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It broke into the international wine scene back in the early 1980s like a Hawaiian shirt arriving at a black tie function. Those loud herbaceous flavours and the aftershave-like zing demanded attention and got it from the influential British wine press. Kiwi sauvignon blanc announced our arrival in the world of wine.
It didn’t quite come out of nowhere, although that’s one way of describing a rented tin shed in west Auckland. That was where our first expression of the variety, Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc 1974, was produced by brothers Ross and Bill Spence.
“It had those green, grassy, intense flavours, but you know what? – it was hard to sell at first,” Bill recalls. “People read sauvignon and thought it was some sort of white cabernet. That’s why we began calling it fumé blanc in the late 1970s.”
Sauvignon blanc arrived here from Italy via Government viticulturist Romeo Bragato in 1906. In 1975 Montana became the first to plant in Marlborough, a region that rapidly became synonymous with the grape.
“What’s all the fuss about?” asked Cuisine’s wine editor Bob Campbell MW in his introduction to the magazine’s first sauvignon tasting in 1989 (issue 12). By this time the fumé blanc style (with its oak influence) was fading, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc had become an international cult wine and awards had started to pour in from around the world.
Campbell noted that such was the style’s darling status in the British and Australian markets, producers were struggling to meet demand.
In November 1989, Campbell assembled a wine-tasting team that included fresh-faced young winemakers John Belsham (then with Hunter’s) and Kumeu River’s Michael Brajkovich MW (both of whom bookend this story perfectly by being part of this issue’s sauvignon panel).
With the theme “Are we really number one?”, the tasting pitted local sauvignons against overseas versions, including several from Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Bordeaux (the grape’s strongholds in France). It was a trouncing. Kiwi wines took five of the six five-star ratings. Campbell noted, “Marlborough consolidated
its number one position.”
The phenomenon’s momentum built steadily during the 1990s. Early pacesetters such as Hunter’s, Cloudy Bay, Corbans, Te Whare Ra and Montana were joined by others, and a tide of vines spread out over Marlborough’s Wairau Plain. Soon the neighbouring Awatere Valley was planted, providing a flintier and more racily acidic style. Sub-regional variation became in-vogue, along with greater emphasis on viticulture.
“In 1996 passionfruit and other tropical-fruit flavours were more widely apparent,” says Michael Ivicevich, maker of Delegat’s Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc (in 2007, Australia’s top-selling white wine).
The 1998 drought was not easy. Heat drained much of the acidity from fruit, incurring the descriptor “sauvignon blanks”. But it didn’t deter corporate players from wanting in. The rush was on, as demand remained fevered. From 1999-2008, plantings shot up by 450 per cent.
However, in 2008 a vintage of vast quantity and the global financial crisis arrived like monsoon buckets over a wildfire. Supply outstripped demand for the first time. Prices dropped. Tough times had arrived.
“Oversupply is no longer a problem,” says Cuisine tasting panel chair, John Belsham. “The challenge now is to sell our sauvignon blanc profitably and to do that we need to sell it with the same story of uniqueness and excitement that carried it 20 years ago. We need to reinvent the model.”
Story by John Saker
Courtesy of Cuisine, New Zealand