Why is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc so popular?
By Master of Wine, Christopher Burr
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the most popular white wine in the UK market, and has been so for several years now. It took over from Pinot Grigio as the stand-by white wine to keep in the fridge for any occasion.
I first visited the wineries of New Zealand in 1992, and then went back there to study viticulture, in which they are leaders in finding the best solutions in cooler climates, in 1996. I have been to vineyards from the warm almost tropical north of North Island, right down to the coolest South Island sites with breezes off the Antarctic Southern Ocean.
The best place probably for growing Sauvignon Blanc is the north of the South Island. Not too hot and not too cold, easy to ripen, but cool enough to retain freshness.
In other words, one gets a wonderful balance of flavours and freshness in such a climate. The region is called Marlborough centred around the charming small town of Blenheim.
I suppose before Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and the iconic brand, Cloudy Bay, the only really famous wines made from this grape were Sancerre and Pouilly Fume from the Loire, white Bordeaux, although the best were blended with Semillon to add richness, and in California a number of good wineries like Mondavi made good Fume Blanc as they called it.
Cloudy Bay was launched back in the 1980's from a company called Cape Mentelle in Marlborough, with a great winemaker, Kevin Judd. The wine has intense but rounded aromas of gooseberry, pineapple and ripe grapefruit, but also has balance and elegance. It was very different to other wines like Sancerre, in that it was more overt and instantly recognisable. Cloudy Bay became so internationally popular, that it effectively launched the grape to the market. It also was the flagship of all New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which is their most important and widest planted varietal.
With such success, Cloudy Bay was promptly sold to Moet Hennessy. Kevin Judd has gone on to create his own wine brand in Marlborough, Greywacke, with his exceptional Wild Sauvignon being sold in Fortnum and Mason and also Majestic Wine for £30 a bottle.
The other seminal brand, which helped launch Marlborough wines, was a brand called Montana.
In 2010 it was bought in 2005 by another mega wine and spirit Company, Pernod Ricard, having previously been owned by Allied Domecq. There was a large brand in the United States also called Montana, so the Marlborough wine had its name changed to Brancott Estate, and is still a very typical and very well made.
However, in a lean and cold vintage, even in Marlborough, the Sauvignon Blancs can be over pungent and too intense. Not all Marlborough Sauvignon is as good as the brands so far mentioned which have balance and good round fruit. Other good brands to look out for are Villa Maria, and in Waitrose The Ned. Both of these are excellent, consistent and typical.
The difficulty with some Marlborough and other NZ Sauvignon Blanc is that in a very cool vintage this grape exhibits a smell known as pyrazines. This is a pungent green character like newly mown grass or even stinging nettles. Some commentators have even called it the smell of "cats' pee"! Good producers avoid this by careful grape selection and various winemaking techniques to reduce these pungent aromas, and make a more rounded wine.
So why is this wine so popular?
I believe the first thing is that it is so recognisable for what it is. Almost everyone can taste and remember what it is like, that is very reassuring. Secondly, when Cloudy Bay became famous there was, sadly, a lot of poor Sauvignon Blanc coming from France. Marlborough was making some of the best wine. The French have had to improve immensely with this serious competition.
Finally, compared with a good Sancerre or Pouilly Fume Marlborough wines are good value. Mostly around £8-£10 a bottle, with the very best exceptional wines capping at £30.
Lastly, a good Sauvignon Blanc is quite versatile;- a good aperitif, good with a snack like a sandwich, great with shell fish and other fish, and good with most starter dishes. It particularly stands up well to herby dishes and things like fresh asparagus. Generally, the wines are also pretty consistent, which is reassuring for consumers, there are not too many "cats' pee" wines around!
I can see Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc being popular for a long time.