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NZ Sauv Grapes are a Sore Point for OZ

Posted: Tuesday, 05 February 2013 16:34

NZ Sauv Grapes are a Sore Point for OZ

Feb 05: Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough region in New Zealand's Marlborough has caused a ‘Sauvalanche’ in Australia, becoming its top-selling white wine with a 39% share of the retail white wine market, thus becoming a sore point for the Aussie winemakers who term it as the McDonald’s of wines and rue their drinkers ignoring their own wines in favour of the neighbouring country’s export with no immediate respite in sight

New Zealand sauvignon blanc overtook chardonnay as Australia's biggest-selling white wine in March 2009. This varietal now accounts for 39 per cent of all white wine sold at retail in Australia and the vast majority of it is from New Zealand. Chardonnay comes a distant second at 20 per cent of retail white wine sales. The Sauvalanche has left chardonnay and other white wines far behind in popularity.

Of the 20 top-selling sauvignon blanc in Australia, 17 are from New Zealand and three are a domestic produce, according to a report in the Sunday Morning Herald. The exponential rise in the sale of NZ sauv blanc has slowed, but it still grew 10 per cent last year. Overall wine sales in Australia reportedly increased by $415 million during the last  five years, but only $89 million of the increase was enjoyed by the domestic  wines (excluding  private labels by retailers). Interestingly $270 million was attributed to NZ imports - almost all of it being sauv blanc.

James Agnew, former chairman of the New South Wales Wine Strategy calls these wines as the McDonald's of wines.' ''You can go all over the world but a Big Mac is still a Big Mac,'' he says even as others describe them as ‘too acidic’, ‘can't abide it - green vegetable acid’, ‘'They all taste the same’,  ‘one-dimensional’, ‘become homogenised, obvious, generic', 'one-trick pony’ or similar adjectives depending upon the degree of jealousy, envy, plain snobbery or the extent their business has been affected.

Earlier, Wine Australia, the official national agency to promote Aussie wines had played the patriotic card last month by exhorting the Aussie wine drinkers to avoid the Sauvignon Blanc from across the Tasman in favour of a top local drop.

The noted American wine writer George M. Taber once quoted a critic, saying, ''Drinking your first New Zealand sauvignon blanc is like having sex for the first time." The Aussie detractors retort, ''Yes, first sex: smelt a bit funny - and a short finish. It left you distinctly unsatisfied.”

This is precisely what makes Australians longing for that ‘first time’ and novices in India to love the NZ sauvignon blanc-be it the Montana or the ubiquitous Villa Maria or the over-priced, branded but delicious Cloudy Bay. In fact, it is difficult to find a wine drinker in India who does not love sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, despite the rather single dimension and homogenous flavour as perceived by the Aussie winemakers. If there is one wine that ought to be offered to a person who is drinking for the first time, is a glass of Marlborough. The fruity wine with gooseberry (Indian rusbhury) flavour, it is obvious that there are millions who are in the market for the ‘first sex’ experience and an aggressive push by Villa Maria is an example of NZ trying to spread its wings into India in a concerted manner. If there is a barrier, it is only the price factor-the NZ varietal costs upwards of 3-4 times that of the domestic avatar available in plenty.

The Kiwi dominance was fuelled by a grape glut in 2009, and by a big discounting drive by New Zealand sauvignon blanc producers. ''We lost 30 per cent of sales of our white Cricket Pitch - I'd say directly to New Zealand sauvignon blanc,'' says a wary producer, adding ''The more people who drank it, the more you had to stay drinking it because all your friends were drinking it.'' The fall in price seems to have been passed on partially to the importers in India and with the promotional drive they have become a practical option for the consumers even for the wine-by-the-glass programmes in the restaurants with wine vision.

So why is it so successful? ''The same reason that Starbucks and McDonald's are successful. 95 per cent of drinkers are not discerning but ''sheep-like'' in their buying habits.”

Peter Hubscher is considered a pioneer of sauvignon blanc in New Zealand. He planted the first grapes in 1973 in 20 hA of land in Marlborough- then known for sheep grazing. The first commercial vintage in 1980 had a distinctive new taste. This started what looks like industrial-scale planting and a billion-dollar export industry for NZ. Quite wary of the detractors, the retired wine maker says ''It was aromatic, crisp, refreshing and flavoursome.'' He is not concerned about what the ''wine intelligentsia'' might think about it: ''They probably didn't like the Beatles, either,'' he says.

The Australian critics do realise their mistake in ignoring the early warnings by wine drinkers who loved the distinct flavours ‘that came from nowhere’. Australians are known to have pushed the big chardonnays with lot of oiliness, butteriness and oak that won them competitions but drinkers didn't really love it. In fact, the sauv blanc invasion forced the Australians to innovate and move to lighter, fresher and crispier chardonnays.

It may be wishful thinking yet, but the Australians are smelling change; that the NZ SBs best days may be behind; that it will become a victim of its own success, as chardonnay did; that the decade old sauv blanc fad  may be coming to an end. Experts are predicting a significant shift in market share over the next three years to Australian wine, particularly from family-run vineyards. The growth rate of New Zealand imports shows signs of slowing. The Marlborough pioneers like Hubscher agree that wine is a fickle game. He says, "I've watched the riesling craze, the chardonnay binge and the sauvignon blanc fad, and in 10 years the world may be looking for a new taste sensation.''

However, when he says we should be wary of wine snobs, ''You should drink wine to enjoy it, not because you should be seen to enjoy it,'' it equally applies to wine drinkers in India.

As for those who believe that 95 per cent of drinkers are not discerning but follow the herd when it comes to drinking wines and that the NZ Sauv Blanc are like McDonald’s- they would do well to look under the big M (for Marlborough?!)- ‘I’m Lovin’ it.’

* Marlborough would need to check with McDonald’s for any copyright infringements-editor

Tags: Chardonnay, New South Wales Wine Strategy, Wine Australia, Montana, Villa Maria, Cloudy Bay, Marlborough


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