After the inevitable culinary excesses of late December, turkey served 50 ways, etc., a chilled glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a gift from heaven. Time and time again, the Kiwis have proven that they’re masters of the variety by crafting aromatic, fruit-driven, and effortlessly refreshing white wines.
There is just one problem: According to winemakers in New Zealand’s Marlborough region, stocks are running precariously low, due to a pitiful harvest in 2021, coupled with rising global demand.
The shortage is real
“Sauvignon Blanc yields in Marlborough alone are 30% down,” said a representative from Pernod Ricard, owner of Brancott Estate, one of Marlborough’s largest producers. They explained that extreme spring frosts had significantly impacted grape yields last year, following an earlier than normal budburst, which particularly affected white grape varieties in Marlborough.
“The reality is that Pernod Ricard winemakers will be unable to meet global Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc demand. There is very little, if any, 2020 vintage stock remaining due to the strong ongoing demand for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in most key markets, which has added to the issues created by the small 2021 vintage,” they added.
But don’t panic. Oenophiles who eschew Dry January have several options. Sommeliers have known for a long time that New Zealand does not have a monopoly on pungent Sauvignon Blanc. The Loire Valley is groaning with good value bottles, while the Chileans are very adept at producing aromatic and racy examples.
Yet, for many consumers, New Zealand represents the gold standard which has meant wine retailers across the globe have stuck by Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc while other trends have come and gone. But now, the shortage has forced their hand. No one in New Zealand will officially admit it, of course, but the competitors are circling.
“I expect NZ Sauvignon Blanc prices to rise significantly — especially at the lower end,” says wine buyer Peter Mitchell MW of Jeroboams in London, who has been scanning the globe for substitutes recently. “We have added a new South African Sauvignon Blanc and tied down volumes of the wines from France and South America, so we are in a comfortable position.”
Many wine drinkers will not be happy with the news. They want that glorious pungency that sets their nostril hairs on fire.
But producers elsewhere can produce great Sauvignon Blanc as well — and, sometimes, at a better price.
Even the Kiwis must admit that top-range Chilean whites are superlative examples of the genre. Sauvignon Blanc reaches an apogee in the cool climate regions of Limari, Casablanca, and San Antonio Valley. Situated north of the capital Santiago, coastal Limari benefits from the cooling influence of the Pacific, producing world-class Sauvignon Blanc that nods toward the Loire Valley in terms of flavor profile. There is a minerality to all good Limari whites that seems to have been mined from the bowels of the earth.
Its fiercest rival is the Casablanca Valley, which saw plantings skyrocket in the 1990s as investors took advantage of the favorable climate and terroir. Almost every major producer buys fruit from the area, the first coastal region to be properly developed in Chile. Much of Casablanca is close to the Pacific Ocean, cooling the afternoon temperatures by as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Indeed, the natural conditions are the envy of the world; Chile grows vines in a mostly pollution-free environment, under the blissful influence of cloudless sunlight. Yet land and labor costs are generally lower than New Zealand or Europe, which is reflected in the unrivaled price-to-quality ratio of Chilean wine.
South Africa’s Sauvignon
Some of the world’s most exciting and best value Sauvignon Blanc wines are made in the Western Cape. The nation’s winemakers have an enviable range of soil types at their disposal, from the famous Table Mountain sandstone to the metamorphic slate and granite of the Swartland region. A great deal of Sauvignon Blanc is planted in the Stellenbosch zone, although Paarl, Swartland, and Olifants River are catching up. Growers often cultivate vines on the cooler southern and eastern slopes to keep their wines brisk with sufficient acidity. Altitude and aspect can vary dramatically across vineyards in the Cape, an advantage that is keenly exploited.
This is South Africa’s trump card. Growers increasingly talk about a sense of place in their wines; cool-climate Elgin offers minerality and notes of melon and grapefruit; warmer Stellenbosch is an orgy of guava and stone fruit. The twin virtues of innovation and experimentation are also in great evidence, with winegrowers trying their hand at skin contact fermentation, wild ferments, and lees contact. Some producers eschew the flavors of oak, while others covet the structure and texture that flow from aging in new wood. Occasionally, they blend the grape with Sémillon. The one unifying characteristic is that the wines tend to have higher alcohol than the Loire Valley, although this is by no means guaranteed. If you want some local terroir character — from the flavors of Cape fynbos, scrubland, to rock and salty sea air — then try a bottle of Elgin Sauvignon Blanc.
France is the world’s largest producer of Sauvignon Blanc, with over 71,000 acres under vine. The grape owes its etymology to the French language, as Sauvignon is derived from the word “sauvage,” meaning wild, a reference to the leaves of the variety, which are very similar to those of a wild vine. Growers in different regions take very different approaches with the grape; winemakers in Bordeaux tend to blend it with Semillon, a practice that is rejected by vignerons in Sancerre.
Few critics would deny that single-varietal Sauvignon Blanc finds its greatest Gallic expression between the towns of Pouilly-sur-Loire and Sancerre, located at the eastern end of the spectacular Loire Valley. Planted on meager chalky soils, the vines yield bunches of concentrated and racy fruit, with piercing aromatics and flavors of gooseberry, lime, and black currant leaf. While the aromas lack the exotic mix of tropical fruit that can typify Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre has a refinement and minerality that is harder to replicate in hotter climates.
However, there is better value to be found elsewhere. Good bottles of Sancerre — and Pouilly Fume — are seldom cheap, which is where Touraine steps in. The vineyards of the Loire appellation flank the city of Tours, yielding fragrant wines that have become the region’s trademark. They are refreshing, typically unoaked, and rarely expensive. They are a great alternative to the Marlborough style.
With all this to choose from, lovers of Sauvignon Blanc can keep drinking their favorite variety — and may even find unexpected pleasure elsewhere.
3 Sauvignon Blanc to try:
Owned by corporate behemoth Concha y Toro, Casillero Del Diablo is one of Chile’s most popular brands. Its Sauvignon Blanc sets the benchmark for crisp, dry aromatic whites that don’t cost the earth. Aromas of citrus, gooseberry, and capsicum are the perfect foil to fresh shellfish. Or just enjoy it with friends.
This is textbook Sauvignon Blanc from a family-run winery in the Loire Valley. Flavors of citrus, black currant, and quince leap out of the glass, supported by ripe acidity and a long finish. Lip-smackingly refreshing and far too easy to drink.
Paul Cluver is one of the most reliable sources of cool climate Sauvignon Blanc in the Cape. The wines are always fresh and clean, with piercing aromas of grapefruit, gooseberry, mint, and lime leaf. The palate is long and refined, balanced out by ripe acidity. At under $15, it’s amazing value for money.