The Sauvignon success story

by | Apr 1, 2016 | Production

Sauvignon 2016, The International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration, was held in February.

Kiwi confidence and Sauvignon success go hand in hand. South Africa can learn from New Zealand’s rapid rise in the world of wine, driven mainly by its conquering cultivar, Sauvignon Blanc.


New Zealand is a hugely impressive place, despite being two islands with a population smaller than that of the Western Cape. Its rise as a wine-producing region has been quite astonishing, particularly considering that its star performer – Sauvignon Blanc – was only planted in Marlborough four decades ago.

Marlborough, which has become synonymous with Sauvignon, has seen vineyard plantings triple since 2000.

The demand for New Zealand’s wine supply has exceeded supply, with the value exports to the lucrative US market now topping R15 billion. Perhaps kiwis can’t fly, but their wines certainly do.

Other Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc figures that are the stuff of envy for any wine producer include yields of between 12 and 17 tonnes per hectare in mechanised vineyards and premium grape prices exceeding R25 000 per tonne.



New Zealand may be one of the smaller players in the wine industry but it boasts among the highest average price per bottle globally. South Africa, also a relatively small player, is unfortunately at the other end of the scale. While New Zealand barely exports bulk wine, South Africa has one of the lowest average bulk wine prices.

On several occasions at the conference it was highlighted that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc should in fact not try to compete with South Africa and Chile, but maintain a price tier higher than theirs. The obsession with value is commendable and has certainly paid off.

South Africa’s Sauvignon ambassadors are Charles Hopkins of De Grendel, Dr Carien Coetzee of Stellenbosch University and Thys Louw of Diemersdal.


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Export figures in New Zealand are generally presented in terms of value, unlike in South Africa where only volume is reported. The change to thinking in terms of value instead of volume is a critical mind shift which could benefit the current state of the industry.


Big brands, most notably Cloudy Bay, have played a critical role in establishing Brand Wine New Zealand globally. Large wineries such as Villa Maria, Saint Claire, Oyster Bay and Yealands Estate are able to make world-class wines at equally impressive volumes.

Jane Crawford, the managing principal of Loveblock Vineyards in Marlborough, estimates there are several single New Zealand brands that export in excess of one million cases of 12 bottles each a year. This represents significantly more international high-volume brands than South Africa offers, while the New Zealand wines also sell at satisfactory prices. PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Richard Longman emphasises that scalability, reliable distribution and strong brands are key to New Zealand’s success.


While South Africa has built its international brand on diversity of wine styles, New Zealand has specialised and become the master of one variety. The merits of both approaches are debatable and complex. The Kiwis undoubtedly fear the day Sauvignon Blanc becomes unfashionable and follows the same road as Australian Chardonnay just as its neighbour’s Sauvignon took off.

While New Zealand’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah have recently proven their worth, Sauvignon Blanc is still the main focus and comprises more than 70% of total plantings. This was confirmed by New Zealand Winegrowers CEO Phillip Gregan. “Marlborough and Sauvignon together are greater than the standalone parts. A lot greater!” he says, arguing that the biggest threat to New Zealand’s wine industry is complacency. But then he hastens to add, “We should do what we did in the 1980s: Be in the market and listen to the consumer. That has been an industry strength.”


Speaking at the conference American wine writer Matt Kramer highlighted that Americans love success and this is part of the reason they love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The New Zealanders shine with convincing confidence in their wines. Their can-do confidence has been part of their road to success.

Take their approach to frost, a major concern in Marlborough. Yes, a cool climate results in those characteristic New Zealand aromatics but it also leads to significant frost risk. This has not deterred the Kiwis and massive fans throughout the valleys indicate that long-term investment was crucial to mitigate this threat.

Wineries still budget millions of New Zealand dollars for frost prevention but if the high-yielding vines produce high-value grapes it’s worth the expense.


The vast majority of plantings in Marlborough are of the Sauvignon Blanc clone that Kiwis refer to as MS. An abbreviation for “mass selection”, MS refers to the UCD1 clone, which was imported to South Africa by Vititec in 1997 but has never really gained popularity. Diemersdal’s Thys Louw is now establishing an MS vineyard and others are likely to follow suit. There are almost 9 000 MS mother block plants in South Africa and there’s no reason why it should not be planted more.


“If a shark does not move forward it dies. The same rule applies to Sauvignon Blanc,” American wine writer and consultant Leslie Sbrocco once quipped.

Deemed to be in the middle of a “sensible midlife crisis” according to Kramer, Sauvignon Blanc needs to maintain a fine balance to remain exciting and relevant without losing what has been the key to its success: recognisability and typicity.

The ever-impactful wine commentator Robert Joseph argues that although Sauvignon Blanc needs to reinvent itself, “winemakers should not throw the baby out with the bathwater”. He mentions several winemaking innovations – from unusual blends to skin fermentations – but maintains communication with consumers is key, particularly because Sauvignon Blanc drinkers value its recognisable flavour profile.

Fellow speaker and perennially influential wine writer Oz Clarke agrees, adding that the so-called Wild Bunch should be an addition to the category but should not influence mainstream styles.


The Wild Bunch tasting was presented to showcase new and unusual styles of Sauvignon Blanc from around the world and was certainly my tasting highlight of the conference. The alternative selection ranged from terroir-driven, single-vineyard selections to barrel and skin-fermented wines. There were also stations with more commercial styles, which could be the key to further volume growth.

Like in South Africa, blends with Sémillon are often partially wooded and the love of winemakers but are not as mainstream as their straight Sauvignon counterparts. Wild ferments on the other hand are often produced in larger volumes, with former Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd’s Greywacke Wild Sauvignon being a good example. He prefers open canopies and a portion of the wine is fermented by “indigenous yeasts”, resulting in more blossoms and grapefruit and piercing herbaceous notes.

The Kiwis are experimenting and many of the wines from some of the bigger brands were marked “R&D sample”.


New Zealand has identified low-alcohol wines as a potential growth category and several established brands presented their offerings. Quirky names such as Easy Tiger and The Doctor hint that the wines are not serious, but they’re selling and have certainly captured a niche market.


“Fizz is the shameful secret of Sauvignon Blanc, but why?” asks Joseph. The number of sparkling Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand has increased substantially and the aim is to benefit from the remarkable popularity of Prosecco. The wines are refreshing but certainly not complex. Doesn’t the same opportunity apply to South Africa?


The faces of my fellow-South African delegates lit up every time South Africa was mentioned as a threat to New Zealand. And rightly so! The South African wines that were presented – including Sauvignons from Spier, Kleine Zalze and Cederberg – were well received and had no reason to stand back in terms of quality.

South Africa was however often mentioned in terms of pricing. Chile and South Africa are regarded as good quality options at a lower price point than top dog New Zealand. But it would really shake the cage if quality and not just value becomes a hallmark of South African Sauvignon. This is anything but impossible. In fact we might be ahead of New Zealand in certain aspects.

To keep interest in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc alive more emphasis is being placed on regionality in Marlborough and other regions such as Waiheke Island. South African Sauvignon Blancs already offer the unique regionality and diversity that New Zealand is trying to claim.

The Marlborough success story is widely believed to have lifted the entire Sauvignon Blanc category. This shouldmean there are prospects for other Sauvignon Blancs in the Kiwis’ most important market – America. South African Sauvignon has many good things going for it but bigger, quality brands are necessary to seize the opportunity and gain a better foothold in the US.

mean there are prospects for other Sauvignon Blancs in the Kiwis’ most important market – America. South African Sauvignon has many good things going for it but bigger, quality brands are necessary to seize the opportunity and gain a better foothold in the US.

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