Life Beyond Sauvignon 2 – The existing candidates?

What are the desirable characteristics of an alternative grape variety?

1. Fruit interest (and potential in New Zealand climatic conditions)

Sauvignon blanc (not to mention Pinot Noir) has highlighted something about New Zealand:  we could take a grape variety that occasionally shines in other countries but often produces dull or uninteresting wines and, thanks to our climate, sunshine and know how, add a whole new dimension to how that variety is perceived in the world market.

Following the 1970s theory that New Zealand should focus on Germanic grape varieties, we have tried to do similarly with riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer (and only more recently viognier) but never really stamped an authoratively different style on these grapes (despite some undoubted success stories along the way).

While not saying we will never make such a mark with these varieties, we know we are up against stiff competition from those overseas originating regions that do not take their product for granted (in the same way that, arguably, the Loire Valley did before Marlborough sauvignon blanc burst upon the scene).

Aside from viognier, all of the varieties mentioned above are northern European in origin (including pinot gris, despite its importance in Italy); all are noted for pronounced flavour (and in some cases fresh acidity) in their more northerly homelands, and so arguably should not be considered quite such obvious candidates for “New Zealand-isation”, except perhaps in Southern districts.

2. Marketability

Marketability is what it’s really all about.  Taking a distinctive product and making the world want it above any others.

Needless to say this is much easier said than done.

However, there are perhaps already a few clues in the market place.  For example, there are a number of varieties still hardly grown outside of their home regions overseas but which are sought after in their own countries for reasons of flavour and distinctiveness, and are just starting to find a wider market elsewhere. 

The opportunity lies in the fact that the rest of the world has little idea how these varieties might taste if grown elsewhere, such as in New Zealand conditions.

3. Economic yields

The economic equation which drives Marlborough sauvignon blanc land values is not just the price paid for each bottle (which is better than quaffing, but definitely not Napa or Burgundy).  It is the yield of grapes that can be produced from each hectare of vines and yet still produce a qualitatively distinctive product.

Marlborough sauvignon blanc is the product of a recipe of water, sunshine, soils and sufficiently reliable weather that allow both volumes and quality to be maintained together.  Even within Marlborough not every variety provided with the same resources will produce the same economic return.  With pinot noir the compensation for the lower yields, which are regarded as essential to retain varietal fruit characters, is the higher pricing of the bottled product in a very specialised market niche.

Accordingly, from an economic perspective a key attribute that will either justify more widespread diversification from sauvignon blanc in Marlborough, or that with time may add significant value to land and resources in other regions, is whether distinctive wine can be made at adequate yields.

There are candidates.

4. Time and the availability of healthy planting material

The hardest one of all?  It’s not just that it takes 3-4 years to get a reasonable crop from new plantings, but the fact that for new varietal planting material it may take three years to get through quarantine to find out for sure that the genetic sources are healthy and free from virus or other diseases.  Then it may take several more years to bulk up the available materials so that there are enough buds harvestable for widespread planting.

Maybe it was the case in the past, looking at some of the older genetic material in the country, but today there is no room for short cuts.

This means that the likeliest sources of plant materials to import will be highly reputed international nursery operations with strong systems to ensure quality product.  Even so, there have been instances of imports from reputable sources that have still had problems.

In practical terms, this probably means that it may be at least 10-12 years before there will be sufficient material from any new varieties to reach the point of mass plantings, and a further 3 years before there are the volumes of wine to justify serious international marketing effort (as distinct from showing off small volume wines).

If one considers the commercial history of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, from the first experimentation at Matua Valley, to the first Montana plantings in Marlborough and the first releases of its Marlborough label in1978, to the successes of Hunters in the early 1980s and later of Cloudy Bay from 1985, the fact is that despite taking over 10 years from planting to making the world sit up and take notice there would still be more than another decade before sauvignon blanc began to dominate plantings in the Marlborough Region to the point of making up more than half of all producing planted area in 2002.

Nationwide, sauvignon blanc did not pass chardonnay in terms of crop size until 1999 or producing vineyard area until 2002.

Hopefully we are smarter enough today and could short cut the process of producing world-scale volumes of “the next big thing” by close to a decade from the time it took sauvignon blanc to get there.

The first question is then:  will at least one (or hopefully more) of the new varieties stack up as a distinctive, quality product that the world’s consumers will fall over themselves to get hold of?

The second question, no less important is: is the industry likely to be able to find the investment capital to convert such an opportunity into a reality, into a New Zealand success story?  We estimate that the capital cost in 2008 dollars to introduce a new variety and to expand production to 4,500 ha (i.e. approximately half of the 2007 Marlborough hectares) for between 2.5 and 3.5 million cases production depending on which variety and where planted, to be approximately NZ $630 million.  This assumes that all land is purchased for planting, and at rates that will rise over time as production becomes more valuable, but not as far as current Marlborough bare land price levels.

The Usual Suspects – Can they make it big?

Gewürztraminer  While always casting an eye toward the Alsace model, New Zealand has produced some excellent gewürztraminers over the last three decades, and a handful of producers have devoted the time and effort to get good results, most notably Nick Nobilo’s Vinoptima project in Gisborne.  The best results to date have been produced in Gisborne, Martinborough and Marlborough.  Can it make it big?  The downside of gewürztraminer is that it is a grape with almost too much personality and, arguably, a lack of subtle complexity.  It is never a refreshing style of wine, nor is it a clearly food oriented variety.  As a consequence it is not difficult to conclude that it will always be a niche wine style with a limited market.  This may be highly conducive to producing attractive returns for a small number of devoted exponents, but is not conducive to wide scale plantings. To make matters worse (from a mass planting perspective) it is a notoriously variable cropper owing to sensitivity over flowering.

Pinot Gris  Pinot Gris has been identified by others as a candidate.  It is already a popular grape in many markets.  Unfortunately there are many very different styles produced internationally, resulting in a degree of consumer confusion, and New Zealand is perhaps a reflection of this problem.  Italian pinot grigio, which is very un-New Zealand-like, has brand profile and is selling well internationally.  Similarly, Oregon pinot gris is still relatively fashionable in the United States.  It is not clear whether Alsace pinot gris has benefitted or suffered from the banning of its old use of the name Tokay d’Alsace, although top examples are probably the best pinot gris wines in the world today.  So how does one break into this market?  A distinctive product would help, but this is not something that is happening, with New Zealand pinot gris wines coming in a confusingly wide range of styles and levels of sweetness.  While exports seem to be rising strongly (from a low base), they are still small in the global context and it is hard to assess what the potential truly is.

Riesling  The riesling renaissance has been forecast for longer than most people in the wine industry can remember.  Wine writers, commentators and makers never cease to argue over which of riesling or chardonnay is the greatest white wine grape.  However, how does one stand out as a producer when the quality of top German, Austrian and Alsatian producers is so high, not to mention the distinctive dry riesling styles of South Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys, and when New Zealand riesling still seems to have an identity crisis?  Moreover, in market terms just how real is the riesling renaissance?

Viognier  To some it is the new fashion statement.  There can be no doubt that good viognier can be quite alluring, with both full body and a very pronounced fruit aroma.  It deserves to be popular, but how popular could it be?  The problems are clear and, ultimately, limiting.  The name viognier is confusing to the uninitiated (although this need not be a problem since few people outside of France take the trouble to pronounce “sauvignon”).  Also, “good” viognier is not a light, refreshing wine style able to pair with a wide variety of foods.  Finally, viognier is a notoriously difficult grape to grow and get good consistent crops.  This almost certainly consigns it to a quality supporting actor role.

Which varieties have we omitted (perhaps unfairly)? 

Chardonnay is the obvious one.  Several New Zealand chardonnays have won strong reputations over the years and are highly regarded internationally.  More than one New Zealand winery may well regard chardonnay as its strongest offering, with Kumeu River producing as many as six different bottlings now, but nationwide there is a huge diversity of styles.  Moreover, chardonnay is grown to a very high standard in many different countries, most of which are still struggling in the qualitative (and price) wake of the very top White Burgundies.  If some of the most successful chardonnays today are made in a fresher (not overblown) style that is clearly suited to New Zealand’s climate, then the prospects for staking a claim to a respectable share of the market should not be underestimated, but the prospects for New Zealand becoming a global benchmark seem remote, and the fact that the rate of plantings has subsided is probably indicative.

Other varieties such as chenin blanc and pinot blanc have also produced some useful examples over more than 20 years in New Zealand but, despite the fact that chenin blanc especially shares a Loire heritage with sauvignon blanc, neither has suggested that New Zealand conditions could embue them with particular qualities that would allow them to stand out from the pack internationally.


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