If one of the speakers at an Australian wine industry seminar in the late 1970s had said that Chardonnay would be the most popular white wine in Australia within the next 20 years, everybody would have laughed. There was hardly any planted at that time and the first commercial bottling of Chardonnay was being released by Tyrrell's around about then. The rest is history.
When I tasted my first sip of the rare and exotic Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc on Sydney's Palm Beach one glorious summer evening in the 1980s, I would have scoffed at anybody who might have said that Sauvignon Blanc would one day be the most ubiquitous white wine in Australia.
The Australian wine industry is not good at assessing what is going to be the next big thing, despite the fact that we do know that most consumers are always looking for something new. How many times in the past 20 years have we been told about the 'great Riesling revival'
that has been about to happen? Who would have predicted the current popularity of Rosé 10-15 years ago? So what's the next big thing in white wines?
Savagnin the Challenger
The one most likely to become the next big thing although probably not rivaling Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, but certainly challenging Viognier, Arneis and Pinot Grigio, is Savagnin. Savagnin originally came to Australia miscast as Albariño until 2008 when it was identified as Savagnin by a visiting ampelographer.
Thus the variety has only effectively had a four- year track record in Australia. According to Wine Australia there were 115ha of Savagnin planted in Australia in 2009-2010 compared to 158ha of Arneis, which has been around for almost a decade longer. According to Darby Higgs'
journal Vinodiversity, there are 42 Savagnin producers in Australia.
They are also probably the only producers of varietal Savagnin in the world, because in Europe it seems to be used only for making 'Vin Jaune', a yellow wine, a sort of unfortified Sherry style of wine.
Of the Australian Savagnin producers, I have tried 24 wines, many of them at the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show in Mildura.
While the style and quality of the Savagnin vary considerably, the underlying varietal character and flavour of this grape has been there in every wine. This gives the variety an advantage over most of the other 'new' whites as drinkers can know what to expect. By comparison, for example, Pinot Gris/Grigio wines run the gamut of flavours- from searing acidity to sweetish lolly water, so that the new consumer rarely knows what they are going to get; much like it used to be when one bought a bottle of 'Fume Blanc' in the 1980s.
This variability is not conducive to growing the sales of the variety.
Every single white wine drinker whom I have tried Savagnin with, has liked the variety because of its character and depth of flavour. I have heard it described as "a bit like Riesling but with greater texture", which I think is apt. Almost all of the producers I have contacted have reported healthy sales and great interest in the variety.
Savagnin producers have a unique opportunity to not only engage Australian wine drinkers with the variety, but also to make the world associate this wonderful variety with Australia, in the same way the wine world associates Malbec with Argentina, Pinotage with South Africa, and Carmen ere with Chile, or, closer to home, Semillon with the Hunter. Australia had the opportunity to do this with Verdelho but the quality of the wines was too variable and there was no combined promotional effort.
If Savagnin producers band together to form an association and make a concerted effort to promote Savagnin to the world, they have the opportunity of not only significantly increasing sales of this variety, but making it synonymous with Australia. They don't have to spend a fortune if they create a common platform and theme. They can either do nothing, hoping for the variety to take off, bearing in mind how many other 'new' varieties have succeeded over the years, or they can contact one another and take steps towards securing Savagnin a long term advantage in this incredibly competitive industry.
Dan Traucki is the principal of Wine Assist Pty Ltd, wine industry logistics and marketing consultancy. He started out as an accountant before joining the wine industry 16 years ago. His involvement during that time has included strategic positions of general manager of a medium-sized winery and chief executive officer of a smaller winery. Dan can be contacted on (08) 8382 4920 (phone/fax), 0408 801 795 (Mobile) or