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Luvian’s St Andrews' Archie McDiarmid blogs from Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough

Published:  29 January, 2019

Haere Mai, as they say in Marlborough, and welcome to Sauvignon 2019, the world’s biggest celebration of – arguably - the most popular and least well-understood grape variety around.

A three-day conference organised by Winegrowers of New Zealand, Sauvignon 2019, The International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration (to give it it’s full title), aims to immerse delegates in the world of Sauvignon Blanc while they examine and explore its place in the world and how it might develop in the future.

Day one was built around the theme of Place and two speakers, Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator and Sam Harrop MW, winemaker and consultant, approached the issue from similar angles, but with very different conclusions. Kramer felt that having endured a mid-life crisis in the run up to the first conference at which he spoke in 2016, New Zealand was easing itself out of the sports cars and bar hopping stage and accepting just how good life could be, and how it could get better if it had the patience to keep developing. Explaining that he felt that the growth of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was “the most preposterous story of growth in the history of the wine world” it was important to remember that, in wine terms, New Zealand had been around for a week compared to the months and years of classic European regions.

This meant that a true culture of Sauvignon Blanc had never developed in the way it had for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Without the shorthand that such cultures provide customers he argued, New Zealand Sauvignon had done extraordinary things and was rapidly on its way to developing its own culture built on the key pillars of; scale, capital, appreciation, understanding and marketing. Without these pillars a wine could never outgrow it’s in-built restrictions, keeping it as a local secret or international novelty, never realising its full potential. Matt feels that the truly great wines, most capable of taking New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from commodity to premium are those that represent ‘the perfect sphere’, so balanced that they satisfy every aspect of the palate. For him, the best way to achieve to reject the culturally dominant model of Burgundy, where single site specificity is the be all and end all of its greatest wines and instead look to Champagne where the greatness of single vineyards is acknowledged, but the blending of multiple sites is considered the best way to achieve the ideal result.

In contrast, Harrop was looking to take Sauvignon Blanc from savage to noble, driven specifically by its sense of place. Rejecting the term terrior, which he feels is best understood as the elements that nature brings to bear on a wine, he looked to the Maori phrase, turanga wai wai, literally ‘the place where I stand’ or, for him, the sense of place which combines both the concept of terroir and the actions of the wine grower which serve to enhance and highlight those features. He divided wines into two camps, wines of site and wines of style and challenged New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to move from the latter to the former. For Sam, wines of site are defined by their superior fruit, sufficiently aged vines, balanced crops harvested at optimal ripeness, controlled fermentation, sensitive wine making resulting in wines that revealed more of their sense of place with aging. By comparison, wines of style, which, using Rioja as an example, he emphasised could be highly regarded, have less sense of place using winemaking to create a consistent result at the expense of variety. For many critics this rendered New Zealand Sauvignon a cute cross breed puppy, adorable and enjoyable, but lacking in the kind of class it takes to enter Crufts. By looking to develop the recognition of New Zealand and particularly Marlborough’s sub-regions it allows the best single vineyard sites to rise above their peers in reputation, creating a halo effect for the entire region.

While, despite Matt’s protestations, I feel the growers of the Loire would have some issues with his statement that Sauvignon Blanc had never developed its own wine culture, it is hard to argue with the notion that New Zealand & Marlborough is best placed to take advantage and develop it. As proverb goes, ‘a small man may cast a large shadow’ and surely no region of its size has as developed such a huge reputation, so quickly as Marlborough in the last 30 years. Truly great blends, working across the two great river valleys and surrounding hills might well produce the kind of perfectly balanced wines that cements the regions reputation for decades to come, but call me romantic, I found Sam’s argument more convincing, even if just economically. The church of single vineyard brilliance is well established and undeniably successful, married to the gloriously evocative and unique concept of ‘turanga wai wai’ seems like the kind of concept that can be sold to consumers and critics the world over.