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Monday, 24 September 2018 10:01

Not all Sauvignon is the same

Written by  Tessa Nicholson
The AMW committee from left; Ivan Sutherland, Fiona Turner, John Forrest, Clive Jones, John Buchanan, James Healy and Yang Shen. The AMW committee from left; Ivan Sutherland, Fiona Turner, John Forrest, Clive Jones, John Buchanan, James Healy and Yang Shen.

Appellation is not a word that you would normally associate with New Zealand wine, but that's about to change.

With old world connotations of controlling all aspects of grape growing from variety, to yield, to brix levels, it has always been something of an anathema to new world producers.

That is about to change with the launch of Appellation Marlborough Wine (AMW), an incorporated society that has one goal in mind – to safeguard Marlborough’s wine reputation. Actually it is even more specific – to protect the integrity and authenticity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

For a wine to be certified as AMW, producers must meet certain criteria, as determined by members. They include; wine being made from 100 percent Marlborough fruit, wine must be bottled in New Zealand, grapes produced sustainably and grapes must be grown at appropriate cropping levels with the objective of enhancing quality.

Committee member John Forrest says the term appellation is the correct one and should not be confused with old world associations.

“We have allowed some flexibility and sensibility in how we interpret some important parts of those rules. It is a modern interpretation of the word appellation for the practical benefit of both maker and consumer.”

Given the importance of the variety not only to Marlborough but the entire New Zealand wine industry, the initiative wants to protect reputation in the international wine market.

James Healy of Dog Point Wines says close to 50 percent of the region’s Sauvignon Blanc is currently exported in bulk, “without any requirement to its authenticity or quality.

“Once it leaves New Zealand there is no guarantee, no matter what anyone says, that it (will end up on the shelf) as high quality, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.”

Committee members agree that the criteria to adhere to cropping levels is not a one size fits all in the region.

“There is quite a variance in vine spacing and vine numbers in the region,” committee chair Ivan Sutherland says. “We also need to recognise soil type and sub regional influence. We believe that the yield parameters will be standard practice that people will be happy with. If a wine is made from fruit cropped that is over the parameter, the producer can asked for the wine to be subjected to a tasting.”

“That is the pragmatic approach to the classic appellation system,” Forrest adds. However this is not to say AMW does not have rules to ensure members comply to its aims. “It’s a bit like a great white shark from a distance. It can quickly get to you and it has very sharp teeth. We deliberately structured it that way, so we could get brutal if we had to.”

Random tests will be undertaken if the Society has any reason to believe the quality parameters are not being observed. 

“But we are not expecting people to abuse this – or else why would they bother to join up,” Forrest says. “It has been set up to be inclusive.”

At this stage AMW only relates to Sauvignon Blanc, as that is the variety that is most open to damage, given the large amounts leaving the country in bulk.

“It is a case of taking it one step at a time,” Sutherland says.

The committee also says there are companies that may be sending some of their wine off shore in bulk, but if they have labels that are being bottled here in New Zealand, they will be able to utilise the AMW logo on the labels of those wines.

With more than 40 wine producers already a member of AMW, the committee is expecting the interest to continue to grow. They are also adamant that it will help to increase the value of the wines in the market place. 

“This is a brand that we want world wine buyers to recognise as a wine of higher quality and better value for money, so we can differentiate ourselves from wines of lower price and lower quality,” says Sutherland.

For one overseas critic the development of AMW should be a wake-up call to all Marlborough producers.

Swedish Master of Wine, Madeleine Strenwreth, says she applauds the brave actions of those involved to safeguard Marlborough’s reputation.

“I would have loved to share the equal amount of praise over all the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc producers,” she says. “But unfortunately there are too many with a strong potential of ruining the image of this world-class region by using this renowned brand as a vehicle to only serve their own short-term monetary purposes without thinking of the long-term sustainability and survival of the region and their hard working, passionate colleagues and neighbours in their local wine community. There is so much to protect and celebrate and I raise a glass to all you great people of the industry. There is still a lot of hope for humanity.”

New Zealand MW Bob Campbell agrees, saying he totally supports the initiative, labelling it “trail blazing”.  

“I believe that the AMW will increase the quality of top-end Sauvignon Blanc while sending a strong message to consumers and critics worldwide that all Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is not equal.”

At a conservative estimate, the current 40 AMW producers export over one million cases of Sauvignon Blanc. 

The logo denoting that the wine is certified as AMW will appear on a number of 2018 releases.