Several New World regions have a wine they’ve claimed as their own. A wine and region so linked in people’s minds that one immediately brings the other into memory. Malbec and Argentina, Carmenere and Chile, Zinfandel and California, Shiraz and Australia and Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand are examples.
It is great for marketing but it can also be restricting. And there’s the risk of placing too much reliance on a variety which, should it fall from fashion, could seriously impact business. Everyone remembers what happened to sales of Merlot when a line of dialogue in the movie Sideways was misunderstood.
We can remove California from the above list, because although Zinfandel is indelibly linked with it, the state is well known as a producer of many other varieties and Zinfandel is not the dominant one.
Sauvignon Blanc is dominant in New Zealand. It was that variety which brought the country to the world’s attention as a wine producer. Considering the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were only planted in Marlborough in the 1970’s their success is amazing.
Now used to having wine as a major export earner, many are concerned too much reliance is placed on Sauvignon Blanc. What happens if the world tires of it in the way that the once favourite Chardonnay fell victim to ABC–the ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ movement.
New Zealand does have other strings to its bow. Pinot Noir from further south, in the chilly Central Otago district, has pundits crying superlatives. More akin to Oregon than Burgundy’s Pinot, the Kiwi’s are producing wines of stunning fruit purity. On the North Island some excellent Bordeaux style blends featuring Cabernet and Merlot are being made in the Hawkes Bay region, and there’s also some solid Syrahs.
Less mainstream varieties are starting to appear including Tempranillo and Montepulciano, but all these are red.
The white variety that is probably New Zealand’s next calling card is Pinot Gris. Yes, it’s the same variety as Pinot Grigio but using the Gris suffix shows the Kiwi’s are making an entirely different style. Serious, dry and full bodied, with a depth of flavour and long finish. New Zealand Pinot Gris seems to have that stamp of difference about it which makes a style of wine that a region can claim for its own.
Meanwhile winemakers are giving Sauvignon Blanc different textures by using wild yeast, in-barrel fermentations and oak aging,
Classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with its nettle flavours and crisp acidity will be there for as long as the world clamours for it, but the Kiwi’s do have other eggs in their basket.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.