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Field Notes from New Zealand's Sauvignon 2019 Celebration
By Jessica Dupuy
Jan 29, 2019
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I’m on the road this month for two weeks in New Zealand, that sunny, two-island country isolated in the southwest Pacific Ocean.  I once wrote that New Zealand is a nation of superlatives.  The geography, the colors of the landscape, the easy way-of-life, the hospitality of the people, the seafood, all seem to be amped up to a degree unmatched by any other place in the world.  And their wine is no exception.  It’s unique location in the Southern Hemisphere seems to soak in the sun so much more intensely--perhaps because there is literally no ozone above it--and their wines seem to reflect this in their vibrancy and energy. 

We began our trip in Northland, one of the lesser known wine regions of the country located literally on the northern tip of the north island in the Bay of Islands.  This angelic spot is a dream for vacationers who aspire to make “boat life” a part of their world.  This is the land of sailing and yachting, yet without all of the pretention you find in more upscale boating regions of the world.  This island-dappled playground is growing everything from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Syrah to Viognier, Merlot…and Chambourcin!  (The latter in more experimental quantities.)  Sadly, many of these wines never make it out of the region itself, with Auckland being its main outlet for export.  But if you have a chance to visit, the wines of The Landing, Omaha Estate, and Marsden Estate are worth a try.

Next, we headed straight for the northern part of the South Island to Nelson, also a lesser known wine region.  Many would argue that it has long been in the shadow of Marlborough, Central Otago, and Hawkes Bay.  And considering the region only produces about 2% of New Zealand’s overall wine output--very little of which is actually exported--it’s understandably been hidden from view.  But it’s certainly worth discovering.  It’s two primary growing areas are:  The Waimea Plains, made up of clay and a variable patchwork of soils near the coast; and The Upper Moutere, which is known for rolling hills, and clay/gravel soils.  Although you’ll find some beautiful Sauvignon Blancs (Aotea 2018) and Pinot Noirs (Greenhough 2015), Nelson doesn’t fly the flag for any one variety.  Indeed, in one afternoon, we sampled more than 50 wines including a range of varieties from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Syrah, to Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Zwielgelt, and Wurtzer!

But the core of the reason I’m here is for the 2019 Sauvignon Celebration, a bi-annual conference focusing on all aspects of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and how to push it forward into a prosperous future.  But as I’m learning from only the first day of this three-day conference, that push to move forward is not without a lot of introspection, analysis, and refinement.  The pillars of exploration for this conference are “place,” “purity,” and “pursuit,” which are each a focus for New Zealand wine producers. 

The opening sessions included a brief introduction from Master of Wine Emma Jenkins, who made a few points about the importance of wine offering context for the place from which it comes that represents the geography, the people, and the heritage.  She proposed that being mindful of how to frame Sauvignon Blanc’s role in the story of New Zealand wine as it continues to unfold will be key to its ultimate future success. 

“I think we are in a place that is moving into a coming of age,” said Jenkins.  “And there has to be a reckoning when you’re at that point.  We need to ask the question, ‘how do we maintain the control of our Sauvignon Blanc?’  We need to figure out what is the enduring place of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  We need to start thinking about it as a cultural treasure, instead of something that’s just a commodity.”

Jenkins was followed by a provocative keynote speech from noted wine writer, Matt Kramer.  Among his musings from evaluating New Zealand wine in recent decades as well as in the few days leading up to the conference, Kramer suggested that New Zealand is the place that has created a culture of Sauvignon Blanc.  Much in the same way Pinot Noir’s culture began and flourishes in Burgundy, which other key regions across the world including Oregon, California, and New Zealand have simply adopted, or Riesling culture has its naissance in Germany, but has been adopted by Alsace, Australia, and California, Kramer asserts that New Zealand is the birthplace of a culture of Sauvignon Blanc. 

“There is finally a culture of Sauvignon Blanc that is emerging.  It started about 10 years ago.  It started here,” said Kramer.  “You have the scale, which is a prerequisite with more than 20,000 hectares of vines planted.  You have to have capital.  You have a distinction of place.  And the ability to market.  You have all of these things.”

To clarify a little, according to Kramer the birthplace of the variety doesn’t necessarily translate to being the heart and soul of its identity.  In this case, most people know Sauvignon Blanc comes from Europe, and more specifically, France.  But Kramer’s point was that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc’s swift ascent in popularity, identity, and commercial success, gives it enough sway to make it the official epicenter of cultural reference. 

“There is no other culture of Sauvignon Blanc anywhere in the world, except now,” said Kramer who referenced Sancerre as a place many people associate with Sauvignon Blanc. 

But according to him, the history of Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre categorizes it only as a commodity wine following the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th Century.  This is when producers began to realize the formerly planted Chasselas would not take to new American rootstocks very well.  This is when the region turned to Sauvignon Blanc to produce a standard white wine that could be consistently made and sent up to Paris as a table wine. 

He went on to say that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has ascended in its identity today to command an appreciation and understanding by consumers around the world.  This identity is grounded not only in the fact that the wine is recognized by certain flavor descriptors, but also where it is made, how it is grown, and the types of food that pair with it.  For this reason, Kramer believes New Zealand has earned its seat as the epicenter of Sauvignon Blanc culture. 

Honestly, I think the French, and by extension, French wine connoisseurs might have a little trouble buying the idea that New Zealand is the epicenter of Sauvignon Blanc culture.  You only need see a flash of excitement in the eyes of many wine enthusiasts at the mere mention of crisp, lean, vervy Sancerre to know this.  While White Bordeaux may not command as much of an association with the average consumer, those in-the-know certainly appreciate that Sauvignon Blanc from the iconic Bordeaux region is not only delicious when supplemented with the soft and sensuous Semillon, but one of the best white wine values on the market. 

Still, there’s no question that New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc, and “culture,” do all belong in the same sentence.  Just not perhaps in the same sense as the keynote speaker suggests.  I’d argue instead that the rich history of New Zealand’s heritage of guardianship, hospitality, perseverance, and adventure is what constructed a springboard for Sauvignon Blanc to catapult so vibrantly with an altogether new, and dynamic identity.  But that’s no reason to take anything away from what most people in the wine world view as the Old World’s most iconic home of the variety.  In fact, I think it’s a bit audacious.

In the realm of modern wine, there doesn’t have to be an absolute on one varietal having only one identity in one home.  Sure, we’ve romanticized this notion in the Old World with varieties such as Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  But if you ask me, it’s the discovery and progress made in the New World that has proven that romance and sentiment are lovely things to have, but so is the idea of embracing regionality for historic grape varieties in entirely new homes.  It’s what makes the world of wine more complex, and infinitely more compelling. 

Is New Zealand home to a culture of Sauvignon Blanc?  Absolutely.  For all of the reasons that Kramer enumerated, Sauvignon Blanc has indeed found a happy home where it can continue to thrive and authentically represent the place from which it comes.  It’s just that this fact as well as the fact that Sauvignon Blanc has a firm identity in France doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

That’s the beauty of the New World.  You can recognize and appreciate Old World heritage, while at the same time embrace and forge a new path for new opportunity.  In today’s modern wine it’s not a “was it the chicken or the egg” question.  New Zealand’s vibrant culture has laid the foundation for Sauvignon Blanc to find a new home.  In spending the past week among some of the country’s different wine regions, it seems that this fact alone is what drives producers to push the conversation of its promising identity in this New World place.  With a committed focus on place, purity, and a clear pursuit, the pace is set for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to forge a bright future, which is is something I personally look forward to tasting.