The New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Story

July 26, 2019

The New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Story

Sauvignon Blanc in the Old World

When you look at the Sauvignon Blanc section of any wine shop around the world you are most likely to be confronted with a wave of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc - and for good reason. 

However the grapes traditional home before the success of New Zealand’s wine industry in the 1980’s was in the Old World. In fact even today there is more tonnage of Sauvignon Blanc crushed in France and Italy than there is in New Zealand. 

Sauvignon Blanc’s lineage can be traced back to France (believed to be in Bordeaux) about 500 years ago. Where a naturally occurring cross took place with two grapes varieties planted close to one and other. One of the parent varieties is very rare french grape called Savagnin and the other is unknown. 

In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with Semillon which is a much ‘fatter’ variety and tends to work well as a blending partner - particularly for wines that are designed for oak influences and to develop with bottle age. We have a few examples of Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends to try here. 

The Loire Valley hijacked Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux and rightfully claims to be the new home for Old World Sauvignon Blanc. The two most famous appellations for Loire Sauvignon Blancs are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Typically wines from these regions can be expected to be more restrained than NZ Sauvignon Blanc and usually show more mineral characteristics than the fruit forward kiwi Sauvignons. 

History of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

New Zealand’s wine industry is almost solely based on the success of Sauvignon Blanc. Certainly by volume with almost 90% of the wine New Zealand exports being Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand has been making wine commercially since 1851 but it’s success with Sauvignon Blanc is reasonably new.

The first winery to establish Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was Brancott Estate which was then called Montana. It is said that the winery identified the similarities in the Loire Valley Climate and Marlborough’s. The average temperatures of both regions and annual rainfall are almost identical. 

Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc Vs Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

There are however a few key differences that gives Marlborough the ability to make it’s signature punchy fruit forward Sauvignon Blanc. Firstly, New Zealand has a depleted ozone layer which means it lets through up to 40 times more ultraviolet rays than in the Loire Valley. A study at Lincoln University in New Zealand called “UV radiation in New Zealand: implications of grape quality” found that the UV radiation affects the phenolics specifically in the grape skins which impacts the flavour profile of the wines. 

The second difference is the significant diurnal temperature variations in Marlborough compared to those in the Loire Valley. Hot days and cool nights is essential for Sauvignon Blanc fruit to develop the desired ripeness and flavour profiles in Marlborough while maintaining it's signature acidity.  

External Factors contributing to Marlborough Sauvignon Success

When Montana first planted Sauvignon Blanc vines in Marlborough there were two other grapes that dominated the local vineyards. Müller-Thurgau and the “other” white Loire grape Chenin Blanc. These two varieties are both extremely rare in New Zealand now because they weren’t particularly well suited to New Zealand conditions… although there are some cracking examples of Chenin Blanc particularly in the North Island (we’re looking at you Millton Vineyards!).

There were two key events that helped Sauvignon Blanc dominate Marlborough and the New Zealand wine industry.

The first was the New Zealand government's policy in 1985 to pay viticulturists $6175 per hectare to rip up and remove vineyards in order to combat an increasing issue of over supply of poor quality grapes in the market. When this policy was introduced growers seized the opportunity to be paid to remove their underperforming varietals and replant with Sauvignon Blanc which was proving to be a cash cow.

The 2nd major event was the discovery of phylloxera in the region… phylloxera for those that don’t know is a grapevine mite that spreads quickly with no cure. It is the same culprit that was responsible for the catastrophic vineyard destruction in Europe in the 1800s. Once a vine is infected with Phylloxera the vines will eventually shutdown and stop producing grapes. The only known solution is to pull the infected vines and replant with resistant North American rootstock. Although at the time this outbreak devastated the Marlborough wine region it gave the grape growers a unique opportunity to once again reevaluate the effectiveness of certain varieties in the region.

The result of both these major events meant that Marlborough was positioned to make Sauvignon Blanc the key grape for the region and to go full steam ahead for exporting premium, unique Sauvignon Blanc to the world. In vintage 2019 Marlborough crushed 76% of New Zealand’s wine - of that 85% of the grapes were Sauvignon Blanc. 

Where to now for Sauvignon Blanc?

Recently Mel Brown attended the International Sauvignon Blanc Conference 2019 in Marlborough where a range of ideas and potential concerns for the industry were explored including climate change, moving to oak influenced wines and wild fermentations.

The biggest taking from the conference was that New Zealand Sauvignon is in a great place, It is exciting times for winemakers in New Zealand and we can't wait to see what is next for this great grape!

You can read about the conference here.

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