Some Alternative Alternative Candidates (and Reasons Why)
Of the hundreds of white grape varieties of the world, the vast majority are too obscure to discuss or of very marginal interest.
Of the largest producing varieties of the world, the likes of Airen and Ugni Blanc are generally considered to be bland quality warm climate grapes. While this does not mean that New Zealand could not create something different from them, the reputation of these varieties may always stifle any potential they might have.
There are perhaps two dozen white varieties that have sufficient interest, including expert opinions that they are capable of producing high quality wines. (I am sure there are others, but the identification and importation issues stretch the issue of suitability too far for immediate consideration).
Arguably all but one of them shares the likelihood of pronunciation problems for many potential drinkers. (We may just need to be a little creative to sell them). Several are Italian in origin, reflecting the wide diversity of grapes grown in that country. Several are also, therefore, what might be described as Mediterranean in origin.
In alphabetic order (*marks varieties that are already grown in small quantities in New Zealand although no wines labelled Marsanne, Rousanne or Gruner Veltliner have yet been marketed, other than Coopers Creek’s “The Groover”):
Albariño Native to northwestern Spain and northern Portugal (and scarcely grown anywhere else), but unlike almost anything else in Iberian wine. In its home environment it produces a wine of light to medium body with subtle and distinctive fruit characters, although whether because of winemaking or climate there is often a sense that the style of the grape could be “tightened up” in the right environment. Given that most New Zealand wine regions are near the coast, the fact that albariño is thick skinned and well adapted to relatively damp maritime environments suggests that it could have wide potential uses in New Zealand. Moreover, albariño wines are highly fashionable at home in the Spanish market, and also starting to be noticed in the UK and US markets. Australia was also claiming good results for a wine it thought was albariño, curiously growing it in hot dry climate areas rather than near the sea, until it was proven to be a different grape altogether, Savagnin blanc, a distant relation of gewürztraminer.
Arneis* A number of New Zealand growers are beginning to experiment with Arneis and a small number of wines have appeared both as blends and as single varietal wines (most notably by Coopers Creek). The natural aroma of arneis tends to be relatively subtle, rather than strikingly pronounced in the manner of sauvignon blanc. Most trials to date have been in more northerly parts of the country, but wider experimentation may be necessary to establish where arneis may work best.
Fiano A native of southern Italy where it produces wines with hints of complex and exotic fruits. While New Zealand conditions are not at all like those of the warm Italian south, warmer parts of New Zealand might still be able to ripen the grapes and harness its natural acidity for a quite different style of wine. Greco and Falanghina are other varieties of interest grown in the same region. All are typically grown at altitude to maintain acidity, but may suit warmer sea level New Zealand locations.
Garganega In its native Italy this is the variety that forms the core of Soave. Unlike some other Italian varieties it does not appear to have been widely exported to other countries. While the reputation of Soave has sometimes been one of blandness (which may explain lack of interest from California to trial it), in recent years a handful of top producers have provided hints of what this grape is capable of if handled with care and skill. In a different climate with different sunlight and influences, what might be produced?
Gruner Veltliner* A native of Austria and also very rare anywhere else in the world. It produces a distinctive and distinguished medium to full bodied white wine that is increasingly fashionable in both Europe and in the US (where it is sometimes referred to as “gru-vee”). It has already been planted experimentally in the more southerly growing regions, but may actually have wider possibilities. Note that it is reputed to respond strongly to the soil conditions in which it is grown.
Marsanne* A white grape from the Northern Rhone in France. As it grows in similar environments to Syrah and Viognier, it seems reasonable to assume that it may produce corresponding results in New Zealand. Often partnered with Rousanne (see below).
Petit Manseng A native of south western France and known for producing distinctive wines in a range of styles from dry to very sweet. Produces small, thick skinned berries that have a reputation for being weather hardy. Petit manseng wines are noted for exotic fruit characters and retaining good levels of acidity. May produce interesting results, even if very different in character from the often rustic French versions.
Rousanne* Like marsanne a native of the Rhone. Often partnered with that variety to add fruit interest as marsanne can produce quite heavy wine when grown in hot climates. While rousanne can be more challenging to grow, especially its susceptibility to powdery mildew, it may prove of considerable interest in warmer New Zealand sites.
Verdelho* A native of the island of Madeira, its name indicates that it is known for its small green berries. It is also widely grown in Australia where its high natural acidity is a virtue. A small number of growers in New Zealand are experimenting with it and Esk Valley has produced some interesting wines. The nature of the grape suggests that it may be limited only to the warmest locations in New Zealand. Internationally it is regarded as being relatively neutral in flavour, although Australia seems to think of it as an aromatic variety. It is sometimes assumed that Verdelho is the same as the highly fashionable Verdejo in Spain (which might perhaps even more interesting in its own right as it is often blended with sauvignon blanc), although it appears that what the Spanish know as Godello is more likely the same grape.
Vermentino Vermentino is best known for medium to full-bodied dry wines produced in the South of France (where it is sometimes known as Rolle), on Corsica, on Sardinia and along the Ligurian and Tuscan coastal regions of Italy. It is a thick skinned variety that has adapted to maritime conditions and is able to produce wines with structure and with distinctive fruit flavours even at relatively high yields (reminiscent of sauvignon blanc in this regard). In Australia it is surprisingly grown largely in warm dry inland conditions, but it is the maritime origins, plus the relatively unsophisticated way it is largely made and marketed in its European home, that suggest it is an opportunity well worth examining in New Zealand.
Vernaccia There are several probably very different Italian varieties with the name Vernaccia. The most well known is that grown in Tuscany, which is responsible for the wine Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and this appears to produce the most interesting wine in the hands of quality-oriented producers.
And The Other Sauvignon Blanc Challenge is…
While it is high time for the search for the next sauvignon blanc to begin in earnest (and not just a re-run of the same old candidates), challenges remain for sauvignon blanc itself.
One challenge is guarding our market space from increasing predation by South African and Chilean producers envious of our market position. In this there is an element of being smarter with our brand positioning and never resting on our laurels. Lower crop yields in the short-term may serve not only to bring supply and demand closer into balance, but also to help maintain a qualitative edge.
However, the other challenge may be trickier. While we in New Zealand may choose to believe the extensive press that suggests New Zealand is the global benchmark for sauvignon blanc, and while our market position is clearly reflected in our high average prices in overseas markets, the reality remains that we do not come even close to producing the highest priced sauvignon blanc pinnacle or icon wines. Several French producers from the Loire and Bordeaux sell their best product for prices far in excess of the highest priced New Zealand wines.
So one challenge may yet be to produce a true pinnacle sauvignon blanc wine that is still distinctively New Zealand in character while undeniably an international star. Several Marlborough wineries have special bottlings lavished with extra care and attention in the search for complexity, and are starting to indicate greater aging potential than the stock Marlborough sauvignon blanc intended for early drinking, but it is abundantly clear that there is still a way to go.
It may be that this is a marketing challenge as much as a winemaking challenge.