Kiwifruit, sweat and cat's pee
It's normally polite to arrive with a bottle of wine, but perhaps not when you're bringing a Marlborough sauvignon blanc to the Hunter Valley.
It's probably plain bad manners to then ask your hosts, two Hunter winemakers, to drink the Kiwi stuff. But I'm on an intrepid mission. New Zealand sav blanc - with its pungent notes of passionfruit and gooseberry - is the favoured white of Australia's wine drinkers by a country mile. A "savalanche" has left chardonnay and other whites for dust.
"But it's the McDonald's of wines," complains James Agnew, former chairman of the NSW Wine Strategy.
"You can go all over the world but a Big Mac is still a Big Mac."
Agnew greets us at his family-run Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard at Pokolbin. He takes our offering, a bottle of Australia's top-selling white, an Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand's South Island.
Bruce Tyrrell, of Tyrrell's Wines, who has popped over from his neighbouring vineyard, pours himself a glass and swirls it to give it some air. It doesn't seem to help. Tyrrell quaffs and winces.
He then delivers a more considered verdict: "Passionfruit . . . body odour . . . cat's pee . . . lantana."
Lantana? Agnew explains helpfully: "Lantana is a noxious weed best treated with Roundup."
Yet the noted American wine writer George M Taber once quoted a critic, saying, "Drinking your first New Zealand sauvignon blanc is like having sex for the first time."
Tyrrell and Agnew give this some thought. It seems to take them back a few years. Tyrrell finally agrees: "Yes, first sex: smelt a bit funny - and a short finish." Agnew concurs: "It left you distinctly unsatisfied."
New Zealand sauvignon blanc overtook chardonnay as Australia's biggest-selling white wine in March 2009. The sauvignon blanc variety now accounts for 39 per cent of all white wine sold at retail in Australia and the vast majority of that is from New Zealand. Chardonnay comes a distant second at 20 per cent of retail white wine sales.
Of Australia's 20 top-selling sauvignon blancs, 17 are Kiwi and only three Australian.
The exponential rise in New Zealand sav blanc sales has slowed, but it still grew 10 per cent in the past year. Nielsen market research reveals that overall wine sales in Australia have increased by $415 million during the past five years, but only $89m of that has gone on local wines (excluding brands owned by retailers); $270m went on New Zealand imports - almost all of it sauvignon blanc, Nielsen's executive director Michael Walton says.
The Kiwi dominance was fuelled by a grape glut in 2009, and by a big discounting drive by New Zealand sauvignon blanc producers. Iain Riggs, part-owner and chief winemaker of Brokenwood Wines in the Hunter Valley, says: "We lost 30 per cent of our sales of Cricket Pitch white - I'd say directly to New Zealand sauvignon blanc. The more people who drank it, the more you had to stay drinking it because all your friends were drinking it."
Rivalry between Australia and New Zealand usually comes down to two things: the sledging and the score. In this Anzac tradition, Tyrrell and Agnew aren't the only ones to enjoy a diggerly dig at the plonk from across the ditch.
"I can't abide it - green vegetable acid," Iain Riggs says.
"They all taste the same," says Stuart Knox, sommelier and proprietor at the Fix St James wine bar in Sydney's CBD.
"One-dimensional," Peter Lehmann Wines chief winemaker Andrew Wigan says.
"It's become homogenised, obvious, generic," Tulloch Wines general manager Christina Tulloch says.
"One-trick pony," says PR man Stuart Gregor, who once spruiked the Marlborough giants Montana and Stoneleigh.
They all worry that locals are missing out on the best whites Australia has ever produced, and are instead settling for that Kiwi confection, the sauvignon blancmange.
"Kiwifruit, sweat and cat's piss on a mulberry bush," says Gregor, who owns the Liquid Ideas agency. He has spent his best
years developing his palate, but reckons he'd be hard-pressed to pick the difference between a $10 and $30-plus Kiwi savvy.
There is a world of difference, contends David Hohnen, the West Australian winemaker who was lured to New Zealand in 1984 to become a pioneer of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, the new international taste sensation.
Hohnen gave the world Cloudy Bay, which remains a huge force in the $30-plus range. It was among some very good wines, he says, but he has "moved on". He opted out of New Zealand in 2003 and now his family wine business in Margaret River, McHenry Hohnen Vintners, delivers "more complex, structured, textured wines that give the drinker pause to reflect on their quality".
So why is New Zealand savvy so successful? "The same reason that Starbucks and McDonald's are successful."
Hohnen says 95 per cent of drinkers are not discerning but "sheep-like" in their buying habits.
New Zealand's true sav blanc pioneer is perhaps Peter Hubscher, who planted the first grapes in the sheep country of Marlborough for Montana and its founder, Frank Yukich, in 1973. They reaped their first commercial vintage in 1980.
As Montana's head of winemaking, Hubscher was looking for an exciting, distinctive new taste with that first 20 hectares. Upon tasting it, he was confident. But he did not for a moment imagine he had started something that would spawn industrial-scale planting and a billion-dollar export industry.
"It was aromatic, crisp, refreshing and flavoursome," says 70-year-old Hubscher, now retired. Hubscher is not concerned about what the "wine intelligentsia" might think about it: "They probably didn't like the Beatles, either."
The British wine critic Oz Clarke would write that "no previous wine had shocked, thrilled and entranced the world before with such brash, unexpected flavours of gooseberries, passionfruit and lime, or crunchy green asparagus spears . . . an entirely new, brilliantly successful wine style that the rest of the world has been attempting to copy ever since".
"It was the flavour that came out of nowhere," The Sydney Morning Herald wine writer Huon Hooke says. The subliminal sugar was important, Hooke says, "but it was the pungency, too. People could pick it up and smell it and say, ‘Ah, that's Marlborough sauvignon blanc'." That instant recognition appeals to the little wine snob in drinkers.
The Australian detractors agree with all of this, in a resounding chorus. Tyrrell says: "We let the Kiwis in because we weren't listening to our drinkers. Australian chardonnays got too big and too oily. People didn't like it." In fact, the sav blanc incursion forced the Australians to innovate and change the way they made wine, and especially to move to lighter chardonnays.
Ian Johnston, the former chief executive of beer and wine behemoth Foster's, complained that Kath and Kim - those "foxy morons" who were fond of their "cardonnay" - damaged the brand of the superior grape. James Agnew likens the stigma suffered by chardonnay to the Sideways effect on merlot. "In that film, they were disdainful of merlot and supportive of pinot noir. And when they showed the sales figures in the US, merlot plummeted almost overnight."
Stuart Knox is on a crusade at his Fix St James bar. He is pressing customers to try some "magnificent" Australian rieslings. "People don't realise that most of them are much drier than the Kiwi sav blancs."
Knox offers his drinkers only two NZ sauvignon blancs.
Likewise, Tyrrell, Riggs and Wigan are among winemakers who spend much of their time on the road, spreading the "gospel" of Australian wine and banking on word of mouth.
"When a drinker's hand goes into the fridge at the bottle shop," Tyrrell says, "too often it lands automatically on a New Zealand sav blanc. I ask people to stop and think before they buy."
It may be wishful thinking, but the Australians are getting the scent of a change; that the Kiwi savvy's best days may be behind it; that it will become a victim of its own success, as chardonnay did; that the sav blanc fad - albeit a decades-long fad - may be coming to an end. "Because it hasn't evolved," Gregor says.
Michael Walton, from Nielsen, sees a definite turning point. He predicts a significant shift in market share during the next three years to Australian wine, particularly from family-run vineyards. While the New Zealand imports are still growing, the pace of growth is in decline.
"Australians have shown a remarkable capacity to incorporate new varietals in their drinking repertoire," Walton says.
"The sales of New Zealand sauvignon blanc are just a highlight in what has become a market of increasing choice. In the next three years we predict exceptionally strong growth for lesser-known varietals to supplement longstanding staples like chardonnay. So our current favourite, New Zealand sauvignon blanc, will be joined by a wealth of new choices - pinot gris, albariño, trebbiano, vermentino and the even lesser-known savagnin will all be part of our repertoires."
The Marlborough pioneers Hubscher and Hohnen agree that wine is a fickle game. "I've watched the riesling craze, the chardonnay binge and the sauvignon blanc fad, and in 10 years the world may be looking for a new taste sensation," Hubscher says.
He's not willing to pick the next fad. Whatever it is, Hubscher says we should be wary of wine snobs.
"You should drink wine to enjoy it, not because you should be seen to enjoy it." Sydney Morning Herald
The Marlborough Express