Marlborough Sauvignon moves on

Within the broad palette of options now available, Gleave highlights as particularly successful the wild ferment, old barrel approach used by Kevin Judd in his Greywacke label, which the ex-Cloudy Bay winemaker established in 2009. “I’d never been a great fan of that style, but he’s proved me wrong,” Gleave admits.

Certainly producers are heartened by the UK’s reaction to their efforts. Having launched a single block Sauvignon from its Seaview Vineyard in the Awatere Valley sub-region of Marlborough, Yealands Estate is introducing two further single block expressions this year.

Confirming “a really positive response” from the UK, Yealands chief winemaker Tamra Washington is confident that such initiatives can only broaden the style’s appeal. “I believe we have so far been successful in both retaining the attention of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc fans and converting detractors of ‘classic’ Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” she comments. “Demonstrating a different style for those consumers who really are looking for a wine that is restrained in fruit yet layered, textured and complex is the key.”

However, while this sub-regional message is broadly welcomed by the UK trade, these same advocates warn against allowing the marketing to shout louder than what’s in the glass. As Gilmour remarks, “Every New World country is keen to push the terroir and regional narrative because it’s really valuable for selling more expensive wine, but it needs to be credible.”

Screen shot 2013-04-30 at 11.18.31Likewise, while Gleave stresses the “huge difference” between Marlborough’s various sub-regions, he accuses some producers of adopting a “cynical” approach to this asset. “A lot of them think that Sauvignon Blanc is easy and are dialling up a blend they think the market needs,” he observes.

Where this terroir story is respected, what makes the narrative for Marlborough even more effective is the fact that its proponents are far from niche players. This year sees Pernod Ricard’s Brancott Estate build on the Terroir Series it introduced in 2005 with the launch of Chosen Rows. This £35-a-bottle Sauvignon from the estate’s original Brancott Vineyard may be represented by a relatively boutique 3,500 case production, but the lessons learned during its creation about canopy management, wild yeasts and fermentation in 4,000 litre foudres are also filtering down into the brand’s other ranges such as its Letter Series.

Outlining his goal of creating a more complex style to address the ageability and food-friendly limitations of much Marlborough Sauvignon, Brancott’s chief winemaker Patrick Materman also stressed a desire to secure the brand a place at the forefront of the region’s current evolution. “It’s about keeping momentum up and showing we are leading the way,” he remarks.

Hot on Pernod’s heels is a similarly ambitious new wine from Brent Marris, the former guiding hand behind Oyster Bay and Wither Hills who produced his first vintage from latest venture Marisco Vineyards in 2009. Outlining the detail behind his inaugural Craft Series Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Marris points to work with selected blocks, extended lees and barrel ageing. “It’s making for a really textured Sauvignon but still the identity of our Waihopai vineyards,” he explains.

What’s more Marris stresses the importance of producing these more nuanced expressions of Marlborough on a commercially significant scale. “There’s no point making a song and dance about half a hectare of vineyard if no one can buy it,” he argues. “That’s why I have 250 hectares of vineyard.” Insisting that such a scale does not undermine his goal of sub-regional expression, Marris remarks: “There’s a lovely variance of soil type and climatic conditions on a single site that makes the most of the heat and coolness – it’s the true expression of a valley.”

For all the attention being generated by this surge of ambition within Marlborough, you have to question how many consumers will feel the urge to pay a premium for their Kiwi Sauvignon when there is such a wealth of supply below the £10 mark. After all, with a few exceptions from certain producers around the world, this is not a grape variety that commonly commands high prices. Nevertheless, thanks to the strong brand equity enjoyed by Marlborough Sauvignon, only a small percentage of its total fan base need to trade up for some meaningful momentum to build.

“The mass of people who like Sauvignon Blanc is so big that you’re going to have a sub-section who want to drink the best,” observes Gilmour. In fact, he believes this aspirational shift is not only viable but essential to the style’s future success. “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has got to break out of being just those four words,” he warns. “It’s got to get more interesting or at the high end it’s going to be overtaken by other countries.”

With such a proactive move by producers to address this potential stumbling block, the UK’s love affair with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc looks set to burn stronger than ever.

This feature first appeared in the drinks business magazine in April 2013.

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