The daddy of all vines gives rise to sauvignon blanc in New Zealand

Sauvignon blanc makes up 86 per cent of all wine produced in Marlborough. (File photo)
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

Sauvignon blanc makes up 86 per cent of all wine produced in Marlborough. (File photo)

Ahead of the '16 Days of Sauvignon' celebrations, reporter Oliver Lewis looks at the history of the grape variety that put Marlborough, and New Zealand, wine on the map.

It was the vine that helped launch a billion dollar industry, a single sauvignon blanc plant imported from California that set New Zealand wine on its course towards global acclaim.

And it has a name: TK05196, TK after Te Kauwhata in the Waikato, where the Government used to run a viticultural research centre importing and trialling new grape varieties.

Sauvignon blanc is the driving force behind New Zealand's thriving wine export market. (File photo).
ANDY JACKSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Sauvignon blanc is the driving force behind New Zealand's thriving wine export market. (File photo).

This one vine spawned the clones that ended up populating early vineyards near Auckland and eventually in Marlborough, which became the new spiritual home of the variety here.

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Terry Dunleavy, a former chief executive of the Wine Institute of New Zealand, which became New Zealand Winegrowers, said TK05196 probably arrived in New Zealand in 1970.

Hunter's Wines managing director Jane Hunter (File photo).
FILE

Hunter's Wines managing director Jane Hunter (File photo).

The vine was brought to New Zealand by government viticulturist Frank Berrysmith, who imported a number of vines from the Davis campus at the University of California.

Cuttings from the vine were taken by Joe Corban and planted in a trial vineyard north of Auckland, which caught the attention of Ross Spence, one of the founders of the wine company Matua.

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Allan Scott Family Winemakers founder Allan Scott in one of his Marlborough vineyards. (File photo).
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

Allan Scott Family Winemakers founder Allan Scott in one of his Marlborough vineyards. (File photo).

He had already taken cuttings from a different sauvignon blanc vine, but it was the one he obtained from Corban that allowed him to plant out his Waimauku block, in the Rodney district of Auckland.

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These vines were used to make the first commercial run of sauvignon blanc in New Zealand, released in 1974. And it was those vines that were propagated by Montana to plant in Marlborough in 1975.

But it was not until the mid-1980s that Marlborough sauvignon blanc really made its mark, when Irishman Ernie Hunter of Hunter's Wines claimed a major award in London for their oak-aged sauvignon.

Hunter's Wines managing director Jane Hunter said the gold medal win at the prestigious Sunday Times Vintage Festival in 1986 provoked astonishment at the time, that New Zealand could produce quality wines.

"It certainly got a huge amount of publicity because it was such an upset, no-one would have expected it of a New Zealand wine, most people didn't realise New Zealand made wine then," she said.

When Jane Hunter arrived in 1983 to take a job as a viticulturist with Montana, she said there was only about 12 hectares of sauvignon blanc - Germanic varieties like muller-thurgau were more widely planted.

A government initiative in 1985 where growers were paid to pull out vines helped accelerate the growth of sauvignon blanc, she said.

"Overnight people pulled out muller-thurgau and planted sauvignon. They could see from the few areas that were being grown that it was well suited to the region.

"But you could never have imagined that it would mushroom like this, it's just grown beyond anything that anyone involved in those first stages would have ever thought it would."

Allan Scott Family Winemakers founder Allan Scott, who worked for Montana as a vineyard manager in the 1970s, described the region as the New World home of sauvignon blanc, a variety that originated in France.

"It wasn't until the 1980s that it became much more popular. It was the right variety for the right time, the world changed, the food scene changed, people were more interested in wines with fruity characteristics," he said.

International Sauvignon Blanc Day

Wine Marlborough has organised 16 days of sauvignon blanc celebrations leading up to International Sauvignon Blanc Day on May 5. This included tastings, wine tours and themed offerings at restaurants and bars.

Marketing and communications co-ordinator Harriet Wadworth said it was a way of extending the celebrations to the wider community, instead of it being confined to the wine industry.

Over the course of the celebrations, there was 27 different mini-events. Wine Marlborough was setting up its Sauvignon HQ outside Scotch Wine Bar, in Bythell Place, which was being run from a converted shipping container from April 27 to May 5.

General manager Marcus Pickens said he hoped the extended celebrations would be taken up by other regions in New Zealand next year, as a way to recognise both domestic and internationally produced sauvignon blanc.

"The goal of '16 Days of Sauvignon' and International Sauvignon Blanc Day in Marlborough is to get everyone involved in the celebrations and tell the world how great our region is," Pickens said.

Figures from New Zealand Winegrowers showed nationwide there was about 21,000 hectares of vineyards planted in sauvignon blanc in 2016. 

There was no Marlborough breakdown available, but the variety accounted for about 86 per cent of all wine produced in the region, which had a total vineyard space of about 24,000 hectares.

For more information visit 16daysofsauvignon.co.nz.

 - The Marlborough Express

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