High cropping of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and fierce competition on price is pushing winemakers to experiment further with the variety, using oak and bottle age to add a second dimension to the country’s offer.
Tony Southgate, winemaker at Brightwater Vineyards in Nelson
The first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in Marlborough in 1973 at Montana (now Brancott Estate), with the variety becoming emblematic of the region. Marlborough is today New Zealand’s biggest wine producing region.
Of the total 36,192 hectares of vineyards planted in the country, 24,020ha are in Marlborough, with 21,016 being Sauvignon Blanc. For comparison, just 4,744ha are planted in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand’s second biggest grape growing region.
The region continues to enjoy vast commercial success with Sauvignon, but with plantings in Marlborough now almost at capacity, growers are coming under increasing pressure to crop at higher levels to meet demand, explained Tony Southgate, winemaker at Brightwater Vineyards in nearby Nelson, which is in turn putting pressure on winemakers to drop their prices.
“Sauvignon Blanc is just so price competitive,” he said, speaking to the drinks business. “That’s having an effect on growers, who are starting to crop higher and so you can produce it for less and it’s driving the price down. We have taken contract winemaking but we have held our price point in what has been an extremely competitive last few years,” he said. “Lots of people aren’t holding their price.”
Rather than compete on price with Marlborough Sauvignon, Southgate is taking Brightwater’s production in the opposite direction, producing smaller volume wines at higher price points, using oak barriques to produce a “more interesting” style of Sauvignon, highlighting its barrel fermented 2015 Brightwater Lord Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc, which retails at NZ$30.
“You are looking at a smaller market, but at a consumer that knows what they want and has money,” he said. “When we made it we didn’t know what to expect. We made it seriously and kept the NZ character to the core but on the riper, more concentrated spectrum. We only made five barrels and that was reserved when in barrel.
“We have to convert more conventional Sauvignon Blanc in our vineyards across to this – basically much lower crops. I think the classic style of NZ Sauvignon will continue, but for us, being boutique and wanting to hold our price, we are diversifying into higher markets.”
‘Acoustic version of Marlborough Sauvignon’
Brightwater’s change in direction represents a wider trend rippling through Marlborough, with an increasing number of winemakers experimenting with oak, bottle age and wild ferments, bringing another layer to the region’s offer, evolving away from the one-dimensional model of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
“We used to do one style and that was pick up all of the fruit that you could and bottle it as fresh as possible and hit the market one year after it was grown,” said Jean-Charles Van Hove, of Clos Marguerite in Marlborough.
“Now, people are starting to play with bottle ferment and extended lees contact. You like to keep the wines in tank and in bottle for an extended period of time. Some people play with wild ferment. I’m not a huge fan but some people like that, you get that funky character. We are getting much more interesting Sauvignon now than we had 20 years ago by far, but the undertone is always Marlborough Sauvignon, you can’t miss it.”
Te Whare Ra in Marlborough is just one producer experimenting with different styles of Sauvignon, having released its first barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, from the 2015 vintage, last year.
Anna Flowerday, owner of Te Whare Ra in Marlborough
“People are exploring the boundaries but still being true to the classic style,” said Anna Flowerday, winemaker and owner of TWE. “We are about making authentic wine that shows it’s place. We didn’t want to use new oak because that detracts from the fruit purity. It’s almost like an acoustic version of Marlborough. It’s not that electric guitar but a quieter version of Sauvignon.”
For Flowerday, the next chapter of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc will be exploring sub regional difference.
“With what we are seeing in the UK there’s this overriding Marlborough brand about it,” she said. “But I think the next chapter is showing the diversity of even classically made Sauvignon Blanc and the soil types across the valley. We can’t talk about it as three sub regions. We want to keep it simple but you could split it into eight sub regions. I think it will be about the complexity and drilling down on a single vineyard and saying this is our variation of Marlborough.
“For those that sell on premise that’s important because if people have six Sauvignon Blancs on their list there needs to be a difference. If we are going to mature as a region that’s the next step, that sub regional difference.”