How greedy Kiwis trashed their best brand
I’ve written many unkind words about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but not nearly enough of them. The stuff is hard to avoid because you run into boxes of it piled all the way up to the ceiling in the big grog shops. And it seems Aussies can’t get enough of it. A couple of years ago, 3 of the top-selling 5 white wines in Australia were Marlborough Savvy: Oyster Bay, Giesen and Stoneleigh. Journalists were talking about a Kiwi savalanche.
On their side of the Tasman, Sauvignon Blanc accounted for 70 per cent of New Zealand's grape harvest in 2011 and 85 per cent of its wine exports. Red flags should be going up all over NZ since putting all their wine bottles in one big basket will make an awful mess when fickle consumers drop it for a new darling (Vermentino?). Can you imagine ripping out all those vines they planted on every sunny hillside of the Shaky Isles?
Chris Yorke, New Zealand Winegrowers’ marketing director tells us that ‘the average “sav” drinker in Australia is a professional female and in the 23 - 35 age group.’ Is that why the tropical fruit/lemon acid mixed with a sprinkle of sugar style has become the Sauvignon Blanc standard for most Aussies? But why have the judges fallen for this lollywater? And the wine writers?
Invivo SB 2011 has been on Kemenys' front page for months. It's cheap but it’s vin ordinaire, despite the four trophies and the two golds it’s collected. And the Whitehaven SB 2011, also with plenty of bling to its credit, left me shaking my head when Michael Cooper’s (NZ’s JH) declared it 'Best White Wine Buy of the Year'. There are lots more examples but I think I’ve made my point: even Kiwis who should know better have fallen for their own bullshit.
Will the real Sauvignon Blanc please stand up?
Call me a purist but tropical fruit and passionfruit have no place in Sauvignon Blanc, nor do sugar snaps and green peas. Hold the boiled veggies, please. The fruit characters I look for in a SB or SB-Semillon blends are herbaceous, not fruity: tangy gooseberry, freshly cut grass, hints of lantana and cats pee, backed by minerally, flinty acid. Not that awful sweet & sour lemon acid. I'm talking about the characters you find in quality Sancerres, Fumé Blancs and white Graves.
Jancis Robinson agrees. In the Oxford Companion to Wine, she uses words like ‘grassy, herbaceous, musky, green fruits (especially gooseberries), nettles and even tomcats’ to describe Sauvignon Blanc. She adds the observation that the wines from the New World are more perfumed, more pungent and more fruity, with hints of sweetness. Is that what we wanted in our Sauvignon Blancs?
No, but that’s what we got. I’ve long had a hunch that the style was a result of making too much SB from very young vines, which don’t express varietal character well. The data support this hunch: In 1996, NZ had 6,610 hectares planted to vines; by 2008, it had grown to almost 30,000 hectares. Yes, more than quadrupled in just over a decade. Of course, the Kiwis didn’t let on that they were flogging us sub-par grog. Instead they convinced us that their tropical fruit cocktails were the new world style.
Greed is bad
This happened gradually over the last 10 years. By 2007, people were starting to ask questions. ‘How much does New Zealand owe to sauvignon blanc?’ asked New York Times chief wine critic Eric Asimov in a piece titled ‘The Evolution of Sauvignon Blanc’. His answer? ‘Not so much, apparently.’
He and a few New York wine merchants had checked out 25 NZ SBs and found ‘far too few of the bright, vibrant wines that had made New Zealand a worldwide force. Instead, we found too many wines that seemed aimed at being commercially inoffensive. Some were too sweet. Others simply seemed wishy-washy.’ The others said the style had changed, that the wines were conservative. ‘They’re all safe. It’s about moving boxes.’ One of the group called them ‘dumbed down.’
Interesting to see wine people in New York making those comments – I haven’t seen too many articles of that kind down under, sad to say, even though most of the wines in question have continued the rush to the bottom these last 5 years. The Kiwis blindly followed Gordon Gekko’s motto that greed was good and covered every hillside in Marlborough with vines.
Trashing the Marlborough Brand
Now they’re flogging their cheapest SBs for 10 quid in London. 10 quid for 3 bottles, that is. They created their own glut, they trashed their own brand, and now they have to shift oceans of cheap plonk. Even in gullible Oz we’re now seeing Oyster Bay, Stoneleigh, Villa Maria and others regularly discounted to $10 a bottle or less. Are the Kiwis getting worried about putting all their wines into the Marlborough Savvy basket? You bet!
‘Wine producers are concerned that heavy discounting throughout the industry is affecting the reputation of New Zealand wine,’ Blair Gibbs, the head of Wine Marlborough, told the Hanes Wine Review a couple of years ago. ‘The level of bulk exports to the UK is staggering and we are seeing our market position which has taken 30 years to build being eroded in one year ... the value has gone and the brand Marlborough is heading in the wrong direction.’
Jim Delegat, the big cheese at Oyster Bay, put it this way in the August/September 2009 issue of New Zealand WineGrower: ‘As a result of our own making, the paradigm has now shifted irrevocably with reference to the supply/demand imbalance and a perceived or real diminishment in product excellence resulting in considerable negative international press.’
Let’s hope Jim is better at crafting wines beccause putting words together is clearly not his strength: ‘... as a result of inadequate knowledge of the global market, poor brand, distribution planning and investment criteria driven largely by opportunistic investors over recent years has resulted in an enormous surplus of unwanted Marlborough vineyard plantings that are yet to come into full production.’
Even that convoluted sentence can't disguise Jim's simple message: we’ve all screwed ourselves silly.
Once in a while, it’s a good idea to fork out for a bottle of Ata Rangi or Neudorf Sauvignon Blanc. Or a bottle of quality Sancerre or Fumé Blanc or white Graves. Or a wine from a winery like Seresin, which makes ‘sophisticated food wine that gives a slight nod in the direction of the Loire,’ according to Bob Campbell MW.
In a Globe and Mail piece titled ‘The new Sauvignon Blancs: New Zealand’s great white hope,’ Beppi Crosariol wrote that ‘some producers are toning down the fruit and mowing the grass, so to speak, genuflecting toward Bordeaux as well as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire Valley, France’s standard-bearers for graceful sauvignon blanc.’
‘We wanted to prove that Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t have to be a commercial whore,’ Seresin’s manager Colin Ross tells the Globe and Mail. The wine is made from certified organic grapes, which are naturally fermented using wild yeast for added complexity and texture. 10% Semillon is added to the SB, and some of the fruit is fermented in aged French barriques. Yes, it’s about $25 a bottle.
There are a few drinkable SBs under $20, among them wines like Lawson’s Dry Hills and Clifford Bay and St Clair, but the vast majority of the cheaper Marlborough SBs are lollywater. The Kiwis would be better off tipping all of it into the ocean, rethinking their quality standards, and starting over.
Some of the best Rieslings and Traminers I’ve ever tasted have come from New Zealand, and the country makes some great Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernets. Get back to your roots, fellas, and make more of the good stuff please. If you can't bring yourselves to tip all that lollywater into the sea, you can aways turn it into Kiwi Fruit Punch and get Coca Cola to bottle it. Better still, can it.