Sauvignon blanc overtakes chardonnay

Sauvignon Blanc. Kath and Kym call it sauvignon plonk. Others call it cat’s pee. Over a glass or two, someone commented that it tasted like it’d been drunk before. The late Len Evans listed it with goat’s cheese among his pet hates. And England’s wine luminary, Jancis Robinson, once wrote that its ranking amongst the world’s nine ‘classic’ varieties came only because of its ‘divine combination with semillon in parts of Bordeaux’.

But whether you call it cat’s pee or dog’s nectar it’s now our biggest selling white wine style. Sauvignon blanc pipped chardonnay by 23.5 million litres to 22.5 million litres in the year to September 2008, according to AC Nielsen figures cited by Jeni Port in the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 January.

While wine show judges almost invariably find sauvignon classes disappointing, populated by weedy, tart wines, sprinkled with one or two juicy highlights. Despite all the sauvignon put downs, Aussie drinkers love the variety – notably as a straight varietal from Marlborough, New Zealand or, from Margaret River, Western Australia, blended with semillon.

Almost twenty years ago, Jancis Robinson wrote “Sauvignon blanc produces wines for our times: white, dry, refreshingly zesty, aggressively recognisable and ready to drink almost before the presses have been hosed down after the vintage”. Her words seem even more on the money now than they did in 1986.

And the word from retailers and producers throughout this decade was that sauvignon blanc and blends were the fastest growing segment in the domestic wine market. As far back as April 2004, national retailer, Vintage Cellars (part of the then Coles Myer Group) reported that sauvignon blanc constituted just one twenty fifth of Australia’s grape crush but represented one sixth of its white wine sales.

This suggested a dash into sauvignon blanc by Australia’s keenest wine drinkers. Even if New Zealand led the way the sustained growth in sauvignon blanc demand showed up, too, at Australia’s grape crushers. In 2002 we harvested 28, 567 tonnes of it. But that had increased to 43,107 tonnes in 2004 and to 66,267 tonnes in 2008 – suggesting many hectares of plantings coming on stream to meet rising demand.

So why the rise in popularity of sauvignon blanc? I suspect it’s the exciting quality of straight varietals from Marlborough and blends from Western Australia delivering what Jancis described 20 years ago, “dry, refreshingly zesty, aggressively recognisable and ready to drink almost before the presses have been hosed down”.

It seems that sauvignon blanc has found its niche as a fruity, zesty undemanding white well suited to our warm climate and casual dining habits – capturing what might have been riesling’s role. Alas, poor riesling.

Twenty years ago with a stronger Aussie dollar and a dearth of local material, the most loved sauvignons were those imported from Pouilly and Sancerre at the eastern end of France’s Loire Valley. Magically fruity with a minerally, bone dry finish, they reigned until international demand and a weakening dollar pushed them out of reach.

Domestic sauvignons, at the time, came from mainly warm areas and were often made in the ‘fume blanc’ style pioneered by Robert Mondavi in California. These attracted momentary attention but were by and large over oaked and lacking varietal flavour.

By the mid eighties Australians had begun to enjoy the first in-your-face Marlborough sauvignon blancs. These offered pungent, capsicum-like aromas and flavours in tandem with high natural acidity – the product of Marlborough’s very cool climate, a pre condition for good sauvignon.

A quarter of a century on and Marlborough’s the world capital of sauvignon, having spread from a few vineyards at the southern cooler side of the Wairau valley to the warmer northern side and to the even cooler Awatere Valley, over the Wither Hills to the south.

The resulting diversity of sites, viticultural practice and winemaking preferences means a great diversity of Marlborough styles today. In general that means zesty, fresh, well-defined varietal flavours. But the varietal spectrum varies from the riper citrus and tropical fruit character of warmer sites to the old in-your-face capsicum-like ones.

Australian sauvignon blanc hasn’t found its Marlborough yet. But it has found a comfortable home in the Adelaide Hills. Like Marlborough the Adelaide Hills region is far from homogenous climatically. But selected sites do bring home the bacon.

And at Margaret River in the west, where sauvignon blanc seldom makes it on its own, semillon steps in to fatten out the mid palate and add a lovely citrus note without detracting from the racy freshness of sauvignon blanc.
These range from ever popular ‘classic dry white’ styles like those from Evans & Tate and others at modest prices to the seamless glory of Cullens or Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon (among others) – in the Bordeaux style praised by Jancis Robinson.

With a few exceptions like the Cullens wine, though, these are wines to chill, quaff and enjoy by the bucketful. Then back up for the new vintage as soon it hits the shelves.

This very big swing in popular taste, however, spells trouble for local chardonnay growers, especially in the face of collapsing export demand.

But the Kiwi sauvignon blanc growers won’t have it all their way either.  The amazing twenty-year boom appears to be at an end.  The variety now accounts for two thirds of all whites produced in New Zealand.

But economic weakness in its biggest export markets, Britain, Australia and America (in that order), combined with rising production, suggests that prices will fall this year. Retailers expect the price of branded Marlborough sauvignon blanc to decline and that we’ll see a rising number of bargain-basement clean skins from the region.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

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