When the savvy bubble bursts: Ending NZ’s love affair with sauvignon blanc

Jules van Costello, The Spinoff | November 26, 2020

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.

Savvy 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. Photo: Getty Images
Savvy 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. Photo: Getty Images

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.

Ripening white grapes at a vineyard in Marlborough Region, country's largest winegrowing region with distinctive soils and climatic conditions, South Island of New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
Ripening white grapes at a vineyard in Marlborough Region, country’s largest winegrowing region with distinctive soils and climatic conditions, South Island of New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images

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.

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Saint Clair Family Estate with Alison Downs – Oct 2020

Saint Clair Family Estate from Marlborough with Alison Downs
presenting.

Last month we had Saint Clair Family Estate from Marlborough with Alison Downs presenting.

This was an extremely well-presented evening and was enjoyed by all club members present – 40 of us!

It was interesting hearing Alison’s wine journey from the UK and Europe to the New World and her enduring wine passion and growing knowledge and experience.

The committee was unanimous in their agreement that Alison is probably the best presenter we have had in recent memory.

Our orders from the evening were substantial with people enjoying all the
wines presented, especially interesting to get to sample the Pinot Blanc, a new white grape for most.

  • 2019 Saint Clair Origin Pinot Gris Rosé
  • 2018 Saint 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 Pinot Noir
  • 2017 Saint Clair Origin Hawke’s Bay Merlot

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Vintage 2020 New Zealand statistics

After each vintage season, New Zealand Winegrowers surveys members and compiles vintage data snapshots for the industry.

NZ Wine Vintage Indicators by Region 2020

The total volume of grapes harvested and tonnage by wine region in 2020

NZ Wine Vintage Indicators by Variety 2020

The total volume of grapes harvested and percentage change on last year by key wine varieties.

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Wine with Wings

By Walt Dickson. First published in Wairarapa Lifestyle Magazine, Winter 2020.

New owner of Gladstone Vineyard Eddie McDougall, also known as the Flying Winemaker. PHOTO/EMMA BROWN
The new owner of Gladstone Vineyard Eddie McDougall, also known as the Flying Winemaker. PHOTO/EMMA BROWN

Contrary to what the name might suggest, The Flying Winemaker doesn’t own a plane, nor does he hold a pilot’s licence. But there is sincerity in Eddie McDougall’s moniker, yes, he does literally jet in to make the wine.

Born in Hong Kong, based in Australia, Eddie might be relatively new on the scene in Wairarapa, but he is an established name in other parts of the world; an award-winning winemaker, chairman of the Asian Wine Review, wine judge and TV personality behind one of Asia-Pacific’s most dynamic wine brands, The Flying Winemaker.

He swooped into the region in late 2018 buying the Gladstone Vineyard with lofty ambitions to make the best and most expensive wine in New Zealand.

Last year, his first vintage, he made two special wines at Gladstone that he says, will turn heads when they’re released: a field blend of three aromatic white varietals and an icon Pinot Noir that will be positioned as ‘New Zealand’s most expensive wine and best pinot’.

Eddie grew up in Brisbane and was studying for a business degree and working as a waiter in the early 2000s when he had a wine epiphany one night. Someone handed him a glass of Alsace pinot blanc and he was hooked. He enrolled in a winemaking degree and worked vintages across Australia and Italy. In 2009, he launched his wine label, making wine in the King Valley (Victoria), and later, Margaret River (Western Australia), buying fruit and leasing space in other people’s wineries.

His big break came in 2009, when he moved back to Hong Kong to set up the city’s first urban winery, shipping frozen grapes in from Europe and Australia. That’s when he earned his Flying Winemaker name, attracting the attention of television producers. Fast-track to 2018 and he was again looking for opportunities, initially in Australia, but when nothing caught his fancy, he looked across the Tasman.

‘I was happy to go wherever good wine is made, and Gladstone ticked all the right boxes

Making it such a great acquisition was that at Gladstone, all the ‘really hard work’ has been done, he says. ‘We believe that it is still the oldest white wine vineyard in the area – the first Sauvignon Blanc grapes were planted in 1986’.

Pinot Gris and Riesling have also since been planted, and instead of making three wines, Eddie makes a blend of all three.

‘Coming here we want to represent the region, and on a brand, level to represent what our true unique selling point is …we think we can make some serious, serious wines’.

In addition to the winery site, Gladstone Vineyard also owns considerably larger blocks of vines at nearby Dakin Road, as well as leasing crops from other growers. It is from the Dakins Road block that Eddie hopes to produce his icon Pinot Noir – to be called The Wairarapa – which he says will be the most definitive wine of the region, only made in the best possible years, 2019 is one of them.

The Flying Winemaker Team
The Flying Winemaker Team

With a global team based in Hong Kong and currently exporting throughout Asia, Australia, Norway, UK and USA, the sky is the limit. But he is not ignoring the domestic market and is determined to continue Gladstone Vineyard’s reputation for hosting terrific events.

Building on the success of the nearby Harvest Festive, Eddie aims to run up to four events a year at the winery. Exactly what they will be and when, wine lovers won’t want to miss out if his super cool Rose’ Revolutions, a mainstay on the calendar in Asia, are anything to go by.

Meanwhile, if you are in the neighbourhood, the cellar door is open daily from 11 am – 5 pm (except public holidays), but don’t expect to see Eddie, after all, when you have wings you gotta fly.

For more on Eddie, visit The Flying Winemaker.

For more on Wairarapa winemakers, visit www.wairarapalifestyle.com.

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Crater Rim Tasting Review Jun 2020

From the Ashes Range
Premium Range
Icon Range

39 members attended for the evening and orders for the wine & 5 cookbooks exceeded $3K which is one of our more successful orders.

An interesting note from our orders is that the 2019 Wairarapa Viognier was the preferred wine, with 2018 From the Ashes Riesling second. The Viognier also illustrates how they grow grapes and bottle wine from various areas around NZ, even though they are based in North Canterbury.

The list of wines we sampled during the evening for your recollection is below:

  • 2017 Waipara Sauvignon Blanc
  • 2018 From the Ashes Riesling
  • 2019 From the Ashes Pinot Gris
  • 2019 Waipara Viognier
  • 2018 Waipara Chardonnay
  • 2019 Waipara Rosé
  • 2019 From the Ashes Pinot Noir
  • 2015 Banks “Rata” Pinot Noir

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2 iconic Central Otago wineries presented by Cenna Lloyd, Negociants

The wines tasted:

  • 2018  Two Paddocks’ Single Vineyard Pinot Rose
  • 2017 Misha’s Cantata Pinot Noir
  • 2018 Two Paddocks’ Pinot Noir
  • 2017 Two Paddocks’ Riesling
  • 2015 Misha’s Limelight Riesling
  • 2019 Misha’s Dress Circle Pinot Gris
  • 2018 Misha’s The Cadenza Late Harvest Gewürztraminer

     

For the 19 members and 1 guest that attended, this was a great tasting as evidenced by the fact that 101 bottles were ordered, such was the quality and pricing.

The low turnout was a disappointment but upon reflection, there were 3 couples overseas and another 4 people that contacted us beforehand and apologised because of sickness. These were 10 people that almost always attend and that, coupled with other regulars I have since heard were either out of town or sick, probably explains the low turn out. It can happen sometimes.

Cenna began her tasting presentation explaining the locations of Two Paddocks and Misha vineyards and as luck would have it, the wines presented covered the 4 main Central Otago sub-regions of Alexandra, Bannockburn, Gibbston Valley and Bendigo, Not covered was the area around Pisa Moorings or Wanaka.

She went onto explain that the reason for tasting the 2 Pinot Noirs first was so that any residual sweetness in our mouth from the whites would not destroy the delicacy of the 2017 Misha ‘Cantata’ Pinot Noir. All 3 red wines were excellent reflections of their styles but I especially enjoyed the savoury notes each had as compared to the dominate cherry flavours that tend to be more evident in other Central Otago Pinot Noirs.

The surprising wine of the night was Misha’s 2015 ‘Limelight’ Riesling. 4 years on, it still had a bright fresh citrusy flavour, This was a medium style Riesling with 34 grams/litre of residual sugar and I especially liked its delightful lingering finish. It’s hardly surprising to find later that wine writers have given this wine 5 stars. And to the surprise of everyone present, Jenny joyfully announced that she had finally found a white that she liked.

Misha’s 2019 ‘Dress Circle’ Pinot Gris was another of their whites to find great support from members. It had flavours of pear, citrus and spice, This is a very pleasing aromatic wine that will go well with Asian cuisine, which is hardly surprising, given that the owners worked in Asia for 16 years and set out to develop wines that would suit Asian as well as Western foods.

Of the two wineries, my personal favourite was Misha Vineyards with their theatrical named wines. So it was only fitting that the finale for the night was their 2018 ‘The Cadenza’ Late Harvest Gewurztraminer. This medium-sweet wine had aromas of apricot making it an
excellent match with fruit-driven desserts or with soft cheeses. As I said earlier, a great tasting.

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Waimea Estates preview August 2019

Waimea Estates is one of Nelson’s larger producers with over 140 hectares of their own vineyards. The cool climate and alluvial soils of Nelson’s Waimea plains combined with the highest sunshine hours in New Zealand allow vibrant, fruit-focused wines to be made.

Waimea’s export varieties are based on highly awarded Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, and over the years Waimea has gathered 150+ Gold Medals and 26 Trophies across nine different wine styles – proving the versatility Waimea and the Nelson region provides.  More next month.

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Villa Maria – March 2019

Yet another excellent tasting with Marc Udy from Villa Maria, ably assisted by Kirsty Warbrick,  presenting a range of great wines including some from their Platinum Range. Marc is one of the winemakers from Marlborough.  He was a good speaker and the consensus is that the winery has been really easy to deal with.

To reiterate the tasting included the Cellar Selection Rose 2018; Reserve Wairua Sauvignon 2018;  Single Vineyard Seddon Pinot Gris 2018; Reserve Marlborough Chardonnay 2016; Platinum Selection Pinot Noir 2018; Cellar Selection Grenache 2017, rounded off with the Cellar Selection Late Harvest Riesling 2015.  An enjoyable night.

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Things you always wanted to know about wine

Cathy Gowdie – Stuff | October 25, 2017

(These are some excerpts from an article which actually canvassed 10 things you might want to know about wine. I have picked out several that I found more interesting. The rest, in fact, we didn’t want to know.)

What is orange wine if it’s not from oranges?

The new rosé? Orange wine is having a moment. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Orange, some say, is the new rosé, occupying the demilitarised zone between red and white. The colour crosses a spectrum – from pale apricot to enraged Trump, all the way to amber – but what’s really different about orange wine is the way it’s made. Traditionally, red wines are made from the juice of red grapes plus grape skins. Whites are made without skins.

Orange wines are made from white grapes but get the red-wine treatment – the juice is macerated with the skins, a technique dating back 8000 years to wine’s birthplace, Georgia. The resulting texture, tannin and colour means these “skin-contact” wines have more in common with reds than whites; styles vary from fruity, floral or earthy to sour and funky.

What is natural wine and why are people so excited about it?

Natural winemaking is a broad church in which wines are generally (purists say must be) made from grapes grown without commercial chemicals. Processing takes place with minimal “intervention” – so, for example, the wine may not be filtered to remove cloudiness. Additives, such as sulphur dioxide – used for centuries to keep wine tasting fresh – are shunned or kept to a minimum. It’s a departure from the kind of large-scale industrial winemaking that values hygiene and consistency over quirks and imperfections.

As with conventional wines, quality varies hugely. There’s no regulation of what’s called natural, so if you’re going that way to avoid chemicals, look for certified organic or biodynamic wines – they’re more likely to be what you’re paying for. When made by winemakers of skill and integrity, the best natural wines celebrate quality, individuality and character – hallmarks of all great wines, regardless of whether they’re pitched as natural.

What’s better – Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio?

The wine world can be daunting. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Same grape, different name – one name is French, the other Italian, with “gris” and “grigio” both meaning “grey”. In Europe the French approach to making gris produces a highly perfumed wine with plenty of mouthfeel; grigio from Italy is often (not always) a crisper, lighter wine. “Better” is in the eye of the beholder – good news is they’re all food-friendly styles. So in short, no difference in the grape, just the name.

Why might some wines contain traces of eggs, fish or milk?

Egg whites with fish bladders and milk: a dish that might make guests at a Game of Thrones banquet actually welcome the post-dinner massacre. Yes, it’s medieval stuff – each of these has been used for centuries to “fine” wine. Fining is a process in which one or more of these proteins is dropped into unfinished wine to bind with components that taste bitter, astringent, or are likely to make the wine hazy. They are then removed. Traces, as the label states, may remain.
If any of the above have been used you’ll find them listed on the label as allergens. The fish bladder derivative also goes by the name isinglass and is rarely used in Australia but egg whites and milk products are still common.

How long will a wine keep after it’s been opened?

Like fish and houseguests, opened wine smells less appealing after three days. Aim to finish an open bottle over no more than two nights. As a rule of thumb, red wines stay in condition for longer than whites (some robust reds taste better on day two). Exposure to air changes the aroma and flavour of opened wine, so reseal a bottle you’re not planning to finish in one go.

A bottle that’s mostly full will last better than one with only a glass or two left. It’s about the proportion of air to wine – more air in the bottle means faster deterioration. Store an opened bottle upright, not on its side. If you keep a clean, empty half-bottle handy, decant unfinished wine into that – it will stay fresher than in a full-size bottle. Otherwise, start scouting wine-saving devices.

(This last item may not reflect editorial opinion, surely once the bottle is opened it deserves to be finished in one sitting. The person I live with frequently draws my attention to the week that passes between a tasting and when the committee downs the tasting leftovers, but members may not understand the deterioration that has occurred during that time and the generous effort made by committee members to get rid of these leftovers on their behalf.)

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Haythornthwaite Wines – March 2018

What a great evening with Mark and Susan. A nice blend of where they have come from and an outline of where the business is going now. Their business in Martinborough has taken an upturn with the introduction of platters at their tasting room. This has guided them into the tourism area and is looking very promising for them.

To recoup on the wines we started with the Rose 2017 as the quaffer. It is a dry style rose but with huge fruit sweetness and flavours of strawberries and raspberries. That was followed by the dry Pinot Gris and the two drier Gewurtztraminer’s. After a break we tasted the 2012 Pinot Noir, followed by the Reserve Pinot from 2013, which was a superb wine. It won a gold medal from the Air NZ Wine Awards. We then finished with the sweet Auslese Gewurztraminer 2013 (Pamela) that is a luscious wine.

Some good orders which was very pleasing for Susan and Mark. There were two things following from the evening. With harvest fast approaching there is often a need for pickers. If you are interested please let them know. Secondly, Haythornthwaite will give Club members a 10% discount at the tasting room. Give it a try, a trip to the Wairarapa, a platter and a tasting of some really nice wines. What more could you want?

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Summer Romance – March 2018

A love affair with wine

Our summer has been truly magnificent this year and so was this tasting. What better way to celebrate Valentines Day than through “a love affair with wine”. The committee has thanked the presenters for this tasting and for their preparation that went into their offering. It was a varied line up with both well-known wines and boutique wines. Each presentation offered a different slant on what was presented. It appears that a bit different is popular with our members. The only issue was with the pacing of the evening as there was not much space between each presentation. It was a great night with the chocolate being a highlight. Feedback from the attendees has been very positive.

Just to repeat the selection went something like this.

  • Quaffer – Pol Remy – Wayne
  • Aotea Sparkling Wine – Wayne
  • Landsdowne Pinot Gris – Robin
  • Spy Valley Gewürztraminer – Anne
  • Fickle Mistress Pinot Rose – Murray
  • Clearview Blush – Jenny
  • Dorrien Estate Lockwood Smith Sparkling Shiraz – Steve

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Late cancellations, Summer romance tasting, Wine of Australia

Late cancellations

We were finding that working too far ahead occasionally left us in trouble with late cancellations so your committee decided to arrange tastings a little closer to the time. This does not seem to be working out so well and we are in repair mode over the April tasting. Rest assured though that something will be arranged that will meet the usual high standard of our events.

Summer romance tasting

At the February summer romance tasting, I mentioned that the Lansdowne wines could be purchased. The offer was not taken up at the time but is still on the table. Lansdowne produces three wines and they are of a very high quality. There was some really good feedback on the Pinot Gris on the night. The wines have been bottle aged but will all cellar well. The Pinot Gris is $19.55 while their Pinot Noir and Syrah are more expensive at $38.25. These prices include a 15% but are only available through me. Let me know if you are interested.

Wine of Australia

Shows the value of reading the label fully. The Montana Wines mentioned will say “Wine of Australia” on the back. Clearly to be avoided if you want to be sure you are drinking NZ wines.

Cheers
Robin Semmens, Editor

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