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Saturday, 23 January 2016 09:20

No longer the bridesmaid

Written by  Joelle Thomson
A bountiful Bay, producing some special Sauvignon Blancs. Photo: Sileni Estate, supplied by NZW. A bountiful Bay, producing some special Sauvignon Blancs. Photo: Sileni Estate, supplied by NZW.

Stories of providence always trump those of supply when it comes to Hawke’s Bay’s third most planted grape, Sauvignon Blanc, as Joelle Thomson discovers.

Lower grape prices, higher availability of supply and softer acidity levels sound like a match made in heaven for Sauvignon Blanc producers, even if Hawke's Bay is not necessarily the first place that springs to mind to find these attributes.

The region's winemakers are beginning to exploit the distinctive style of Sauvignon Blanc grown in their region, where the grape now occupies 923 hectares of the region's total 4,773 hectares; figures as at 2015 (New Zealand Winegrowers).

This makes Sauvignon Blanc third only to Merlot and Chardonnay, respectively, in the Bay's vineyards. By way of comparison, there are currently 1,107 hectares of Merlot and 1,001 of Chardonnay growing in the Bay.

"Any significant company of commercial size probably has to have a Sauvignon Blanc if they are exporting because it is New Zealand's most important variety in a commercial sense," says Hawke's Bay winemaker Rod Easthope.

"Sauvignon Blanc from the Bay offers an attractive alternative for new wine drinkers as well as those who are fans of big full bodied whites, such as Chardonnay, and softer styles of white wine," says Chuck Hayward; New Zealand wine buyer for for JJ Buckley in the United States.

Hayward was a guest judge at the region's annual wine show in September this year, which impressed on him the growth in quality and stylistic diversity in Hawke's Bay Sauvignon Blanc.

"It's less about talking to customers about what they should drink, and more about listening to them; I find that there are people who are a little surprised by the intensity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and while it has a massive following for some people, there are others looking for a softer wine style, particularly to start off with. The Bay's Sauvignons can offer that and winemakers there can also tell a story of their own regionality by doing so," says Hayward.

Like the senior judges at this year's Hawke's Bay A&P Regional Wine Show, the outgoing chair of judges Rod McDonald, agreed with Hayward's sentiments, adding that providence always trumps supply.

"If there's a variety that Hawke's Bay is going to build an international brand with, then it's Sauvignon Blanc," McDonald says.

"It makes no sense for a Hawke's Bay wine company at the fine wine end to go to Marlborough to source grapes because it's a disconnect that means there is no story to tell about their own vineyard.

"We think it's hugely important to have a great Sauvignon Blanc and to make a great one, it's got to be local."

Investigations into the potential of cooler areas in Hawke's Bay have shown strong promise, says incoming show chair and fellow winemaker Easthope.

"Rather than being a door opener, it's a new room; some wines take an easier path and this is where Hawke's Bay Sauvignon Blanc comes in. It's a wine in the same vein but a different style."

For this reason, he predicts that Sauvignon Blanc is likely to become an increasingly important focus for winemakers in Hawke's Bay.

It is not only the Bay's winemakers who can benefit from a Sauvignon Blanc with a distinctively different taste. It can also add another string to New Zealand's international wine bow.

"It's not a problem having Hawke's Bay on the label of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc internationally," says Hayward, who suggests that there are wine drinkers internationally who do not have a pronounced passion for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

"Martinborough's Sauvignon Blancs have minerality, Central Otago's have a spicyness and the whole idea is that we can show that we know the regions and what they offer to the drinker, and that we can harness that in the wines we make," adds Easthope.

"Sometimes I think the barriers to sale are set by sommeliers, critics and members of the retail trade who say that the only good Sauvignon Blanc comes from Marlborough, but we are finding that customers are really open to try anything."

Hayward's experience of selecting and selling wine in the United States supports this theory.

"Diversity is the beauty of the wine world, which is easy to see in Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand today, both in the 100% Marlborough styles, and beyond.

"There is huge potential for other regions to work with this variety at a high quality level."

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