Sauvignon Blanc – the Dark Horse of the Wine World

Even as recently as 25 years ago, the suggestion that Sauvignon Blanc would become the most popular grape variety – of either colour – in Britain, the most competitive wine market in the world, would have been dismissed as fanciful. Robert Joseph looks back at this unlikely success story.

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In Britain, one bottle of wine in every seven is Sauvignon Blanc (Photo: Siegfried/Adobe Stock)
In Britain, one bottle of wine in every seven is Sauvignon Blanc (Photo: Siegfried/Adobe Stock)

 

  • Sauvignon Blanc is now by far the most popular grape variety in the UK,
  • In the 1970s, this was a variety that commanded little respect outside the Loire.
  • New Zealand created the modern style of Sauvignon Blanc and influenced other countries.
  • Winemakers globally focused on better clones, canopy management, harvest dates, winemaking techniques, including cold fermentation, selected yeasts and enzymes to create style profiles that are popular with consumers – in the UK and elsewhere.
  • Chile has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend, with Concha y Toro now producing the third best-selling Sauvignon Blanc in the UK, and launching a new premium example of the grape.

 

In Britain, one bottle of wine in every seven – in value terms – is full of Sauvignon Blanc. This white grape towers over every other variety, with a share that is nearly as large as the next two varieties, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, combined, and not much smaller than the total of the following three: Malbec, Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz.

Sauvignon Blanc’s predominance is slightly less dramatic in volume terms, but it is still way ahead of the rest of the pack.

Early reception

Anyone who has followed the last three or four decades of wine drinking in the UK, still one of the most influential nations on earth, would acknowledge that this success was totally unpredictable.

In 1966, when Hugh Johnson published his first book, WINE, he wrote that Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé served “the same purpose as Muscadet” and were “drunk young, often in their first year”. They were “very dry and light in alcohol… good value alternatives to cheap-to-medium white Burgundy [that] might seem thin and insubstantial at first, especially in winter.” Sauvignon Blanc went unmentioned as a variety in Johnson’s chapter on white Bordeaux despite its role in the white dry and “medium-sweet” Graves wines that were one of the most popular basic white wines in Britain”.

With a few exceptions, he said, Graves “rarely has much to say for itself. A smell of sulphor hangs around a lot of it, like the air around a gas-works. Graves, unqualified, is normally a thing to be avoided.”

When, in that same year, Robert Mondavi began to experiment with Sauvignon Blanc grapes purchased from a grower in Napa, there was little US demand for the variety. Most examples were cheap and sweet, which explains why he christened the oaked version he launched two years later ‘Fumé Blanc’, to set it apart.

Global Ambition

Then, in 1975, Frank Yukich, the largely self-educated son of immigrants who’d come to New Zealand from what was then known as Yugoslavia but was, in fact, Croatia, unknowingly changed the wine world – by planting a small block of Sauvignon Blanc in his vineyard in Marlborough, on the South Island. This was a second throw of the dice for Yukich. Two years earlier, with investment from the Canadian drinks giant in his Montana wine company, he had planted other varieties in land previously used for sheep grazing, boldly declaring that “wines from here will become world-famous”.

Despite his confidence, that 1973 effort was largely unsuccessful, but he persevered. The Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir with which he replaced those early failures were a brave choice at a time when New Zealand’s most popular variety was Muller Thurgau.

In 1979, Montana winery’s first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was released and shipped to Seagram’s highly influential UK chain of wine shops, Oddbins. It was an almost instant success, and within the decade, I named the 7th vintage Wine of the Year in my 1987 Good Wine Guide. Soon after this, another UK critic, Auberon Waugh, wrote "It's very difficult to be the best in the world at anything, but New Zealand has achieved that distinction with Sauvignon Blanc.”

"It's very difficult to be the best in the world at anything, but New Zealand has achieved that distinction with Sauvignon Blanc.”

In his Wine Atlas, published in 1995, Oz Clarke, another Briton, explained what had set this wine apart. “No previous wine had shocked, thrilled, entranced the world before with such brash, unexpected flavours of gooseberries, passion-fruit and lime, or crunchy green asparagus spears . . . an entirely new, brilliantly successful wine style that the rest of the world has been attempting to copy ever since”.

Today, just over four decades after Frank Yukich planted those first vines, his Montana winery and brand belong to another global giant, Pernod Ricard, and is now called Brancott Estate. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc owes its success to that company and a long list of others, including the Australian David Hohnen’s Cloudy Bay; Yukich’s  brother-in-law George Fistonich’s Villa Maria; Brent Maris’s Wither Hills and The Ned; and Jim and Rose Delegat’s Oyster Bay.

UK Top 10 Varietals (Source: Nielsen IQ)
UK Top 10 Varietals (Source: Nielsen IQ)

No Competitors

In the 1980s, when New Zealand was dazzling the world with its Sauvignon Blanc, it had few competitors. Chile discovered that the variety it was growing under that name was in fact the quite different Sauvignonasse or Friulano. Apartheid-era South African vineyards were very largely affected by leafroll virus that prevented the vines from ripening, and by the industry’s isolation from global trends. While gradually getting a taste for the wines that were being produced by their smaller neighbour, most Australian winemakers took little interest in what was seen as a herbaceous variety that was particularly disliked by Len Evans, one of the most influential members of the industry. In California, the ‘grassy’ style was even less popular, though perversely, Ernest Gallo liked it and included a perfectly decent example in the otherwise lacklustre range of wines sold under the E&J Gallo label. Unsurprisingly, that wine was included in the limited set of the US giant’s wines that were launched in the UK. One of the company’s employees at the time admitted his delight at the listing. “We’re really struggling to sell it in the US, so anything we can ship to you makes our lives easier.”

French professionals who were used to the herbaceousness initially dismissed the tropically New Zealand style as being ‘artificial’, and the result of adding artificial flavours. By 2003, however, when Henri Bourgeois from Sancerre released the first vintage of his Clos Henri wine from Marlborough, they began to take a fresh look at the way they handled this variety. Lower cropping levels, better canopy management and harvest dates all made a huge difference. Producers in other regions also took the variety more seriously, especially South Africa, and Chile which planted carefully selected genuine Sauvignon Blanc clones widely in a number of areas.

Science has played its hand too, with detailed studies into the role thiols, in particular, have to play on Sauvignon Blanc flavour. Experiments by New Zealand producers into fermentation temperatures, yeasts and enzymes have been replicated elsewhere and even when the ambition is to make wine as naturally as possible, there is far greater understanding of how and why this variety behaves in the way it does.

One of the less frequently mentioned results of more sophisticated Sauvignon production is the far greater longevity of modern versions than the short-lived French ones High Johnson wrote about 50 years ago.
 

Chile Fights Back

Concha y Toro's premium Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in Colchagua
Concha y Toro's premium Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in Colchagua

The UK launch in March 2022 of a higher-price Reserva Especial Sauvignon Blanc by Concha y Toro from its Colchagua Vineyards reflects the confidence the Chilean company has in the style, and its long term potential.

Today, anyone who walks into a British pub and asks for a glass of white wine will almost certainly be offered a Sauvignon Blanc.

Stylistically, the new wine is a little less overtly tropical than many traditional New Zealand examples, but many Marlborough producers are toning down their wines too in reaction to critical demand for more ‘serious’ Sauvignon Blanc. The high scores that have been given to South African efforts, and the growing success of ones from southern France are ensuring that, like Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, no one country has any monopoly.

Wine Consumption in UK - Volume (Source: Nielsen IQ)
Wine Consumption in UK - Volume (Source: Nielsen IQ)
Wine Consumption in UK - Value (Source: Nielsen IQ)
Wine Consumption in UK - Value (Source: Nielsen IQ)

Today, anyone who walks into a British pub and asks for a glass of white wine will almost certainly be offered a Sauvignon Blanc, and the same will probably be true in a great many homes. It may come from New Zealand but it might equally have been produced in Chile, South Africa, Languedoc, Romania.or Spain. Total UK retail sales of the variety are now worth nearly £1bn ($1.3bn), £440m ($575m) more than Pinot Grigio, the second most valuable white, and £600m ($785m) more than Malbec, the most popular red.

Quite how Malbec, another unexpected success story in the UK, came from the back of the field to overtake Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is something we will leave for another day…

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