New World Ingenuity, Interdisciplinarity, and New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc Programme

I’ve been reading James Halliday’s and Hugh Johnson’s lovely, rambling The Art and Science of Wine (Firefly, 2007), with something of the feeling that I’m sitting beside the old gentlemen’s fireplace listening to them hold forth. The book is short on citations and uneven on explanations, but full of two careers’ worth of wisdom. They describe without getting bogged down too much in the how or why of things, a good technique for teaching in a hand-waving, appreciative sort of way and for learning without paying too much notice to the reality that you’re being taught.

A theme — mostly tacit, but persistent — that sticks with the first few sections of the book is the difference in marketing and, therefore, winemaking strategies between the Old World (especially the classic French regions) and the New (especially Australia and New Zealand). Old World: make it and they will come. New World: no one knows who we are, so we’d better be distinctive and creative and different (and tasty). The socio-cultural-historical-economic factors driving that difference are too extensive to explain here and, besides, are largely a matter of common sense. And if it’s an oversimplification, it’s still largely true.

New Zealand has had to fight hard for a place in the global wine eye. Not only is the Kiwi wine industry young and from a remote location, their production is tiny. Yet they’ve unquestionably succeeded. We’ve all heard about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and many if not most of us have heard about Marlborough and Central Otago Pinot Noir. New Zealand’s problem (okay, one of New Zealand’s problems) now is that they’ve played the region-grape association game too well. Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc can be too easy to stereotype. The industry seems especially concerned that their wine is too expensive, with cheaper Sauv Blanc from Chile and South Africa and elsewhere on the market, to keep being competitive without some kind of new consumer incentive.

So, the Kiwis are trying to teach their pony every trick in the book (and maybe invent a few new ones) in an effort called, creatively, the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Programme.

A partnership between essentially every major wine research institute in the country and a few major producers (notably Pernod Ricard), the Sauvignon Blanc Programme was first funded in 2004 and has a promise of continued funding through 2016. 2010-2016 is it’s second phase: “Sauvignon Blanc 2: ‘novel wine styles for new markets.'” Phase I largely served as information-gathering about Sauvignon Blanc-specific flavors and flavor production; phase II is aimed at optimizing and manipulating those flavors. The goal is to improve the quality of existing wine, but also to carve out new styles from the harmonious-but-homogenous* cat-piss-on-gooseberry  style for which New Zealand in general and Marlborough in particular has become world-famous.

The exemplary thing about this programme, in addition to it’s duration, is its interdisciplinarity. An effort to solve one problem — how to diversify Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc — is bringing together plant cell biologists and viticulturists and wine chemists and yeast geneticists and sensory scientists and cognitive scientists and assorted biotechnologists and industry folk — winemakers and growers and business and marketing people — all with different perspectives on how to solve that one problem. In the process, they’re creating solid new science, funding Masters and PhD students who will be important to the industry in a few years, and fueling market growth: good for research, good for industry.

Industry dollars are a main source of funding for wine research everywhere, but rarely is the collaboration this diverse or long-standing. The scope of SB1 and SB2 are fueling research far beyond just bringing a new and improved white wine to market. Here, the Kiwi homogeneity is serving them well: even if not everyone makes Sauvignon Blanc, the industry as a whole obviously rides on it. I wonder what would happen if other winemaking regions could identify one massive problem relevant to more or less everyone, focus their resources, and sponsor all of the region’s top researchers to help solve it.

I suspect that multiple different Sauvignon Blanc flavor profiles are going to be a hard sell to all but the most esoterically sophisticated Americans, though perhaps the more important UK market will be better educated enough to pay attention. We’ve already seen scientific publications from this project; we may just have to wait to judge the success of the wine.

Market pressures don’t always make for good science. But, sometimes, they do.