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Brancott pushes NZ Sauvignon upmarket

With vineyard area near capacity, Marlborough must focus on building value rather than volume growth, insists Brancott Estate’s chief winemaker Patrick Materman.

Brancott Estate’s chief winemaker Patrick Materman (left) presents his wines in London this week.

Noting that at around 24,000 hectares Marlborough accounts for about two thirds of New Zealand’s total vineyard area, Materman observed: “I believe there’s 3,000-4,000ha of available land left and most of that pushes into marginal areas where there’s a frost risk or it’s difficult to get water.”

With Marlborough’s growth driven primarily by Sauvignon Blanc, Materman insisted that there was little risk of this variety running out of steam, adding that it also had an important role to play in any premium push from the region.

“I think there’s a lot of security for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” he maintained. Noting that the variety is “85% of New Zealand exports but 1% of the world’s production,” he suggested: “Most people still haven’t tasted Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.”

Nevertheless, Materman pointed to Brancott’s work with Sauvignon Gris and Pinot Noir as he acknowledged: “It totally makes sense to look at other varieties.”

As for the challenge of nudging Sauvignon Blanc into higher price points, Materman observed: “A big percentage of our land is capable of producing wine at those levels.” At the consumer end, he commented: “It’s about looking for people who want to take it to the next level, maybe with food.”

Flagging up Brancott’s upper tiers such as the Terroir Series and Letter Series, which retail in the UK for around £12.49 and £14.39 respectively, he insisted that these wines “do offer a lot more and justify their price tag.”

This upward push for Sauvignon Blanc has been a significant focus for the Pernod Ricard owned brand for several years now. “As a company there’s a lot we understand about Sauvignon Blanc that our competitors haven’t quite got to grips with yet,” remarked Materman. “We never want to become complacent about the place of Sauvignon Blanc in the market. We want to have a point of difference and to appeal to consumers.”

Two years ago Brancott launched its Chosen Rows label, a £35 retail wine designed to show off the producer’s ambitions for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Although its 2011 and 2012 vintages were not deemed worthy of release, Materman confirmed that 2013 and 2014 look set to reach the market in due course.

“We challenged the price ceiling for Sauvignon Blanc,” he said of this pinnacle of the Brancott range. Highlighting the goals of “ageability and palate weight – textural properties rather than primary aromas,” Materman recalled: “We went through every step in how we make Sauvignon Blanc and challenged all of them.”

In addition to the use of wild yeast fermentation and large format oak vessels – techniques also used for the producer’s Letter Series B Sauvignon Blanc – Materman outlined efforts to limit the typically high thiol levels that give New Zealand expressions of this variety their characteristic aromatic intensity.

“A lot of the thiol precursors are tied up in the skins,” he explained. “If you hand harvest and then press very gently then none of those precursors come through.”

While highlighting “massive” growth from the US market in recent years, Materman acknowledged that much of this was coming from mainstream price points. Instead, he pointed to the premium opportunities offered by the UK, where New Zealand wine carries a relatively high average retail price of £7.27, as “a very sophisticated market and very familiar with New Zealand wines too.”

Despite the upmarket image of Pinot Noir, which at 8.5% of the 2014 harvest is the second most widely planted grape variety in New Zealand, Materman suggested that this variety offered only part of the solution for Marlborough’s premium push. “It’s more fickle,” he remarked. “You get up to a 50% swing in crop level.”

Noting that Brancott’s entire Pinot Noir production comes from its own vineyards, Materman observed: “Contract growers don’t plant it because it’s not so profitable for them. You get lower yields and there’s more work in the vineyard. Sauvignon Blanc gives you a bigger crop and it’s more manageable.”

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