but rather an adjustment back from the heavy shift to reds in many markets during the early to mid 1990s at the same time as the world appreciates the worth of lighter styles in warmer climatic conditions.

However, the desire for the industry to diversify its exposure appears to have lost urgency as overproduction has led to discounting and a survival mentality takes hold, rather than a mood for future planning.  All talk has shifted to reducing yields and stopping new planting, rather than investigating some of the potential alternatives and diversification from the industry exposure to “sauvignon risk”.

The Search for a New Sauvignon Blanc

 For all that there are thousands of grape varieties in the world, the number that might be considered genuine prospects is not large.  It is clear that there is far more experimentation going on in the search for alternative red varieties than alternative whites – a common theme in most New World countries.

 Among white varieties there is more likely to be a candidate for “the great new New Zealand wine”, a variety on which to build a world-dominating reputation.  Without gaining such a reputation for a new variety, chances are that the country will instead have an also-ran reputation and not attract serious investment capital to grow a new niche.

Another consideration in the search for new varieties is the fact that there are many regions in New Zealand other than Marlborough.  Just because Marlborough remains the clear “sweet spot” for sauvignon blanc, does not mean that it is necessarily the best potential location for other varieties.  In fact some of the most interesting possibilities may be varieties more suited to North Island regions where there may also be the land resources to grow plantings without “competing” with sauvignon blanc.

 Are the varieties of the future already growing in New Zealand?  Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.

 To date the focus for the best candidates has been on a small group of varieties that have already been growing in New Zealand on a large or small basis for many years.  This list includes:

  • Pinot Gris
  • Riesling
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Viognier         

Smaller areas have been planted for some time now of other newer varieties, most on a test basis, including:

  • Pinot Blanc
  • Verdelho
  • Rousanne

 Other varieties, some older (such as chenin blanc) and some relatively newer, are either in decline or not showing any immediate likelihood of growing, according to NZ Winegrowers vineyard surveys.  In some cases this may be either because there is no obvious market for them, and in other cases there is perhaps an unwillingness by winemakers to invest the time and effort in developing winning styles (or perhaps simply an unwillingness to be diverted from the business of making money from sauvignon blanc).

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