New Zealand’s wine industry built its name on sav, but we’ve been putting all our eggs in one basket for too long, writes Jules van Costello.
I like to think of sauvignon blanc as the IPA of wine. It’s brash, bombastic and a little bit basic (in a good way). Like IPA, its tropical aromas of guava, passionfruit, lemongrass and a little bit of sweat jump forth from the glass. In the words of wine educator Oz Clark: “There had never before been a wine that crackled and spat its flavours at you from the glass”. It should not be surprising that some of the flavours in savvies and IPAs are the same – New Zealand’s most acclaimed hop variety, Nelson Sauvin, is named for its olfactory similarity to Marlborough sauvignon blanc.
Savvy is easy to understand and even easier to like. In the world of wine, which has a tendency to disempower consumers by letting so-called “experts” hoard knowledge, this is unequivocally a good thing.
Sauvignon blanc put New Zealand on the map. It is the foundation on which the entire export side of our wine industry has been built. But sadly, there can be too much of a good thing. While writing my new book, Beyond the Vines: The Changing Landscape of New Zealand Wine, I’ve had to wrestle with the fact that while sauvignon blanc is amazing, the New Zealand wine industry has too many eggs in one basket. It represents 63% of New Zealand’s area under vine, 74% of our wine production and a whopping 88% of our exports by volume, meaning for every dozen bottles of wine we export, over 10 of those are sauvignon blanc.
In August 2020, New Zealand Winegrowers released their annual report which stated that, despite six months of Covid-19 affecting sales, we’d actually exported more wine than ever before. Big grocery brands have done incredibly well but many smaller producers are feeling the pinch. The smaller the producer, the more likely they are to be selling wine in restaurants, which is hard when restaurants are shut or diners are too scared to go out. Secondary lockdowns in Melbourne, London and even in Auckland, as well as the huge mishandling of Covid in our biggest markets – the USA and UK – have had profoundly negative effects for many Kiwi producers.
New Zealand, the forward-thinking upstart that it is, committed to free trade in the mid-1980s. We are an export economy and from my position, this has generally helped us do business. However, one of the consequences of this is that no industry is too big to fail. Our producers, unlike those in Europe, for instance, cannot rely on government intervention to keep them afloat if the arse drops out of the market.
Sauvignon blanc is popular now across the globe, but what happens when the bubble bursts? We could face a quick trend shift à la Sideways that saw merlot’s demise, or even a sudden global event change how the wine world works overnight. Most of the players who are making big bucks on industrial sauvignon blanc will not care. They will move onto something else. The growers and the wineries will be hurting. The wine world is a slow-moving beast, but it is also a fickle one. At this stage, New Zealand does not have an exit strategy.
Savvy is important – we can make relatively high-quality juice relatively cheaply. This is what got us into this problem in the first place. But we can also make world-class wine all over New Zealand. We need to champion more serious styles of sauvignon blanc, which we excel at.
We also need to diversify, and quickly. Despite having over 55 commercial varieties being grown, land devoted to most varieties has been dwindling (all but sauvignon blanc, of course, pinot noir, pinot gris and syrah).
I myself am heavily invested in the natural and lo-fi wine game with my businesses Cult Wine and Te Aro Wine but, strangely enough, I do not think this is the saviour of the industry, nor is making more and more serious wine. We need to find something we can make relatively cheaply, well, and for which there is an international demand.
I believe light red wines are part of the answer to the problem of the sav bubble – Montepulciano from Italy, St Lauren from Austria and Gamay are all contenders. In Australia, these light reds have taken off domestically and are making waves internationally. Like sav, we can make affordable pinot relatively well so there is no reason why we cannot apply these skills to grape varieties that are a little easier to grow. I happen to like drinking light reds but this is one solution that should also suit consumers in Australia, USA and the growing Chinese market.
We also need to experiment, throw grapes at the wall to see what sticks. The bubble will pop. We need to be ready.
The next chapter for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is anything but traditional.
Few wines have a stronger signature style than New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Since the grape was first planted in 1975, it has become a sensation among U.S. wine drinkers — not only for its crisp character and zingy acidity but for its sheer reliability. Even without cracking the screw cap, it’s a safe bet that any given bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand will be youthful and refreshing, with fresh citrus and grassy, herbaceous notes.
“Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is truly unique and always identifiable in a lineup of Sauvignon Blancs from around the world,” says Jules Taylor, owner and winemaker of her eponymous Marlborough winery. But, she says, “it is not all the same.” Today’s producers are increasingly intent on showcasing that there’s more to Sauvignon Blanc — and to New Zealand in general — than its stylistic stereotype. Untraditional vinification techniques like barrel ageing and wild fermentation, offbeat sweet and sparkling wines, and regional distinctions outside of Marlborough are all proving that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has the potential to be an even more diverse category in the future.
Pioneers of Experimentation
Over the 40 years since Sauvignon Blanc really took off in New Zealand’s vineyards, winemakers have worked to understand the adopted variety. “Our treatment of Sauvignon Blanc has changed and evolved enormously, both in the vineyards and in the wineries,” says Craig Anderson, the winemaker at Hillersden Wines in Marlborough, who has worked in the country’s wine industry for 23 years. Today, most New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is produced to highlight aromatics and acidity, using techniques like mechanical harvesting, fermentation at very low temperatures using commercial yeasts, and clarification and bottling as early as possible.
But this signature style also stems from the natural attributes of the grape’s main production hub: Marlborough, home to nearly 89 per cent of the country’s Sauvignon Blanc. Plentiful sunshine, cool temperatures, and moderating maritime influence shape the intensely aromatic, yet piercingly acid-driven style of the wines.
“For a long time, only the ‘classic’ style was being produced,” says Taylor. “That fresh, vibrant, juicy-acidity style. [It’s] the wine that put Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the world wine map.” These wines garnered international attention for their unique and distinctive character — a zingy, fresh style unmatched elsewhere — and wineries worked to meet that demand.
Similarly, the rise in new styles of Sauvignon Blanc is partially in response to current market demands. “There’s a thirst for more diversity and complexity from consumers, and also recognition from Marlborough winemakers that the style needs to continue to evolve,” says Duncan Shouler, the chief winemaker for Giesen Group in Marlborough.
However, winemakers are curious by nature. With more than four decades working with the grape under their belts, New Zealand’s vintners are increasingly willing to push the boundaries of what Sauvignon Blanc can be. “Now those producers are confident of their understanding of Sauvignon Blanc, they naturally want to explore alternative expressions of the variety,” says James Healy, the co-owner of Dog Point Vineyard in Marlborough. “Almost all serious producers of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand have at least two styles on sale.”
Interestingly, experimentation with Sauvignon Blanc styles is not entirely new in New Zealand. Many point to Cloudy Bay, one of Marlborough’s first wineries, as the pioneer of experimental Sauvignon Blanc winemaking, using techniques like wild fermentation, malolactic fermentation, and barrel ageing in the early 1990s. These early experiments resulted in some of the country’s best-known — and more widely available — untraditional Sauvignon Blancs, notably Cloudy Bay’s iconic Te Koko bottling, first created in the 1996 vintage.
Today, Te Koko showcases a different side of Sauvignon Blanc — a serious and complex version that contrasts the bright and clean Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of the juice undergoes indigenous yeast fermentation followed by malolactic fermentation, and the wine is aged on its lees in a mix of old and new French barrels for 18 months. “This approach builds far more richness, texture, and complexity in the wines,” says Jim White, Cloudy Bay’s technical director, “while the fruit-driven aromas become more complex and some savoury, spicy notes start to show.” It is released as a three-year-old wine.
But the team behind Te Koko has also brought this experience to other wild, barrel-fermented and aged Sauvignon Blancs in New Zealand. Healy, who was one of the winemakers at Cloudy Bay from 1991 until the early 2000s, recognized the potential to craft a Sauvignon Blanc in this style from a specific parcel within the Dog Point Vineyard. “That particular vineyard … produced a wine with a distinct and concentrated citrus influence,” he says, “which, combined with these vinification techniques, made it an obvious choice to make in this way.”
Healy decided to stay away from new barriques, looking instead to other international, cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc regions. “The idea of fermentation in older seasoned barrels, as is done in parts of the Loire, appealed,” he says.
As much as Cloudy Bay’s early experiments informed the creation of Te Koko, they were also tied to the origin of the Wild Sauvignon bottling from Greywacke; co-owner Kevin Judd was Cloudy Bay’s founding winemaker, and the fruit for Te Koko’s 1992 predecessor came from Greywacke Vineyard.
“When we had our first harvest in 2009, it was natural that we would continue the less-trodden path of Sauvignon and develop our own individual style of indigenous fermented Sauvignon Blanc,” says Kimberley Judd, Kevin’s wife and a co-owner of Greywacke. “[Kevin] preferred the richer, in-depth individuality that wild yeast brings to the finished wine.”
While the Wild Sauvignon is made from the same vineyard as Greywacke’s classic Sauvignon Blanc, the two are distinct. “The result is a more savoury, herbal flavour profile in the wine, and a textural quality that builds on the structure and intensity of mouthfeel,” says Judd. “The hands-off process gives the wine some real personality and individuality.”
Exploring New Styles and Regions
Some winemakers are using the country’s signature variety to make wines that are neither still nor dry. “For me, the drive behind making alternative styles of the variety is to show wine buyers and consumers that Sauvignon Blanc as a variety is more diverse than it is given credit for,” says Taylor.
In addition to her classic Sauvignon Blanc and wild, barrel-fermented OTQ, Taylor makes a late-harvest, sweet Sauvignon Blanc in vintages that encourage the development of botrytis, a beneficial mould that grows on grapes, dehydrates them, and concentrates flavours and sugars. The style has been produced in New Zealand in tiny quantities over past decades.
“In the right vintages with good botrytis, a great wine can be made,” says Shouler, who also makes late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc.
Others are experimenting with sparkling styles of Sauvignon Blanc. While many use the tank method to highlight the grape’s intense aromatics, Hunter’s Wines in Marlborough uses the ancestral method to create its Offshoot Pet-Nat. “This Pet-Nat provides a little glimpse at the type of wine our winemakers are used to tasting in the winery before wines are prepared for bottling,” the winery writes on its website.
Because Marlborough is the centre of Sauvignon Blanc production in New Zealand, stereotypical “New Zealand” Sauvignon Blanc is really stereotypical “Marlborough” Sauvignon Blanc. But other regions work with the grape as well, though in markedly smaller quantities.
While nearby spots like Nelson on the upper South Island and Wairarapa on the lower North Island make similarly bright, mouthwatering Sauvignon Blancs, further areas are now defining their own regional styles. The warmer Hawke’s Bay, for instance, has the second-highest numbers of Sauvignon Blanc vines in New Zealand after Marlborough and makes riper, rounder varietal wines. “In the warmer regions to the north, the wines tend to be more tropical and lower in acid, and further south, they are more delicate while retaining good acidity,” says Taylor.
Even Central Otago, New Zealand’s most southerly wine region, counts a handful of Sauvignon Blanc vines among its plantings. “I’ve always portrayed the region as ‘officially too far south and too cold for Sauvignon Blanc,’” says Andy Wilkinson, the director of operations and sales for Misha’s Vineyard in Central Otago. “However, with that said, if you have the right site — one that is exposed to lots of light, both direct and reflected — you can produce the most stunning style of Sauvignon Blanc.”
The rocky soils, longer days of intense sunshine, and cool nights of Central Otago’s continental climate combine to create a gentler Sauvignon Blanc with softer fruit and lifting but less sharp acidity. “The tough conditions that we expose the vines to encourage them to put more energy into the fruit, [producing] few bunches but much more intensity,” adds Wilkinson.
Though these offbeat styles of Sauvignon Blanc are broadening the grape’s spectrum in this island nation, don’t expect that signature New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc style to disappear. “It is a style that is well suited to the geographic and climatic conditions of New Zealand’s major grape-growing regions,” says Judd. “But as the New Zealand industry matures, there will be an increased presence of what we call ‘left-field’ Sauvignon Blancs in the market.”
While this might worry those who have come to rely on the predictable nature of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as a category, stylistic diversity doesn’t undercut the intrinsic tie of these wines to their place of origin. “I think that ultimately, this will eventuate into two, perhaps three styles that will be instantly recognizable as [being] from New Zealand,” says Healy. “The one thing that they will all share is an interpretation of the intensity of the fruit quality that we have seen consistently over the past three and a half decades out of this country. It really is unique.”
Future event for the club in late 2020 and into 2021 is packed with a range of presenters and no less than three food and wine events .
November 18th – – Our 40th Anniversary dinner at Bellamy’s (run by Logan Brown) at the Beehive
The first Club meeting was held in the month of November. To recognise that historic milestone, a celebratory dinner has been arranged, to be held at Bellamy’s by Logan Brown at their restaurant in the Beehive. This is set down for Wednesday 18 November, so check your diaries for availability.
Details will be sent out shortly, asking for your registration and to make your selection from the accompanying menu. As for any such venue, there will be a limit on numbers which means you should register quickly to secure your place.
The food promises to be of very high quality. So, book your place and go dig around in your wine stocks to find the special bottle (or two) that you think will go best with your selection to bring with you.
Your Committee is excited about this event and is sure you will be too.
December 9th –A Fun evening with CoLab, Simon Bell
January: BBQ at Derek’s
February: Coney’s for the 13th February 2021 – our postponed 40thanniversary outing to the Wairarapa [to include visits to Palliser and Grave/Alana]
14th October – This month we have Saint Clair Family Estate from Marlborough with Alison Downs presenting.
Saint Clair Family Estate was established by Neal and Judy Ibbotson in 1994, having been viticulture pioneers in Marlborough since 1978. From their first vintage, when all their wines won medals, including gold, the name Saint Clair has been synonymous with quality and its award-winning record continues today.
Saint Clair is 100% family-owned, with the next generation also involved in the day-to-day running of the company.
Daughters Sarina and Julie both work within the business in sales and marketing after studying wine business marketing at Adelaide and have a vast knowledge of the wine industry. Son Tony is responsible for the design of all Saint Clair’s packaging, promotional material and advertising. He owns a design consultancy business, the Creative Method, in Sydney. Tony designed the original Saint Clair labels back in 1994 when he was a student and has been refining and expanding the range of Saint Clair labels ever since.
Our mission is to create world-class wines that exceed their customers’ every expectation.
2019 Saint Clair Origin Pinot Gris Rosé
2018Saint Clair Pioneer Block 28 Pinot Blanc
2019 Saint Clair Origin Hawke’s Bay Viognier
2019 Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc
2019 Saint Clair James Sinclair Chardonnay
2018 Saint Clair Pioneer Block 22 Pioneer Block Pinot Noir
2017 Saint Clair Origin Hawke’s Bay Merlot
Book it in now – Tasting: 14th October, starts at 8pm J’ville Community Centre – look out for our sign outside
Wednesday 12 August – Victor Kattenbelt of Confidant Wines
Wednesday 16 September – Alan Evans and Ageing of quality wines
Wednesday 21 October – St Clair Family Estate, Marlborough
Wednesday 18 November – Club Anniversary dinner at Bellamy’s (run by Logan Brown)
Now that we’re past the shortest day/longest night of the year for this Equinox, if anyone would like supply a short article about their ‘Drop of the Day’, i.e. their go-to wine for this season, to share with the rest of the Club, please feel free to submit it.
Turning waste into hand sanitiser is the next project for a research winery based in Marlborough.
The Ministry of Business and Innovation (MBIE) has awarded $84,700 in funding to Bragato Research Institute (BRI) for a pilot study exploring turning grape marc into hand sanitiser.
Grape marc is the stems and seeds leftover after pressing – which in Marlborough can total as much as 46,000 tonnes of waste per year.
The study would look to turn winery waste into ethanol. Any sanitiser made in the initial eight-month study would be bottled and donated to Marlborough health workers and first responders.
Bragato Research Institute chief executive MJ Loza said the industry was continuously looking at alternative uses for grape marc, and Covid-19 presented BRI with “an opportunity to learn more about its properties while exploring a potential business case for a new product”.
“Using winery waste to produce ethanol for hand sanitiser is untested in the New Zealand context with our varietals. We haven’t had the capability to conduct a study like this in New Zealand until now,” Loza said.
“Managing grape marc has probably been viewed as a disposal issue. However, the marc itself is increasingly being studied for other properties.
“Transforming the wine industry’s waste into a value stream is a research priority. Every time we study grape marc, we learn a little more about its potential for a new commercial product.”
In the long term, the project would explore the business opportunity for the industry to turn waste into sanitiser, which would include “more information on costs, the infrastructure needed and technical findings specific to grape marc produced in New Zealand”.
“We know that grape marc is rich in valuable compounds. The challenges lie in finding a new economy for grape marc without creating a bigger environmental footprint, as well as finding a financially viable market for a new product,” Loza said.
Funding for the project was secured through MBIE’s Covid-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund, which was created to support research and projects in covid responses, and provide support to develop and deploy products, processes and services.
The project would be led by winery research manager Dr Tanya Rutan and research programme manager Dr Matias Kinzurik.
Bragato officially opened their research winery in February, based at the Blenheim campus of Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.
The new facility will trial winemaking equipment, technologies and processes as well as sustainable winery operations.
It will also provide commercial research winemaking services to suppliers and the industry.
Sophie Trigger | The Marlborough Express, 4 Mar 2020
Every time Marlborough cellist Elgee Leung drinks a gran reserva or gran arzuaga he gets to thinking about a Spanish cellist composer’s music, Cassado, and he will literally play the music in his head when he drinks the wine from his favourite winery in Spain. Music and wine is purely an artistic connection.”Sometimes when I drink a bottle of wine I think of a particular piece of music,” Leung said.
At a concert titled ‘Die Innere Stimme‘, which translates to ‘the inner voice’, he will feature three traditional German musical works performed by a cello and piano duo, with a wine tasting from Clark Estate served in the intermission. Leung will play the cello alongside world-class pianist Dr Michael Tsalka, who has 23 CD records and tours the world as a solo musician.
He said Clark Estate winemaker Simon Clark had chosen a selection of wines from the reserve range that captured the “tension” of the three German pieces of music being played. They hoped the concert would spark the same love of music and wine that Leung and Clark both share.
“I am from a musical background and Simon’s been an amateur trumpeter, and now he plays the french horn in my orchestra. We met because of music and we developed our friendship because of wine and music. “People will love the connection between wine and music so they can enjoy both sides of this event.” Elgee Leung conducts the Marlborough Civic Orchestra and works at Clark Estate.
History in the bubbles: 105 and still loving her bubbly| Joelle Thomson – 16/12/19
(This item is something of a prelude to our proposed June tasting. It relates to Dawn Ibbotson who is the matriarch of the Ibbotson family who operates Saint Clair)
This month marks the 105th birthday of the woman who inspired one of New Zealand’s best bubblies made using the French traditional method, the same way that champagne is created.
The woman and the wine are called Dawn. The first vintage of Dawn was made from the 2012 vintage to mark its namesake’s 100th birthday in December 2014. Now, Dawn Ibbotson has turned 105 and her family says she enjoys a daily glass of the bubbly they made in her honour.
It’s a top bubbly in taste too, as our instore experts pick it as one of their favourites, year-round.
The wine is made from hand-harvested, whole bunch pressed grapes, which were fermented in a combination of stainless steel (the Chardonnay) and seasoned French oak barriques (the Pinot Noir). The two still wine components were then blended and bottle-fermented for three months to allow the carbon dioxide from the second fermentation to dissolve into the wine, creating its fine bubbles. It was then left on tirage (lees) for thirty-nine months until disgorgement.
Story of the name Saint Clair…bubb
The Ibbotson family who founded Saint Clair Winery named it after the original landowners of their Marlborough vineyards, the Sinclair family. Saint Clair is also the name of a suburb in Dunedin, hometown to the Ibbotson’s and to Dawn.
Dawn is made from…
Vines are grown on stone and sandy alluvial soils on Rapaura Road, Marlborough; overlooked by Saint Clair Vineyard Kitchen. It contains 6 grams of residual sugar per litre; off-dry, but only just, in other words. This wine tastes dry from the first sip to the last, lingering sparkling drop.
Thousands of “forgotten corners” in Marlborough vineyards could be planted with native species, enriching the region’s biodiversity. That might require a change in mindset for growers who like their rows straight and their fence lines sprayed, says Marlborough District Council environmental scientist Matt Oliver.
But it would help mitigate the monoculture of Marlborough, he adds. “We have imposed our will on nature across the Wairau and Awatere Plains. The very least you can do is give up a bit of control in these little pockets of land.”
He describes forgotten corners as “the annoying space that every vineyard manager has in their vineyard, whether it’s a funny shaped piece that is not big enough for vines or a few sheep or a drain that you have to spray twice a year”.
Planting those areas in native grasses, flax and kowhai would cost a few hundred dollars. They will require a bit of weeding initially but this could be done in the time operators would have otherwise have spent backing the tractor in to spray, he says. “In a few years’ time, you might have tui in the kowhai and giant kokopu in the drain. You’ll find you’ve saved a bit of money and done something good. It might even make a good photo for your marketing.” Wine Marlborough advocacy manager Vance Kerslake says the organisation fully supports industry front-footing biodiversity projects.
“We sponsor the Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards and love to see and promote the work being done by growers and wine companies to mitigate monoculture,” he says. “Industry members are increasingly seeing how important that is for the environment, primarily, but also how it adds richness to the story of individual companies, as well as the reputation of brand Marlborough.” MDC biodiversity coordinator Mike Aviss, who runs the Significant Natural Areas project, as well as Tui to Town, says the plains have lost 99 per cent of their natural cover since Europeans settled here. “All the drainable wetlands have virtually been drained, along with the kahikatea and swamp forest. This was once a huge wetland system.”
With every change in land use there’s loss of native land cover, he says. That is certainly true of vineyard conversions, which typically run in straight lines, putting creeks and trees at risk. “It really depends on how focused the developer is on wanting to get the most out of the land,” says Mike. “Whether they are driven by converting every inch to grapes, or see themselves as part of the landscape, and can see the value in keeping areas of natural habitat.”
Some companies already have biodiversity targets that include small pockets of new plantings or large expanses of restored natives, including Pernod Ricard’s Kaituna wetland, Wither Hills‘ nationally significant Rarangi wetland, and Spy Valley‘s Hillocks Rd restoration. “There are some pretty neat forgotten corners out there,” says Matt. “But there are so many more to develop.” The Forgotten Corners is not a council policy, but Council can assist with funding through the Tui to Town project and other funding to assist landowners. In the meantime, Matt and Mike hope vineyard owners will spring the $2.50 for a native grass or $3.50 for a kowhai and do their bit for biodiversity.
International demand for New Zealand wine shows no sign of slowing, with total export value reaching a record $1.83 billion according to the 2019 Annual Report of New Zealand Winegrowers.
Export value has risen by 6% in June year-end 2019, and at a retail level, this translates to over $7 billion dollars of New Zealand wine sold around the world annually. The UK and USA led the growth, with the USA continuing to be New Zealand wine’s largest market with over $550 million in exports.
The premium reputation of New Zealand wine has translated to real value in its major markets where the country remains either the highest or second-highest priced wine category in the USA, UK, Canada, and China. “This year’s export results again reflect the New Zealand wine industry’s strengths, and reinforce our international reputation for premium, diverse and sustainable wines.” said John Clarke, Chair of New Zealand Winegrowers.
The report highlights the completion of the 2018 PwC Strategic Review, the first within the industry since 2011, which provided a wealth of usable insights into the state of the New Zealand wine sector, challenges and opportunities. “The Strategic Review report noted the continued steady growth of the industry, and identified a range of challenges and risks that need to be addressed to maintain that trajectory and ensure all members have the opportunity to benefit” said Mr Clarke.
Mr Clarke noted the Strategic Review underscored how important all aspects of sustainability were in order to maintain the New Zealand wine industry’s social license to operate. “As an industry, we need to ensure our key focus is on enhancing sustainability initiatives. Sustainability is a cornerstone of the reputation of New Zealand wine, and is vital to the ongoing success of our industry.”
Highlights over the last year include the completion of the first phase of the Bragato Research Institute’s climate change programme, the commencement of a new research winery facility, and the International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration, which saw over 100 international wine producers, experts and key influencers visit Marlborough to experience New Zealand’s diverse Sauvignon Blanc offerings.