Savagnin: The Next Big Thing?
By: Dan Traucki
Today red wine accounts for 85-95 percent of all grape wine sales in China. But will it always be so?
Most Westerners argue that white wine is much more suited to Chinese cuisine than red due to having a lesser degree of tannins, which clash with stronger spices and chilli.
So the BIG question is – what will be the next big thing in wine, in China? Will it continue to be red wine or could it become white wines? It has been theorized that the Chinese penchant for red wine is caused by two factors. Firstly, because the early white wines that came from Europe were oxidized after their long and arduous voyage to reach China and secondly, because of the cultural love of the color red.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds this represents a significant opportunity for wineries that are prepared to “swim against the tide.”
If at a wine industry seminar in the late 1970’s, one of the speakers had said that Chardonnay would, within the next 20 years, be THE most popular white wine in the world, everybody in the room would have laughed. There was hardly any planted outside of Burgundy in France at that time. In Australia, the first commercial bottling of Chardonnay was being released by Tyrrell’s around about then. By the mid 1990’s Chardonnay was by far the most popular white wine in the western world if not the whole globe. Huge acreages had been planted in the USA, Australia, Chile, Argentina and South Africa as well as gradual increases in “Old World” wine producers like Italy and Spain.
When I tasted my first sip of the very rare and very exotic Cloudy Bay New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on Sydney’s Palm Beach one glorious summer’s evening in the 1980’s I would have scoffed at anybody who might have said that Sauvignon Blanc would one day be the most popular white wine in Australia, well today it is – by far.
The point of this is to demonstrate that most experts are not very good at assessing what is going to be “the next big thing.”
To further prove the point, who would have predicted the current popularity of Rosé 10-15 years ago when it was (mainly) sweet pink swill?
In my opinion, the white wine variety most likely to succeed and become “the next big thing” although probably not rivaling Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, but certainly challenging Viognier, Arneis and Pinot Gris/Grigio, is Savagnin.
In its native France the small volumes of Savagnin grown are used to make “Vin Jaune” (yellow wine); an unusual style of wine which is much like a Sherry in that it is allowed to form a yeast film on the top of the maturing wine like a Flor Fino Sherry. The difference being that the wine is bottled earlier without using a Solera system as is used in Sherry. To make Vin Jaune the grapes are picked late so that they are very ripe and with little acidity.
Savagnin originally came to Australia miscast as the Spanish variety “Albarino” and thus from the outset was made as a dry white wine rather than a “yellow wine.” This is the key factor in its potential future, because, in my opinion “Vin Jaune” is a pretty ordinary wine.
In 2008 as the second or third vintage of these “Albarino” wines were being released, it was correctly identified as Savagnin by a visiting French ampelographer. Thus the variety correctly labelled as Savagnin has only had effectively a 3 year track record here in Australia. According to Wine Australia (peak wine body in Australia) in 2010 there were 115ha of Savagnin planted in Australia compared to 158ha of Arneis – which has been around for a decade longer.
Of the 53 Australian Savagnin producers, I have tried 25 of the wines; many of them at the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show in Mildura in the State of Victoria, which is another story in itself being the only Wine Show in the world (to the best of my knowledge) which only allows entries from wines made with non-mainstream grape varieties.
Whilst the style and quality of these Savagnin varies, the underlying varietal character and flavor of this grape variety has been there in every wine I have tried so far.
This commonality gives the variety a huge advantage over most of the other “new” white wine varieties as drinkers can know what to expect when they buy a bottle of Savagnin. By comparison (for example), Pinot Gris/Grigio wines run the gamut of flavors from searing acidity to sweetish lolly water, so that the new consumer rarely knows what they are going to get when they buy a new brand. Much like it used to be when one bought a bottle of “Fume Blanc” in the 1980’s. This variability in style is not conducive to consistently growing the sales of the variety.
The really interesting and encouraging thing is that to date every single white wine drinker with whom I have tried Savagnin, has liked the variety because of its character and depth of flavor. I have heard it described as “a bit like Riesling but with greater texture,” which I think is very apt. Almost all of the Australian producers that I have contacted so far have reported healthy sales and great interest in the variety.
Therefore, I believe that the Savagnin producers here in Australia have a unique opportunity to not only engage wine drinkers with the great tasting variety but also to make the world associate this wonderful variety with Australia, in the same way that the wine drinking world associates Zinfandel with the USA, Malbec with Argentina, Pinotage with South Africa, and Carmenere with Chile or closer to home, Semillon with the Hunter Valley.
In the past, Australia had the opportunity to do this with Verdelho (as elsewhere it is used solely for fortifieds). However, unfortunately the quality of the wines was too variable and there was no combined promotional effort made.
I firmly believe that over the next few years the Chinese palate will gradually gravitate more and more towards white wine as the natural accompaniment for their spicier cuisine and this represents a massive opportunity for bold and daring wineries to buck the current trend. In Australia, I firmly believe that Savagnin has the potential to lead the white wine charge into the Chinese palate.
So “watch this space” and let’s see what develops over the next few years and see whether I am proved right or wrong as I firmly believe, that for Savagnin, like the lyrics of that 1980’s song say “the future is so bright I need to wear shades.”