All NZís grapes in one basket

05 February, 2010

Letís start this column with something interactive. Iíd like you to find a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left hand side please list your five favourite red grape varieties. You need to be honest here. Donít put down the ones youíre supposed to appreciate

Ė choose what you really enjoy drinking. Now list your least favourite reds on the right.

Iíve played this game all over the world with people who write about, make, import and sell wine and, local preferences notwithstanding, end up with pretty much the same set of results. The top two slots are nearly always taken by Pinot Noir and Syrah/Shiraz, while the next three are taken from a fairly small group of premium varieties: Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Sangiovese.

Over on the other side, itís a more varied bunch, although Pinotage often heads the list of grapes to avoid. Other no-noís include Criolla, Tannat, Dornfelder, Rondo, Chambourcin, Zinfandel in pink form and Ė possibly helped by the famous scene outside the restaurant in the film Sideways Ė Merlot.

Ask a bunch of consumers to do the same thing and Merlot would do much better. This isnít the only example of the gulf between public and professional tastes in wine. Most punters donít like Riesling (partly because they think itís all sweet), but adore Pinot Grigio, a grape that is responsible for some of the most insipid whites on the planet. They also love Sauvignon Blanc.

To what extent should wine producers and retailers give consumers what they want Ė or say they want? Is there no room to change public taste by expanding the number of wine styles on offer? In a recession the temptation is to be more conservative, which is why most supermarkets are cutting their offerings, mostly by dumping more unusual wines in favour of the bland and the branded.

In producing countries, itís even harder to be original. Back the wrong grape, or grapes, or plant in the wrong place and the consequences are potentially ruinous. One trade source told me that 20% of the wineries in California and Australasia are on the market at the moment.

The economic downturn is going to result in significant consolidation in countries where wine businesses owe too much money to the bank. Unless you have an established name, itís getting harder and harder to find places to sell your wine. I canít see this situation improving for a decade or more.

Iím in New Zealand at the moment, visiting wine regions and attending a series of conferences, and the question of what does and does not sell is something everyone is talking about. New Zealand has built its success on the back of one grape variety, Sauvignon Blanc, which is comparatively cheap to grow and mostly sells at a good price. But for how much longer? Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, in particular, is beginning to look like the genie that emerged from the bottle and swallowed the cork. Bulk deals and the resulting cut-price offers (remember Tescoís Oceanís Edge?) done on the back of the large 2008 vintage were said to be a one-off. But the 2009 vintage was even bigger, albeit from an increased vineyard area. Bulk deals at NZ$1.50 a litre are back, leading to talk of Sauvignon plonk in Blenheim.

New Zealand is dangerously over-dependent on a single grape variety. Of the 113 million litres it exported last year, 91.5 million was Sauvignon Blanc. If the price falls because of over-production and unsold wine, it could damage its premium image. If basic Sauvignon Blanc becomes a commodity, the knock-on effect could be dramatic.

The rush to plant Sauvignon, New Zealandís cash cow, has meant that other grapes are under-represented. Take away Pinot Noir (6 million litres exported in 2009), Chardonnay (4.7 million), Pinot Gris (2.03 million) and Merlot (1.93 million) and thereís not a lot else out there in decent quantities. Three of these four grapes produce some fantastic wines in New Zealand (I remain unconvinced about Merlot), but there are two further varieties that have huge potential.

Riesling, both off-dry and dry, and Syrah have provided me with some of the most thrilling aromas and flavours of my trip. The latter is especially brilliant, making world-class wines in Hawkes Bay, Martinborough and on Waiheke Island. But guess how much Riesling and Syrah New Zealand exported last year? Combined they were less than 1% of the total.

The fact that Riesling and, in the US, Syrah can be hard to sell, makes producers even more reluctant to plant them. But plant them they must if New Zealand is to develop a following for more than Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The quality is already there, all the Kiwis need now is a few more punters prepared to expand their drinking horizons.

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