Sauvignon Blanc Masters 2015: The results

Sauvignon Blanc has carved a comfortable niche for itself with producers and consumers alike. But is it time the grape upped its game?

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Riding a wave of heightened consumer awareness, Sauvignon Blanc can, at present, do no wrong in the eyes of UK consumers.

Currently the UK’s top-selling white variety, Sauvignon Blanc has seen its sales increase in volume by 7% to 793 million hectoliters and in value by 8% to £637m in the 12 months to 20 June 2015 in the UK off-trade, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association’s (WSTA) 2015 Q4 report.

The average price of a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc meanwhile sits at £6.03, comfortably above the UK average of£5.46 (WSTA).

Capable of producing wines with unmatched vibrancy and freshness, Sauvignon Blanc is grown i abundance the world over, from its classic French heartland of the Loire Valley to New World regions of Chile, South Africa and New Zealand.

In cool to moderate regions Sauvignon Blanc results in high acid wines with classic herbaceous flavours reminiscent of green bell pepper, grass or nettles, alongside the aromatic fruitiness of passion fruit or elderflower.

In warm to hot climates, notes of peach and grapefruit are common, while successfully aged Sauvignons can develop vegetal aromas of asparagus and peas, despite the variety generally being consumed young.

The results of the second Drinks Business Global Sauvignon Blanc Masters are a testament to the increasing quality of Sauvignon Blanc being produced worldwide, with New World examples proving more than a match for the handful of entries from France.

Of the 157 wines entered from 11 different countries, including Greece, Italy, New Zealand, Romania and Australia, 139 received a medal.

Served blind and assessed without prejudice about their country of origin, the wines were arranged according to their price band as well as style, from low-priced to high, blended to 100% Sauvignon, and unoaked to oaked, to make the competition as fair as possible.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Sauvignon Blanc Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, whether the style was oaked or unoaked, the blind tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin.
Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining over 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning over 90 points were given a Gold, those over 85 points a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze. The wines were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine on 8 December at York & Albany in Camden. This report features only the medal-winners.

VALUE FOR MONEY
What the competition did show was the outstanding value on offer within the category, with seven of the 14 wines awarded a Gold medal priced under £15.

Of our Gold medal-winning wines, nine were from New Zealand, one each from Italy, Australia and South Africa, and two from Chile. Brancott Estate’s 2015 Sauvignon from Marlborough represented particularly good value, retailing at just £10, alongside Framingham’s 2014 Ribbonwood Marlborough Sauvignon.

Examples from Chile also delivered impressive value for money, with Coastal Vineyards’ Sauvignon Blanc Paredones from the Colchagua Valley DO and Santa Carolina Winery’s Specialties Sauvignon Blanc, both in the £10 to £15 category, each taking home a Gold.

A total of 65 wines were awarded a Silver medal and 59 a Bronze.

And while New Zealand took home the lion’s share of medals across the board, in the face of strong competition from Chile and South Africa, it was a US producer that scooped the competition’s highest accolade of a Master, reserved only for wines that are deemed outstanding by all judges.

This was bestowed upon Jackson Family Wines’ Stone Street Aurora Point from the Alexander Valley, which sits at the higher price point of £38.

Producers are evidently working hard to stand out in this commercially important category.

But with the majority offering stylistically similar wines to an increasingly crowded middle market, it can be difficult for producers to edge ahead. As Hugo Rose MW noted, Sauvignon Blanc “has to be spectacular to be above average”.

He added: “Sauvignon Blanc has to deliver at fixed points: the varietal character, a decent palate, crisp and good length. It doesn’t need to do much more than that to meet a market specification.

“There’s a lot in the middle so to shine above, it has to be able to so something very special, but I think the solid middle from a commercial point of view is no bad place to be.”

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TALKING POINT
Indeed, while the quality and commercial acumen of Sauvignon Blanc remains high, a need to eschew the humdrum and elevate complexity and finesse within the category was a key talking point among judges.
“You reach a point where just being a Sauvignon Blanc isn’t enough – how far can you go with it?” asked Adrian Garforth MW.

“If you want to take a Sauvignon Blanc up to the next price point you need to play with oak or with other grapes. More of the same isn’t enough. You have to introduce something else.”

This, Garforth suggests, could be through creating more innovative blends or greater experimentation with oak or lees contact. Often used to give Sauvignon Blanc more body and flavour, the use of oak is particularly common in the US, where the style is labelled Fumé Blanc.

Garforth’s comments echo those of Richard Bampfield MW, who shared his belief that oak may be the key to Sauvignon Blanc reaching its full potential, referring specifically to examples from the Loire Valley and Bordeaux at a tasting held in London in November last year. Alluding to a belief that unoaked Sauvignon as a style has its limitations, Bampfield said it would inevitably have a “price ceiling”.

This, he suggested, was something that Sauvignon Blanc producers in regions such as the Loire and Bordeaux should address.

However while oak can elevate a wine’s complexity and structure it also “tends to bring out the strengths and the weaknesses of a wine”, noted Rose, with producers running the risk of over-oaking their wines and stripping out the variety’s trademark fruit freshness.

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BLEND POTENTIAL
For Jo Locke MW, buyer at The Wine Society, blends are a more effective way of expanding upon the grape’s potential.

“In my experience, blending a small proportion of something else rather than using oak can also provide the same complexity without masking the fruit,” she said, adding that the danger in oaking Sauvignon Blanc is that you risk “losing too much of the grape” in an bid to create a “more complex and interesting” wine.

“Occasionally it works, but it’s not easy to get right. Where people are doing it successfully they are doing it with older oak and bigger barrels so it minimises the oak impact. Or you can blend it with a small proportion of something else – a little bit of Semillon will add breadth and complexity without sacrificing the character to oak,” she points out.

Rosemary George MW commented that “there’s no such thing as an over-oaked wine: it’s under-fruited”, stressing that “oak cannot be added for the sake of it”.

Despite the difficulty in its use, six of the 14 wines awarded a Gold were oaked, with the only Master of the competition also an example of oaked Sauvignon.

Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, wine educator with the WSET, said the success of oaked wine in this year’s competition proved that the variety could benefit from an “additional layer”.

She added: “We felt overwhelmingly that the oaked wines, at all price points, were very good. It shows you that Sauvignon Blanc needs a layer of something, whether that’s older oak with micro oxidation or oak flavours. If it’s done well it adds depth, complexity and richness.”

NEW WORLD
Oak aside, the increasing quality of Sauvignon Blanc emerging from New World regions was another talking point. While Old World Sauvignon from the Loire has long ruled wine lists the world over, and will always be the grape’s spiritual home, producers from the New World have increasingly muscled in.

According to Beverly Tabbron MW, head of wine training at Hallgarten Druitt, consumers have “traded down” since the financial crash in 2008, with sales of Sancerre dropping, widening the opportunity for New World producers.

“Sancerre has that cachet but the prices are going up and we have less,” she said.

“There’s still demand but I know, with us, sales of Sancerre have gone down since the 2008 financial crash. People have downtraded. It comes down to the same old thing: you can’t label Sancerre and Pouilly- Fumé as Sauvignon on the bottle. The average consumer doesn’t know Pouilly- Fumé and Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc.”

In comparison, New World regions are riding high on heightened consumer awareness of the grape, thanks largely to the runaway success of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

“New Zealand did Sauvignon Blanc a great service,” noted George. “That’s what put it on the map. It was this wonderful new flavour that no one had come across before.”

The region’s distinctive passion fruit, gooseberry and elderflower profile has become the region’s trademark, with Marlborough its shining star. Currently New Zealand is the UK’s leading country by average bottle price, commanding an average of £7.37, according to Nielsen – well above the UK average price of £5.46.

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The judges (l-r): Adrian Garforth MW, Hugo Rose MW, Lauren Eads, Beverly Tabbron MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Rosemary George MW, Barbara Abraham MW, Jo Locke MW, Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, Roberto Della Pietra

DRIVING FORCE
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc meanwhile, remains the driving force in the UK market holding a 39% share of the category, according to New Zealand Winegrowers. But while New Zealand may have set the bar, complacency among producers could prove costly, warned Garforth, with other regions rising up the ranks.

“My nervousness for New Zealand is they get lazy and keep putting out wines at £7 to £10,” he said. “I think the reason people support that price point is that it overdelivers. New Zealand has to over-deliver to support that premium. All the other guys are working overtime to catch up.”

Expanding on this, Locke added: “I don’t think New Zealand has all its own way. There’s really serious competition from all over. It’s still an easy sell but actually there is a lot more out there.”

Acknowledging the variety’s potential within blends, Cherutti-Kowal highlighted the strong examples emerging from the New World.

“There’s some great Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blends coming out of North West Australia, and from traditional regions, and a little bit from New Zealand and Chile. They are taking a classic and putting a twist on it,” she said.

While the results of this year’s competition were undoubtedly positive, there was a feeling that for Sauvignon Blanc to reach the next level, producers need to bring another dimension to their wines. Whether that is through oak experimentation, blends or increased lees contact, the grape’s potential to raise its offer is clear, as is demand for variety within its ranks.

“I think producers have to up their game,” said Garforth. “With Sauvignon Blanc we are only scratching the surface. You can make a really great wine but not by being a Sauvignon Blanc alone. You have to play with it a little. It needs something else, a bit of funk, and when you get it right it’s great.”

Click through the following pages to see the full table of medal-winning wines

4 Responses to “Sauvignon Blanc Masters 2015: The results”

  1. Richard Smart says:

    I was surprised that the article did not mention Oz Clarks comments at the February NZ Sauvignon Blanc celebrations.

    Why is SB so successful with consumers? It is distinctive and recognisable, important virtues for consumers who are made to feel inadequate by the plethora of wine styles and wine writers comments. Here is to distinctive and recognisable varieties. Which might be next, for red and white varieties respectively. Is it Pinot noir now, then Gewurztraminer?? Indeed.

    I asked a leading Marlborough SB producer recently “what is the next variety after Sauvignon Blanc for Marlborough?” Thoughtfully he added “More Sauvignon Blanc”. In response to my query, how come, he said, “You know, there are still some Chardonnay drinkers out there”. QED. Richard Smart

  2. Mike Froud says:

    Why does the headline refer to 2015 rather than 2016, I wondered? Also, is it possible to publish an example of the bottle stickers on the Drinks Buisiness website, so that wine lovers know what to look for on the shelves?

    • Neal Baker says:

      The tasting took place towards the end of last year, and I’m afraid we can’t publish the stickers without running the risk of people downloading them and using them without our permission.

  3. Joanne Winterbottom says:

    Interesting story, thanks. Small correction on the Australian regions (could be a typo).There is no ‘North West Australia’ wine region – the north west is hot as Hades and iron ore and tropical savannah country. The region I think you are referring to is Margaret River, which produces fine SSB and SBS wines. It is in the southern part of the state of Western Australia.

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