WITH its zingy flavours and refreshing acidity, Sauvignon Blanc has cemented its position as Britain’s favourite white wine.
Figures released earlier this week by retail analysts at Nielsen showed that sales grew by 9 per cent in value during 2015 to hit £661 million and another 9 per cent in volume to 454,000 hectolitres – or 605,000 bottles.
Pinot Grigio sales dipped by 1 per cent to a distant second at £420m, staying ahead of sales of Chardonnay, which were down by 2 per cent to £419m.
Britons spent £6 on average for a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, compared with £5.17 for Pinot Grigio or £5.23 for Chardonnay.
And one country in particular has become synonymous with Britain’s thirst for Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealand.
At its best, the wine is packed full of savoury asparagus and green pepper flavours or fruity gooseberry or guava notes.
At its worst, it’s like paint-stripper, with the high acidity burning through any fruity flavours and leaving behind just mouth- and eye-watering tartness.
Data from trade body New Zealand Wine shows that 72 per cent of all the wines produced in the country are Sauvignon Blanc, with the varietal accounting for a whopping 88 per cent of exports.
And if New Zealand equals Sauvignon Blanc in the mind of drinkers then one region is at the heart of quenching that thirst.
Some 88 per cent of all the Sauvignon Blanc planted in New Zealand is grown in Marlborough, a region at the northern end of the South Island.
Other countries – notably Chile and South Africa, both of which also produce delicious wines from the variety – would pay good money to have an international “brand” as all-conquering as Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, while winemakers in the Loire Valley in France, the grape’s spiritual home, must sometimes scratch their heads and wonder why their Pouilly-Fumé or Sancerre doesn’t attract as much attention.
But what would happen if drinkers suddenly went off Sauvignon Blanc? To what would New Zealand’s winemakers turn in order to fill the gap?
Those were the questions posed by wine brand Villa Maria during a dinner and debate held in the glitzy surroundings of BAFTA on Tuesday night.
The company – which also owns fellow New Zealand labels Esk Valley and Vidal – invited along three experts to argue the cases for “What direction should New Zealand winemaking take for the future?”
New Zealand-born Peter McCombie was asked to champion a “regions” approach, promoting areas such as Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Nelson outside Marlborough, while his fellow Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb was handed the task of arguing in favour of a “grape varieties” focus, singing the praises of a cast of characters that included Albarino, Arneis and Sauvignon Gris.
Joe Wadsack had perhaps the hardest job by being asked to speak in favour of a “premium” strategy, focusing on wines selling around or above £20 a bottle.
Each expert rose to their respective challenge though, with Rebecca’s argument winning the day, although the organisers recognised that a combination of all three approaches struck the loudest chord with the audience.
So what can we expect from New Zealand in the future?
The wines served with the dishes at the BAFTA dinner perhaps offer some indication.
We started with a hot smoked mackerel and tomato salad, with which was served the 2016 Admiralty Bay Nelson Sauvignon Blanc, which is launching in the UK in August.
Keep your eyes peeled for this one – the savoury asparagus and green pepper flavours of the wine were concentrated enough to balance its refreshing acidity yet they didn’t overpower the delicately-smoked fish.
Te Awa Left Field Albarino 2015 (£12.95, Vino Wines) was the star of the show with the second course of cured ham, melon and cheese, with the classic lemon and peach fruit flavours intertwining with the dish, while the high acidity acted as a foil for the salty ham.
Albarino may have its heartland in Galicia in North-West Spain, but this bottle shows New Zealand’s Gisborne region can give it a run for its money.
A delicious roast loin of venison for the main course was paired with the concentrated red cherry notes of the 2013 Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir (£14.17, Costco), which struck a superb balance between the intense red fruit flavours and the bright acidity.
To finish, a special treat in the form of the Villa Maria The Gravels Ngakirikiri 2013, a Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Hawke’s Bay that’s not yet on sale in the UK.
Breath-taking blackcurrant and vibrant violet aromas led into really intense blackberry and black cherry flavours, bordering on blueberry territory and accompanied by a hint of mint – delicious.
With bright acidity, fine tannins and a long blackcurrant-laced finish, The Gravels will demand a high price tag when it surfaces on these shores, but it certainly packs a powerful punch.
Even if Britain’s love affair with Sauvignon Blanc wanes, with wines like these New Zealand has little to worry about.