It occurred to me that if New Zealand has an issue with respect to the lack of a “plan B”, then in the case of Marlborough the problem is amplified to a huge extent. In simple terms, the whole region is hugely leveraged on the fashionability of a single grape variety, sauvignon blanc. Other New Zealand and international regions are similarly exposed (e.g. Pinot Noir in Central Otago or Martinborough, Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, Shiraz in McLaren Vale, etc), but none of those dominates its wider industry to anywhere near the same extent from an economic perspective.
After all, Marlborough sauvignon blanc makes up over 75% of New Zealand’s $1billion of wine exports in value terms (and even more in volume). The downside risk should the world fall “out of love” with Marlborough sauvignon blanc is huge indeed.
If anything, the Marlborough exposure to sauvignon risk has grown rather than reduced. New plantings of sauvignon blanc have disproportionately outstripped those of other varieties in recent years.
So should Marlborough producers be planning for life after sauvignon blanc? If so, what should they be looking to grow?
The first problem is the fact that the whole industry is presently in risk aversion mode. Planting new vines today is regarded as a significant risk, with the potential to prevent the country’s supply and demand getting back into balance, or so we are told.
In other words, the only way to plant anything new is both tentatively and slowly.
However, there is an obvious issue with the existing candidates. For all its vaunted reputation, although Marlborough clearly dominates New Zealand sauvignon blanc from a volume and quality point of view and is internationally regarded as a “sweet spot” for the grape, Marlborough does not qualitatively dominate the country in terms of any other single variety currently grown there. Moreover, the fact that certain very diligent producers such as Fromm or Hans Herzog can perform extremely well with some offbeat varieties does not mean that the whole industry there could simply replicate that success.
So, can Marlborough find an alternative? Actually it would be surprising if sauvignon blanc were indeed the only variety that Marlborough could really put its stamp on. While I have written before on other varieties from a perhaps more northerly perspective, some of these could yet prove to also have a sweet spot in Marlborough.