Sauvignon Shocks from NZ

April may be the cruellest month in the northern hemisphere “breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain” as TS Eliot noted last century. Advance the seasons by six months for the southern hemisphere and its October. And its been a cruel month indeed for SA Sauvignon Blanc. First came the Wine Wars over how one producer, Hermit on the Pill, cannily seemed to use the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group to further his own wines, in a most enterprising fashion.

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Then comes a bombshell from the UK, largest export market for SA wine, both bottled and bulk including fair volumes of transshipped bulk exported from Argentina and Chile, which has its own large Sauvignon machine, if you listen to rumours rife in the Winelands. Mrs. Robinson, wine wizard on the Weekend Financial Times, reports today “‘Once, other countries were deeply envious of New Zealand’s having an emblematic grape, but now it’s decidedly out of fashion.”

It’s Elgin writ large. Producers in the land that invented kiwi fruit are moving away from simple Sauvignon to Pinot Noir. Sauvignon is a no-brainer: good yields, cheap to make as there’s no need for expensive oak and a crisp and dry style that can hide a huge dose of sugar consumers like. And its easy to pick blind – confusion with Semillon not withstanding – which makes everyone feel like Christian Eedes, the one man anti-green brigade, for a day. If they want to.

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Two thirds of NZ vineyards are planted to the varietal and 85% of the wine they sell in the UK is made from the stuff. NZ had the highest average wine price in the world. However “fans of this wine style can now easily find similar wines made elsewhere, particularly in South Africa, Chile, Australia and Touraine in the Loire – often at lower prices”. So NZ producers are rapidly abandoning ship faster than a Somali refugee on seeing Lampedusa loom over the horizon.

“Diversity is in, and it was notable that when three of New Zealand’s finest wine producers trekked separately to London recently, of more than 50 wines they showed, not one was a Sauvignon Blanc.” They’re embracing Pinot Noir with the overwhelming majority of Jancis’s laundry list devoted to the heartbreak grape. Exactly the same thing is happening in Elgin where the finest wines today are either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Its Burgundy over die Berg.

So has FNB backed the wrong horse with their annual Top Ten Sauvignon Show? Did the marketing department screw the pooch in backing something with “blanc” (white) in the name? Certainly looks that way. Meanwhile SA wine looks forward to Pinot prophet Emile Joubert, freshly returned from a sojourn in a coconut on Zanzibar, where he sipped DRC through a straw, to sign up Capitec Bank to fund a Pinot Noir Palimpsest featuring some fresh and vibrant tasters in place of the compromised business-as-usual sipping status quo. PNP – heck maybe the newly resurrected Pick ‘n Pay could take it on board as a special project. How about it Richard Brasher? Couple a rising varietal to your corporate wagon.

As Jancis signed off “there should be absolutely no doubt that New Zealand has very much more to offer than Sauvignon Blanc.” And SA too.