Change Agents

How New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Upended the Wine World

A risky 1970s gamble on the grape changed the country's fortunes — and introduced an enduring wine style

Rebecca Gibb By August 17, 2021
Brancott Estate cellar doors overlooking its namesake vineyard at dawn. Photo courtesy of Brancott Vineyard.

In the early 1970s, Frank Yukich took a trip to a rural part of New Zealand’s South Island and secretly bought some land. Convinced of its potential, he mortgaged his house to find the 10% deposit needed for the 1.4 million New Zealand dollars ($966,000 today) price. 

He did it on the advice of viticulturist, Wayne Thomas, who was convinced that Marlborough’s climate and soils made it a promising winegrowing region.

Yet, at the time, the suggestion was outlandish. Montana Wines was, comparatively, a huge and successful New Zealand operation. To fund the operation, Montana had taken on outside investors, Seagram, who were looking for strong financial returns. When Yukich told the board about his new purchase, they refused to fund it.

Yukich risked losing his house.

But Thomas came to his aid. Having written a report on the prospects for viticulture in Marlborough, he asked several wine professors at the University of California Davis to ratify his findings. They gave it the thumbs up. In the face of expert approval, the board backed down, Yukich got his vineyards — and his deposit back — and planting began. 

What happened next changed the world of wine forever. 

Facing the skeptics

Not wanting to miss a public relations opportunity, Yukich made a big fuss about this virgin vineyard region and bussed in New Zealand’s key wine influencers of the day. Before the first vine went into the ground, the small crowd watched Yukich place a silver coin in the hole before declaring: “Wines from here will become world famous.” He was literally throwing his money down a hole, or so it seemed to most of the bemused onlookers. 

At first, the skeptics were proved right. Around 750,000 vines were put in the ground in 1973. According to handwritten records, the four varieties marking Marlborough’s modern grape growing debut were Müller-Thurgau, known locally as Riesling Sylvaner, Gamay, and Bilo Nova — which may have been Chambourcin or may have been a typo — as well as a variety totally unsuited to a cool climate, Cabernet Sauvignon. A summer drought meant that most of them died of thirst in their first year. 

A team of planters take a well-earned tea break in 1973. Photo courtesy of Brancott Vineyard.

Undeterred, Yukich went on another planting spree the following year. This time he planted a more diverse array of varieties, including several grapes that typically prefer a warmer climate than Marlborough, including Pinotage, Merlot, and Palomino, as well as several hybrid varieties, the vine equivalent of second-class citizens. The failures were inevitable. 

But then, in 1975, he planted the first Sauvignon Blanc plants in the stony soils of Marlborough. Four years later, the first bottles of Sauvignon Blanc rolled off the bottling line.

Massive impact

Within a decade of the first Sauvignon plants taking root, New Zealand was making waves overseas with its naturally flamboyant style, and other winemakers were moving into Marlborough. One of them, winemaker David Hohnen, founded Cloudy Bay, in 1985. Sam Weaver, founder of organic winery Churton, was working for a wine merchant in London — then at the forefront of the international fine wine world — when the first bottles of Cloudy Bay arrived. “I clearly remember the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs,” says Weaver. “The wines were interesting but more a curiosity than anything.” But then came Cloudy Bay. “It was astonishing and completely unlike any other wine I’d tasted with exuberance and aromatic intensity.” Suddenly, Marlborough was on the map, and New Zealand’s wineries were selling their Sauvignon Blanc to the world.

British wine writer, Robert Joseph, the then-editor of Wine International magazine, says that “within five years they were considered the best in the world.”

Today, more than 40 years after those first vines were planted, Marlborough’s success story shows no sign of waning. Its fresh, fruity, and flamboyant style makes for crisp and distinctive refreshment. The fact that it is made in a seemingly unspoiled country at the far reaches of the earth doesn’t harm its success either. 

Not only that, but its success pushed the traditional winemakers of the Old World in new directions. “In the late 1990s, Australian and New Zealand flying winemakers brought New Zealand techniques to other countries,” says Joseph. “And in 2000, Henri Bourgeois shook things up by being a Loire producer who invested in Marlborough and started to make wine there.”

As for Yukich himself, however, he resigned from the company in 1977. The company his father founded in the 1930s would grow and change hands, ending up in the French-owned Pernod Ricard stable alongside Champagne Mumm, Jacob’s Creek, and a slew of spirits. The rising popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the U.S. meant a name change was in the cards to avoid any confusion with the state of Montana, and the company became Brancott Estate, in a nod to the original vineyard planted in 1973. Yukich was right: Wines from here did become world famous.