By: Ryan Woodhouse | K&L NZ & Aussie Wine Specialist
As a huge fan of New Zealand wine it’s hard to argue against the success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but for the next few paragraphs that’s what I’m going to do!
Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame. Consumers all around the world know what to expect -- grassy, citrusy, gooseberried Sauv Blanc -- and buy based on familiarity and trust. The successful bonding of regional and a varietal has allowed product to flow into huge markets far and wide. “Marlborough Sauv Blanc” rolls off the tongue like “Napa Cab”. Even the complete wine novice shopping in a mainstream grocery chain would be hard pressed not to find a Kiwi Sauv Blanc consistent with this aroma and flavor profile. It has become “the” NZ wine.
However there are several problems with this phenomenon that have a negative impact on the position of NZ wines in the marketplace. To start, many consumers think they understand everything about NZ wine in general because they are familiar with this narrowly defined, mass marketed, homogenus style of grassy, gooseberried Sauvignon Blanc. Although this feeling of confidence and familiarity has driven millions of people to spend their hard earned cash on New Zealand wine, it has also worked against promoting the diversity of NZ wines, stunting the growth and success of other varietals and regions in this complex wine growing nation. A win for the big guys, a loss for the little guys, and in the end, a loss for the consumer as well.
Even Marlborough’s own attempts to break free from this stylistic stereotype have been hampered because many people aren't aware quality wines of many styles and different varietals can be produced there. When faced with a New Zealand Syrah, for example, customers are confused. “They make Syrah down there?” they ask, as if the very idea contradicted nature! It shocks me how many people - not just consumers but industry professionals too - have balked at the idea of trying something from New Zealand that is not Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
Another factor to consider is what if people have experienced this dominant flavor profile and don’t like it? What then? Do they abandon NZ wine? In my experience, Yes, often they do. I have received push back from many people who have been put off New Zealand wine, period, by the over the top, pungent, astringent, grassiness of the "Motherwine". The dominance of Marlborough SB is so complete some people who are not fans of this dominant flavor profile have often abandon the country as a whole, based on the assumption that all wine from New Zealand will display the same aroma and flavor characteristics regardless of the varietal, sub-region, or vinification methods. It makes no sense, and yet it happens time and time again. The Sauv Blanc grape and the perception of its “classic” flavor profile is so entrenched in the minds of consumers that anything different is often seen as alien and undesirable.
If you are a mega winery churning out millions of cases of generic Malborough SB, this is the ideal scenario. But what about the many small producers in the region trying to make distinctive wines that represent their special piece of terroir? Do they have to conform to the dominant flavor blueprint, or take a (in many cases, significant) risk going out on a limb and creating a brave new flavor of their own?
Furthermore, what if you’re a small winery in, let’s say, Hawkes Bay on the north island specializing in Syrah? The fame of Marlborough SB and the association it has with a specific varietal and style of wine is not doing you any favors in today's marketplace. I’m convinced it is actually a negative factor that makes your perfectly delicious Syrah seem like some kind of freakish abnormality in the eyes of the average consumer.
So, what to do? In my opinion, the idea of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc must be deconstructed for the consumer. The region of Marlborough is not one homogenous zone that supplies an ocean of tart, grassy, gooseberry zingyness. Marlborough (as you can see in the map above) is in fact a large and very topographically diverse area made up of numerous distinctly different sub-regions. Not only does the climate vary between these regions, but so to do the soils, aspects and most importantly predominant flavors.
Drawing the most basic distinction of Wairau Valley Vs. Awatere Valley could help people understand why Marlborough SB actually has much diversity to give. Awatere, being much more influenced by the Ocean and generally cooler throughout the growing season, has a tendency to produce more herbal, “greener” aromatics and flavors. Wairau Valley is more protected by geographical features and has a considerably warmer (relatively) growing climate. This means that wines from this locale often exhibit riper, fuller, more citrus and tropical notes. Other sub-regional distinctions exist especially now with plantings spreading back into the interior tributary valleys and up on to the elevated slopes surrounding the valley floors.
To illustrate my point, the Burgundy AOC has a similar area of land under vine (25,000 hectares to Marlborough’s 24,000.) Within Burgundy there are some 300 delineated villages. There are also hundreds of individual vineyards that are recognized with their own 1er Cru status. Even within those vineyards more distinctions drawn on soil, aspect and the resulting flavor and quality. Burgundy is an area and a category that absolutley defines itself by very small unique terroirs or climats. So to think of Marlborough, with it's similar area under vine and diverse micro-climates, as one homogenous area that produces the same flavor profile is ludicrous.
Unfortunatley millions of dollars and a couple decades have been spent branding it this way. While Burgundy, on the other hand, has had many centuries to define and delineate its diversity.
Moving on, the distinctly grassy, vegetal, green, even bell pepper like favor compounds that have become so fundamentally associated with Marlborough SB are not necessarily the typical expression of this terroir. I have discussed with many people over the last few years about how this flavor profile has as much to do with agricultural practices as it does Marlborough's terroir.
New Zealand’s wine industry has its roots in relatively modern agriculture. When Marlborough was planted en-masse in the early 80s, the prevailing crop growing mentality prevailed, “how much fruit can we produce from this acreage?” These vast swathes of over cropped vineyards resulted in much under-ripe, dilute, green, vegetal wine. There is no blame or finger pointing here; this was just the natural progression of an agriculture driven, rather than viticulture focused, industry.
Where the blame falls I feel is with the people and critics that accepted and marketed this as Marlborough’s definitive flavor. Popularized through homogenized mass production, little thought was given to subtlety or diversity as the wave of success swelled around the globe. What was actually pretty poor viticulture became known as the flavor of New Zealand. Sure it was fresh, bright, and zesty, but ultimately it is limited in its depth and finesse.
Though this flavor profile is still at large, thankfully viticulture practices in general have improved and styles have emerged that are distinctive, more restrained, balanced (and thanks to some expert growers and winemakers) rich, complex and textural. People in “the know” experiment with, native yeast, extended lees contact, the use of oak, splashes of Semillion etc. These artisanal touches and commitment to quality has brought us some dynamic wines and ensured the vitality and success of Marlborough’s real producers reigns on.
Just ask me next time you feel like a Kiwi SB I’ll be more than happy to introduce you to some with interest and authenticity. Here are a couple to start with:
NZ Pinot Noir
Now that we have discussed Marlborough specifically, what about those winemakers outside of the Marlborough SB bubble? Thanks in part to global trends, New Zealand has been able to take advantage of its moderately cool climate and climb aboard the Pinot train. While not as spectacular as the SB explosion, Pinot plantings have gone up dramatically in the last couple decades and producers have enjoyed great success with this fickle beauty. Central Otago has perhaps made the most of the global Pinot Noir resurgence after a false start by Martinborough. Marlborough also produces great Pinot and already has a familiar name in wine production. However now we are seeing concerted efforts by regions such as Nelson, Waipara, North Canterbury, Waiarapa, Waitaki etc to promote their own brand of NZ Pinot. In general I would say that NZ Pinot is consistently balanced and very good value for money when compared with domestic (US) competition. The different regions mentioned above have huge variety as far as styles and flavor profiles. It seems this time around NZ has seen the merit in promoting regional diversity and complexity over looking for one dominant style. The fickle, variable nature of the variety perhaps demands this approach.
However, again I believe there is a caveat to this success. I speak frequently with people about sub-regional intricacies and the need for producers and representatives alike, to focus on educating consumers about the complexity and infinite variables that make New Zealand’s wines so enthralling. For example Central Otago has huge ranges of geological and climactic variance. From the Cromwell Basin, to Bendigo, to Lake Wanaka, Gibston Valley and Waitaki, all Central Otago Pinot producing areas, all have very different qualites.
This is not about dividing regions, this is about inspiring people to seek unique distinctions in wine. Diversity and complexity is what I think keeps wine lovers interested. NZ Pinot is definitely something worthy of exploring, so I plead with people to keep an open mind and relish the subtleties that define these growing areas. The possibilities are somewhat endless and for a person that thrives on interesting wines rather than big point scores, this is why New Zealand wines are so exciting to me. New Zealand is so complex in its regional and varietal diversity; I think this story of intricate micro-climate specialty is a compelling one that must be told.
Other NZ Varietals, Regions, and Styles
To stretch the comprehension of NZ wine even further, let us revisit our hypothetical winery trying to sell our non-Marlborough Syrah. Wines such as these are dependent on two things: people’s inquisitive nature to seek new things and the wines own quality to make an impact. Hawke's Bay is home to NZ’s longest operating winery Mission Estate (established in 1851) and has a fantastic viticultural history. Hawke's Bay also has a unique set of qualities that I think make it a truly world class place to make wine. Being on the east coast of the north island, shielded from most of the prevailing westerly weather systems, the area typically enjoys a great sunny warm climate. Being right on the ocean also moderates any extremes of temperature. The region has diverse soils ranging from limestone, to volcanic, to deep alluvial gravels. Perhaps the most exciting sub-region here is the Gimblett Gravels. This is an ancient riverbed where vines have been planted in soils consisting of 90% pebbles that extend 20-30 feet down. The very stony soil stresses the vines producing ultra concentrated fruit while the gentle radiated heat from the stones allow perfect elongated ripening (think La Crau in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Graves in Bordeaux).
I think the Syrah grown here is perhaps some of the best in the world. When done right, a perfect balance between classic peppery, meaty, smokey Rhone characteristics, and bright, berries, violets and succulent fruit driven styles of the modern era can be achieved. Bordeaux varietal blends from this area are also world beaters as highlighted in a tasting where dozens of the world’s top wine professionals, some Masters of Wine, tasted them blind against Bordeaux’s 1st growths. Mission Estate’s top wine, the Jewelstone was only undone by Haut-Brion and Ch. Mouton, beating out Ch. Latour, Ch. Lafite and many other prestigious wines at 20+ times its price point, yes 20+!
Other exceptional wines from this area include Craggy Range’s “Sohia”, a right bank Bordeaux style blend and the Craggy Range’s “Le Sol” a Syrah of stunning depth, opulence and polished texture. Sacred Hill also makes a range of wines from this area including the Helmsman Bordeaux style blend and Deerstalkers Syrah. Near by are the epic wines of Te Mata Estate including the Coleraine, Awatea and Bullnose, all incredible wines of pedigree and excellence.
So here on the Gimblett Gravels is a unique, world-class terroir that has absolutely nothing in common with NZ’s most famous export. This is only one example; New Zealand is also excelling in producing stunning Riesling and other aromatic white varietals. I recently tasted a Spatlese style Riesling made at Fromm Winery in Marlborough that I think rivals any German offering. With Riesling’s popularity growing around the globe this is an exciting prospect for New Zealand’s producers. New Zealand Chardonnay is also something I am always trying to turn people on to. Many of them strike a perfect balance between the fruit purity and richness of California Chard but without the overwhelming oak and buttery character and often with Burgundian texture, brightness and minerality. Try Neudorf’s Moutere bottling or Te Whare Ra’s excellent Marlborough Chard and Sacred Hill’s world class Rifleman’s Vineyard release.
Also, what about areas such as Gisborne or Northland. These wine regions have pretty much no representation in the US market yet both produce compelling wines with distinctive flavor profiles. The possibilities and variables of these beguiling isles are literally endless.
I guess my concluding point (finally) is that those of us who care (or are even remotely interested) have to work hard to spread the word about New Zealand’s diversity. To let others know that all of its regions have something to offer and need to be treated as distinct entities. No one grape or flavor can define New Zealand and in fact it is very harmful to try and do so. No single success story can support a whole nation of wine growers. Neither can this narrative excite the broad support of eclectic wine drinkers. So thanks all you Marlborough SB giants for putting NZ on the map, now please sit back and let the real inner beauty shine through.
If I didn’t bore you too much with this rant and you're interested in learning more about or tasting more New Zealand wines please send me an email and I will be in touch.
NZ & Aussie Wine Specialist
K&L Wine Merchants - Redwood City
Terra Ignota is Latin for "Unknown Land". It was the name for the South Pacific region during intial mapping and exploration of Australia and New Zealand. As we are going to be exploring new and exciting wines from this region, we think this is a fitting title for our blog series on wines from this part of the world. Stay tuned for more!