Few words in the UK wine market provoke a reaction as polarising as “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc”.
Photo credit: Fromm Winery
For a host of consumers those heady aromas of passion fruit, gooseberry and the entire spectrum of fruit salad ingredients in between act like catnip. Among others, however, including many in the trade itself, it is possible to detect a degree of fatigue with New Zealand’s hugely successful flagship style.
This latter camp saw its numbers swell when the bumper 2008 vintage saw shelves flooded with discounted stock. On top of oversupply came the observation from several corners that quality was slipping as fast as the prices. Just as this golden goose was starting to look decidedly wobbly on its feet, New Zealand’s producers regrouped, rallied and within just a few years have taken major strides towards revitalising the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc landscape.
At a mainstream level, the classic style is clearly going stronger than ever – just visit a UK supermarket and compare the shelf space dedicated to this single combination of variety and region with the area allocated to other entire countries. Against this backdrop of stability, however, many Marlborough producers have now identified an opportunity – a need even – to shake up the stereotype and show what else they can do.
If 2008 marked an unsettling moment for the country, Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, observes that this same increase in supply opened up opportunities too. “Up until 2008, our supply of Sauvignon Blanc was so tight that there really wasn’t room to do too much innovation,” he explains. “With a greater supply people asked ‘Can we do something different?’“
Sure enough, the last couple of years have seen a proliferation of wild yeast, barrels and lees ageing in various combinations alongside a surge in sub-regional or even single block expressions. Add in the nod to growing trends such as sparkling or low-alcohol styles and it becomes clear that Marlborough Sauvignon has entered its second generation.
While the long-term future for some of the more trend-driven examples is perhaps less clear, the overall reaction from the UK trade to this proliferation of new styles is overwhelmingly positive. In particular, the rise of more complex, terroir-driven expressions offers a route for independent merchants to capitalise on the popularity of Marlborough Sauvignon without placing themselves in direct competition with the major multiples.
“We never really got involved with the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc prototype,” explains Joe Gilmour, manager at Roberson Wine. “There were a lot of Sauvignons that tasted quite similar and were available from the supermarkets a lot cheaper than we could source them.” As a result, he welcomes the diversification effort as “a really good thing”, remarking: “now there’s a point of difference that the consumer can get really interested in, wines that have a story to tell, which is really important for an independent like Roberson.”
Similarly upbeat about this evolution is David Gleave MW, managing director of UK importer and wholesaler Liberty Wines, which has no fewer than six Marlborough Sauvignons on its list. Describing the shift as “very important”, he argues: “otherwise you get into the routine you had with Aussie Chardonnay, where people start to say it all tastes the same. Getting diversity into it, whether that’s based on site or production will make it a far more interesting, exciting category.”