New Zealand: The Big Questions

There’s no doubt that one of the wine success stories of the 2000s (I hate the connotations connected with ‘noughties’) has been the explosion of New Zealand wines, most notably Sauvignon Blanc. When I first started at Majestic in Summer 2002, I recall my WSET Advanced Certificate book informing us eager new recruits that despite the fact that we were selling – even at that stage – more New Zealand Sauvignon than Chardonnay, it was the latter grape which was most planted. Well I can safely say that after spending a few days in Marlborough, this is no longer the case.

I daresay this will be no surprise to most of you. Sure, people like to talk about the emergence of Pinot Noir and the possibilities for other aromatic white varieties such as Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer – but the truth is that the UK public wants Marlborough Sauvignon, so that’s what the guys down here are growing. And it’s not just that the demand is high – this grape just does so damn well down here, it’s astonishing. Right now, the grapes are absolutely perfect in flavour, potential alcohol and acidity – and they’re incredibly even and in very tidy little bunches. In fact, it’s started to rain on and off so I would suggest that the harvest can’t come soon enough.

But this huge reliance on Sauvignon Blanc as a commercial enterprise does raise a few questions. What does the future hold for Marlborough Sauvignon? Is there any suggestion that, despite the growing popularity of the style (driven in volume terms by the most accessible, intense brands such as Oyster Bay or Saint Clair) that consumers might be looking for something else from their Marlborough Sauvignon? Is there a chance that consumers will tire of this style, as they did of Australian Chardonnay? Does the market need more ‘me-too’ brands to fill the demand, or should winemakers down here be taking a chance to move the style (and the ‘Marlborough’ brand) forward?

And then there’s Pinot Noir: while journalists (and having tasted some stunning and great value examples over the last few days, me) rave about the potential for NZ Pinot, how can winegrowers be convinced to invest in this most tricky-to-grow of grapes when the demand for Sauvignon is rising and the grapes themselves grow so easily here – meaning they get a better price and more consistency of income?

These are tough questions to answer, and there are winegrowers down here who are taking action, creating new styles, investing in Pinot, and trying to make sure the consumer doesn’t get tired of the Marlborough ‘style’ by varying the characters of the wines they produce – making wines which are unmistakably Marlborough but unmistakably different. The secret will be in making each wine’s point of difference very clear, and making sure the consumer doesn’t buy an intense style when they actually want a restrained one, and vice versa.

Enter Majestic’s industry standard-setting staff and you have the recipe for happy wine buying.

3 thoughts on “New Zealand: The Big Questions

  1. Whereas there is no doubting the popularity of South Island Sauvignon I cannot understand the trade’s obsession with Marlborough and Nelson when there are marvellous white wines coming out of Hawkes Bay and other areas of the North Island.
    Not only are they of good quality they offer a far greater variety of grapes such as Viognier and Pinot Gris. It is similar to the lack of appreciation for Torrontes and Verdejo in the ranges offered by most wine merchants.

  2. On an Air New Zealand flight at the end of January I watched a promotional video about the Central Otago region. This included a piece about a winery producing Sauvignon Blanc and we had the opportunity to drink a delicious bottle of Mount Difficulty in Sydney (stop off on the way to NZ). However did not find the this in New Zealand. Do you have any plans to stock wine from this region?

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