New Zealand is renowned for a couple of things: Rugby’s Haka, Lord of the Rings, sheep, and Sauvignon Blanc. But why is the world so madly in love with Kiwi Savvy B? Find out what prompted a local winemaker to produce and bottle a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc under his own label.
Since taking the global market by storm in the 90s, demand for New Zealand’s wine, and more specifically its Sauvignon Blanc, has showed no signs of abating.
New Zealand’s wine output accounts for little over 1% of the world’s total, yet the country’s winemakers and marketers have turned a scarcely known, little-loved grape into a global phenomenon.
According to the latest report from New Zealand Winegrowers, the country exported a massive 231 million litres of Sauvignon Blanc in 2019.
The report also states that international demand for New Zealand wine is at an all-time high with total export value reaching a record $1.83 billion (R17 billion).
Wine writer Emile Joubert says the perception profile of New Zealand plays an enormous role in the country’s success. “Its image of a far-flung, green, sparsely populated agriculture island that’s in sync with nature plays a huge role in creating attractive perceptions to the consumer. With today’s emphasis on sustainability, the message is more attractive and relevant that ever.”
In 1995, there were only 6 000 ha of vineyards in New Zealand. Today, there’s approximately 26 000 ha in Marlborough alone. Emile says most of the wine families are only just in their first or second generation. However, they’re dynamic in all fields of agriculture, and especially in wine.
Mad for Marlborough
Marlborough is New Zealand’s prime winegrowing and Sauvignon Blanc region. With the first vines planted in 1973, the region boasts 141 wine companies and 510 growers.
Emile says Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc has a unique flavour profile due to its geographical origin. With rainfall of 650 mm per year, plenty of sunshine (2 400 hours per year) and moderate temperatures averaging 12 °C in winter and 26 °C in summer, the region’s cool climate allows Sauvignon Blanc to thrive. The eastern coastal aspect of the region bestows cooling sea breezes and protective mountains provide relief from extreme rain and wind.
The Diemersdal experiment
Thys Louw, owner and winemaker at Diemersdal Wine Estate in Durbanville, has travelled 11 000 km to Marlborough to hand-pick his grapes and produce authentic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for bottling and distribution under the Diemersdal label in South Africa. “It was an eye-opening experience when I first visited New Zealand in 2016 and got the chance to experience Marlborough’s commitment to Sauvignon Blanc,” he says.
He adds that in the wine industry, very little would happen were it not for crazy, off-beat ideas like this. “The vineyard practices and obsession with Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough was amazing to experience.” Thys has been producing Sauvignon Blanc locally for close on 20 years, but his experience in New Zealand was “new, inspiring and overwhelming.”
Thys teamed up with well-known local winemaker Ben Glover from Glover Family Vineyards to initiate project Diemersdal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. “Ben is a hands-on guy. He has access to the fruit from Dillon’s Point sub-region, exactly what I was looking for. We instantly hit it off. He didn’t think this South African wanting to make Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough and lug it back 11 000 km to the Cape was a crazy idea. So that was a good start.”
While Thys was back at Diemersdal attending to his own harvest season, Ben picked the grapes for Diemersdal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at the end of March 2018. The must and juice was handled anaerobically to guard against any potential oxidation and to maintain juice freshness. The juice was co-fermented with a combination of yeasts to enhance some of the characteristic thiol notes, but to maintain the vibrant ripe herbaceous notes of the vineyard. Average time for fermentation was two weeks at between 12-13 °C with the aim to drop 1.5 °B a day.
The wine was left on gross yeast lees for another three to four weeks before racking into a tank with some of the lighter lees. Tanks were stirred weekly for texture and mouthfeel. The wine was lightly fined to polish and stabilise before bottling, which was done in August.
Several things stood out for Thys while witnessing the Kiwi winemakers in action. “Vineyard practices the likes I have never seen. Focused, hard-working and what I really liked about them is that they don’t mess around. They get the job done. Due to them being a nation of farmers, I felt we had a special connection.”
“Now I have another Sauvignon Blanc option for my customers. As they say in the classics, always keep them guessing.”
Taste of intensity
Dr Carien Coetzee, managing director of Basic Wine, says Marlborough’s high concentration of thiols is one of the biggest reasons for Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc success.
She says Marlborough’s thiol levels are considerably higher than South Africa’s – in some cases up to 100 times higher. “We see extreme levels that you wouldn’t ever see here in South Africa.”
According to Carien, the high thiol levels can be attributed to the region’s climate. “The region is particularly suited for Sauvignon Blanc and the unique impact compounds really gives it that specific flavour and intensity. It also has a lot to do with the specific vineyard practices of New Zealand and Marlborough wine producers to optimise the thiol expression in the grapes and wine.”
A first of its kind
This is the first attempt by any South African wine brand to produce wine in a different country and label it under its own brand back on home soil. It’s an unusual project, but does Thys foresee a future trend?
“No, this is the first time anything like this has ever been done. Now I’ve got 10 000 bottles to sell, so that will determine how much of a future trend it’s going to be. We have, however, been amazed by the interest shown, which is very inspiring.”
He says there are some New Zealand wines being imported, namely Dog Point and Cloudy Bay, but it’s always going to be a specialist proposition. “With Sauvignon Blanc being one of South Africa’s top-selling single varietal wine, there’s a demand – albeit limited – to taste New Zealand wine. By putting Diemersdal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc into the market we hope to offer our customers the taste of Marlborough, but under a label they can relate to.”