Sauvignon Blanc's no gooseberry

05 September, 2008

Some grape varieties are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. It's only my opinion, but of the so-called Big Six I'd put Pinot Noir and Riesling in the first camp, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in the second and Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc in the third. Deciding where other grapes belong - and which of them stumble some way short of greatness - is an amusing parlour game. Just think about it: where would you put Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, Grüner Veltliner, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional? Not so easy, is it?


these grape varieties have their advocates and critics. Increasingly, they have their own conferences too. Over the course of my long and not so distinguished career, I've been to gatherings devoted to the wonders of Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris (and other aromatics), Carignan, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Tempranillo and Muscat. As of last week, I can add Sauvignon Blanc to the list, having attended the first World Sauvignon Blanc conference in Graz, Austria.

Why Sauvignon Blanc? Well, according to the organisers, Sauvignon is the second most planted white grape variety in the world with 80,000ha spread across countries as diverse as France, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Australia, the U S, Italy, Argentina and, er, Austria. Styria may only be home to 400ha of Sauvignon (a

10th of the Loire's area under vine), but in Tement, Polz, Groß and Sattlerhof it has a quartet of very respectable producers.

Sauvignon Blanc is one of the world's oldest varieties. Its origins lie in the Central Loire Valley, where vine geneticists think it began life as a crossing of Traminer and Chenin Blanc. For all that, its rise to international prominence is very recent. It's only in the

past 25 years that Sauvignon Blanc has truly arrived.

Before that, I suspect

very few people knew (or cared) that Sancerre was made from Sauvignon Blanc.

The modern Sauvignon Blanc ­revolution began in New Zealand in

early 1973, the year when the first vines were planted in Marlborough.

In the intervening quarter of a century, Sauvignon Blanc has transformed the local landscape. Marlborough is now the world's most important Sauvignon Blanc region by far, with 9,650ha of New Zealand's 11,531ha of producing (Sauvignon) vineyards. In 25 years, one southern hemisphere region has planted nearly three times as much Sauvignon Blanc as the Loire Valley. You see what I mean about greatness being thrust upon it?

Just as Merlot should thank Château Pétrus for establishing its credentials as a front rank variety in the eyes of wine consumers, so Sauvignon Blanc should doff its hat to Cloudy Bay. Without this most dynamic of New Zealand brands, helped by the likes of Hunter's, Montana, Stoneleigh and Jackson Estate, the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc phenomenon would not exist. It's easy to forget that Cloudy Bay's first vintage was as recent as 1985.

For all its success, Sauvignon is not as highly regarded as Riesling or Chardonnay by wine professionals. But what do we know? Sauvignon is not yet as popular as Chardonnay (a grape variety that is all things to all men - or rather women), but in the UK at least it is way ahead of Riesling. According to the latest Nielsen stats, Sauvignon Blanc is outperforming the market (up by 9%

volume and 14%

value, compared with 2% and 5% overall) and is now the fourth best selling variety behind Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon.

More to the point, Sauvignon's average bottle price is £4.93, a full 83p above the market mean. This is partly to do with the value of Kiwi Sauvignon (£6.44), but if you look at the top six exporters to the UK, it is part of a general trend. Only Chile (34% of the market; £3.93) is an exception.

The other five are ahead of the game: New Zealand (30.8%; £6.44), France (8.7%; £4.12), South Africa (8.4%; £4.83), Australia (7.6%; £5.13) and the US

(6.6%; £4.63).

In other words, consumers are generally prepared to pay more for Sauvignon Blanc, from a variety of origins, than they are for most other grapes. At a time when supermarkets are competing with one another to introduce larger ranges of "value" wines under £4, Sauvignon Blanc offers an alternative. If punters are happy to pay more for Sauvignon, we should encourage them to drink it, wherever it comes from.

Sauvignon Blanc is great for producers and retailers alike. It's comparatively cheap and easy to make (in most cases wineries pick it, ferment it in stainless steel and release it young), it has a relatively narrow range of styles (grassy, mineral, tropical/gooseberry and barrel-fermented), it's easy to pronounce and recognise and punters like drinking it.

Sauvignon Blanc is that rarity in the wine world: a profitable commodity. The sooner we wine professionals embrace it, the better.

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