It is often said by many including myself that the popularity of a particular wine is governed by fashion as is so much in our material world today.
It could be argued that fashion in wine has always been there, especially in a country that has no, or didn’t, any wine making history of any consequence, the clarets of Bordeaux, the ports from Portugal the hocks from Germany have all had their moment in the sun, but it was a smaller world then and the drinking of good wine was not a pleasure to be enjoyed by us lesser mortals.
In fact the explosion in modern wine making in the new world, was at a time when countries that had made wine for decades and more for local consumption with no real pedigree discovered a market for an industry that in many cases had been stagnant for years, Australia and jug wine Argentina ditto!
In all these countries they had huge plantings of grapes that were largely off the table as far as buyers world wide were concerned at the time, the three biggies were Shiraz from Australia, largely confined to the Rhone in Europe and a comparatively small area, the almost monotype industry in Argentina where Malbec reigned supreme and the likes of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco from the old world were late starters in the world market popularity stakes.
New Zealand didn’t really start to plant or make Sauvignon Blanc as we know it until Brancott (then Montana) planted the first vines in 1973 and the first wines were made in 1979, it is that recent, Cloudy Bay the SB that opened the floodgates in Europe to NZ SB soon followed.
The rush to plant Chardonnay and SB in the Marlboro region was almost instant as the government gave out subsidies to grub out old unwanted vines of various types and replant with the two fresh for NZ varieties, with SB taking the top step.
In the short years from the initial ‘79 Montana wine to 1985 when Cloudy Bay erupted on the scene to world wide acclaim many others started to come on stream from the same area with the same grape.
I was fortunate to get a few bottles of that maiden Cloudy Bay vintage, there was a retail outlet, a very good one, that specialised in Australian and New Zealand wines in Abbey Road, yes that one, in NW London that I used to frequent as they had a for then unbelievable range of Aussie reds and more, sadly long gone.
Was it that good, always difficult to relate to something so hyped and so long ago, but yes it was a very long way from the thin acidic versions that were produced in most of the poor years in the Loire, so it did stand out somewhat.
It became if any can remember a cult wine, Cloudy Bay were very quick to see that they had a phenomenon in a bottle on their hands and subsequent vintages became very difficult to come by and were on allocation and if you were lucky you got a couple of bottles, they managed this procedure rather well for many years creating a desire to want something you couldn’t get, it became almost mythical for a period and had few competitors.
That part the scarcity disappeared when the luxury goods brand LVMH purchased the winery, from being difficult to find it became difficult to avoid.
By chance I did get to buy many of the subsequent vintages but stopped buying it in the early nineties as none of the subsequent vintages, IMHO, lived up to that original, it could be of course that by then others had appeared on the scene and there was something to compare Cloudy Bay with, from the period I particularly liked the best ones from Nautilus, rarely seen here, and so the SB bandwagon was born and like Topsy grew and grew.
As SB sales climbed and climbed in the nineties the then current fashion icon Chardonnay was king, but then suffered a fall from grace, as with anything that grows in popularity that quickly, there comes a down side, it suffered from some poor wines being foisted on the public to feed the demand, not that I think that many noticed, but the critics started to vote down the over done style coming out of Aus in huge quantities, ABC was coined, ‘anything but Chardonnay’, and although the great white grape of Burgundy hardly disappeared the shelf space in the supermarkets did reduce, and what was waiting to fill that gap, fortuitous to an extent though it was, SB the new king of white or at least the volume producers version.
But the interesting bit is the recent rumblings of discontent with SB from the critics and some winemakers, with Marlboro and the other NZ regions full up with SB plantings the danger is there is only one way to go, whether that will happen is open to debate, but all your eggs in one basket, 86% off vines in NZ are SB, is not a good recipe for ongoing production and the regions in NZ are diversifying and experimenting with other grapes as is all of the new world.
Some of the criticism is justified, the huge amounts of bottom end SB are not doing the image of the wine any good and the tanker business means you are at the mercy of those who can shift tanker loads of wine, the supermarkets, a race to the bottom never has a good landing.
Several producers and critics have raised their voices, not all can be taken at face value even though they have a point, this from Matt Day at Klein Constantia last year, could be read as a factual opinion on NZ SB or simply a plug for the SA version, you can take your pick.
The American critic Matt Kramer made a speech a few weeks ago claiming the SB had ‘no culture’ make what you will of what he said here….
what I believe he was trying to say, and remember there is relatively little SB grown in the states though it rates at No9 in the list of plantings! So by saying what he did he was hardly treading on his compatriots toes, and to me the speech shouted ‘here I am bad boy’ notice me.
Yet at the same time that he makes that speech and others were voicing concerns as well as to where SB was heading, the industry in NZ had already woken up to the fact they need to go upmarket, and start making and selling a lot more single vineyard SB and experiment with how it is made, small barrel fermentation terroir inspired wines will change to riper styles rather than the piercing SBs produced so far, the lessening of the all consuming in some cases gooseberry/grapefruit tendency.
Some estates are blending SB with other varieties, Te Mata Golden Crest is one, but it is difficult to tell from the bottle as 15% of other grape varieties is allowed and the label stills says SB.
Another bucking the trend is Dog Point Section 94, spending 18months on the lees and the same time in old French oak barrels, I believe this is available here but have not found or tried it.
And another innovator is Brent Marris whose Marisco Pride & Glory; 100% Sauvignon Blancwas launched in 2011, he is using 1000 ltr oval oak barrels to accentuate the lees influence, the oak itself is not prominent, the lower temperature of the barrels means the fruit is more subdued and the overall result can age well.
The late Didier Dagenhau was doing all this in the Loire years ago, a motorcycle racer in his earlier days, so one of the good guys, his grape selection barrel ageing and the subsequent different styles produced all pointed to the way forward, the wild man of the Loire had seen the future.
Dagenhau’s SB s don’t come cheap coming in at around £80 a bottle for his Silex, but that pales into insignificance compared with over hyped and ludicrous prices paid for Californias Screaming Eagle SB which retails for around £3k a bottle, is any SB worth that or any wine to be honest, with all that cash coming in you would think Stan Kronke the owner would spend some on some new players for Arsenal who he also owns.
Bordeaux, often left out of the equation re SB has been in many areas especially Pesac-Leognan using barrel fermentation and extended lees time for years, so the examples of a different SB are already there.
A good example being Denis Dubourdieu’s Ch Doisy-Daene sec which spends 8 months in barrel, and coincidentally is stocked by the WS.
Without realising it I had a drunk a different approach to SB some years back in a restaurant in the Loire, a recommendation at lunch was a Quincy from Domaine Trotereau, Pierre Ragon has been making this wine as a fifth generation vigneron for some time, it is richer and not nearly as in your face as NZ SBs, beautiful nose that did not scream gooseberry and a darker colour in the glass.
It is not an area I have knowledge of but by chance I had been shown an alternative in style and taste to the ubiquitous NZ version and very good value, then, and there are several other vignerons in the area doing much the same, maybe their time has come as drinkers search for a change of style, are they the same drinkers though that buy the tanker loads of SB at the present, the answer is no.
Will it make any difference to the tanker loads in the supermarkets? the general public are still buying, naturally, to a price point, if there is a change in fashion for something else they will not be pricing upwards to aged artisan SB, they will simply move sideways, the world market doesn’t work that way, going upmarket are different things to the informed drinker and the casual supermarket shopper who can only be dragged upmarket by a small margin as average buying prices show, so at the bottom end of the market getting rid of the cheaper offenders and bringing the general quality up is as important as diversifying in the quality market.
And whilst the “controversy” over SB goes on, anyone looking at the shelves in their local supermarket will see that Pinot Grigio is already commanding less shelf space as the big brands take over, like Barefoot, the Italian section is falling in sales and there is less choice for the public in what is generally a pretty dire selection anyway.
Other grapes to be the next big thing have included Viognier and Gruner Veltliner, both have been touted for some years in this respect, but it hasn’t happened and is not likely to, Gruner especially is an acquired taste and many cheaper ones are pretty poor examples.
Perhaps even, there wont be a new grape that dominates the world like cheap SB, if SB is an example you need a whole country to dedicate growing of one variety to achieve that aim, the sheer diversity in the world of grapes is one of the great pleasures of wine, you can never bore of it, for the big multi nationals and conglomerates it is all about volumes branding and sales figures, so NZ does have with so little else to offer a problem of sorts.
What is very obvious is the fact that nearly all the big fashion grapes have been of the white variety, pure coincidence, probably, but fashion shifts and the new kid on the block is rose already outselling white wine in France and judging by the indicators on its way to doing that here, M&S announced recently price cuts and a shrinking of their range of wines, but are increasing shelf space for rose ! so maybe SB has more to worry about than just going upmarket, perhaps a rose SB, oh, they are already doing it, in truth everybody is doing rose, with it seems every grape under the sun, this fashion lark never stands still !