Will Success Spoil Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc?

Will success spoil Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc? That is the question that haunts the 50+ winery members of Appellation Marlborough Wine (AMW). Sauvignon Blanc, as everyone knows, is New Zealand’s signature wine variety and Marlborough is world-famous for the distinctive wines made there. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most powerful brands in the world of wine.

I have friends who don’t claim to know much about wine, but they know what they like. And what they like, they will tell you, is Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. No wonder exports of the wine grow year after year (except when short harvests intervene). Here in the United States, it is one of the few bright spots in the market and its success has invigorated the whole Sauvignon Blanc category.

Kiwi World Domination?

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc isn’t the next big thing. It is the big thing right now and has been for some time. I charted the rise of this distinctive wine more than ten years ago in the first edition of my book Wine Wars and even hallucinated (that’s what they call it when an artificial intelligence robot makes stuff up) about Kiwi SB world domination in Wine Wars II, which came out last year.

World domination? No, not really. But it is quite a success story and, ironically, therefore a cause for nervousness for some Kiwi producers. That was already apparent way back in 2004 when Sue and I first visited New Zealand. Some winemakers were trying to diversify their sales away from such a heavy reliance on Sauvignon Blanc while others doubled down on their cash cow, even going so far as to question plantings of Pinot Noir for fear that it might dilute Brand NZ.

There is concern today about New Zealand’s great Sauvignon Blanc success, but it is a bit different than in the past. The focus is on control of the very valuable Marlborough Sauvignon brand. You might think that the issue is foreign control because so many important Kiwi wineries are owned by international wine companies, but the issue is a bit different.

New Zealand’s Global Reach

France’s LVMH owns icon Cloudy Bay, for example. And Pernod Ricard has Brancott Estate, Church Road, Deutz NZ, and Stoneleigh in its portfolio. Treasury Wine Estates owns Matua. Gallo owns Nobilo and part of Whitehaven according to my sources. Kim Crawford, Monkey Bay, and Selaks all belong to U.S.-based Constellation. International investment has driven the wine industry’s expansion and provided built-in global distribution systems. As I argued in my books, the New Zealand wine industry is a product of globalization.

I can’t imagine such a degree of foreign ownership anywhere else in the wine world, but that’s not the main issue. No, the problem, as I understand it, is that so much Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is exported in bulk, in those huge shipping container tanks. The wine is bottled in the receiving market. Much of it goes into private-label products that may or may not have the quality Kiwi producers desire. Some producers have written to me over the years that they feel they are losing control of their brand.

A case can certainly be made that bulk shipping makes sense for New Zealand wine. The carbon footprint of the wine is already there because of the long distance from the vineyard to the final buyer and this factor grows if the product is bottled in New Zealand before shipping. However, NZ bottling would be one way for local producers to better control the product chain and protect their brand.

Appellation Marlborough Wine

Appellation Marlborough Wine (AMW) is an association of Marlborough producers that was formed in 2018 “to safeguard Marlborough Wine, initially focused on Sauvignon Blanc, whose purity and flavour intensity has earned it a phenomenal global reputation,” according to the group website.

“With this global demand, comes the proliferation of players and a range of quality expectations, which can put this hard-earned reputation at risk. AMW has been established to safeguard Marlborough wine for future generations to enjoy and provide assurance to consumers who seek wines of provenance, authenticity and integrity.”

There are currently 53 AWM member wineries, including several of the “internationals” mentioned above such as Cloudy Bay and Whitehaven plus Clos Henri, Framingham, and others. It is an impressive list. The intent is to establish the AMW logo as an indicator of quality and authenticity that extends beyond the “Marlborough” geographic designation.

The criteria for the AMW designation include 100% Marlborough grapes, sustainability certification, and the requirement that the wines be bottled in New Zealand, which excludes the bulk-shipped, foreign-bottled wines discussed above, including private label products.

As I understand it, the concern is that the popular bulk-shipped products will define Brand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in a way that is detrimental to its long-term sustainability. This kind of threat always exists when a region is associated with a single “signature varietal,” and you can appreciate how the bulk shipping element adds to producer concerns.

A Tale of Four Bottles

I wonder if the AMW designation will catch on. The back labels on wine bottles are often very crowded with logos and certifications and a good deal of education effort is needed to make a new one like this an effective tool. This could be a hard sell. That said, I think Sue and I will be checking out the back labels of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc wines in the future because a recent research tasting persuaded us that there might be something to learn here.

Sue and I were joined by research assistants David and Terri for a dinner and tasting featuring the four wines shown in the photo above. Three of the wines — Lawson Dry Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Mahi Sauvignon Blanc, and Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc — were provided by AMW as examples of member products. I added a fourth wine to the mix: Kirkland Signature Ti Point Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which sells for about $7.49 at Costco. It is an example of the sort of private-label wine that AMW is a reaction to. I have heard that it is Costco’s best-selling private-label wine. In any case, it probably defines Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for many consumers.

What did we learn at our tasting? The Kirkland Signature was a bit less punchy than I remembered, but otherwise, it pretty well fit the popular notion of a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The three AMW wines, which sold for about three times the Costco price, were very different and very different from each other. There was subtlety and elegance and, to be honest, if you defined Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc by the characteristics of the private label wines (or the big brands like Kim Crawford), you might not have guessed they were the same grape variety or came from the same place at all!

A Plausible Hypothesis

Obviously, three wines cannot represent the more than four dozen member wineries and the Costco wine cannot represent all the different bulk-shipped products. So nothing was proved here, but I think we learned something. Certainly, there is a stereotype of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that the big-volume brands embody. But there is more to Marlborough than that. More different grape varieties. More different styles of Sauvignon Blanc.

The AMW initiative is thus worthwhile. Will it succeed? It won’t be easy to persuade consumers to look for the AMW logo on the back label. I suspect consumers will be converted one glass at a time.

4 responses

  1. My wife and I recently spent a few weeks in NZ, including some time in Marlborough where our hosts worked in the wine industry. I learned about “single vineyard” SB which I have since introduced to my friends and wine associates. It is the only SB I will buy now. It is an alternative way to make sure you are buying a quality SB.

    • We have had some great single vineyard Marlborough wines, too, so I appreciate your strategy. But many quality producers source from different sub-regions as a way of adding complexity, so that’s also something to keep in mind. Thanks and best wishes, Mike.

    • Delighted to hear you’re a fan of our Maui Sauvignon Blanc, Eric. Where do you buy if from?
      (Working at Tiki Wine & Vineyards in NZ – producers of Maui NZ Sauvignon Blanc).

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