An up-and-coming wine variety is taking the New Zealand industry by storm, and has the potential to emulate sauvignon blanc's popularity.
The rise of sauvignon blanc transformed New Zealand's wine industry, but industry experts and winemakers now believe a grape variety with its origins in Spain and Portugal could follow suit.
Albariño, a white wine with a floral fragrance, salty finish and a good match for seafood, is an old grape variety, but one that hasn't long been in New Zealand. It was first imported in the 2000s and the first fruit was harvested in 2011.
Consulting winemaker Simon Nunns made New Zealand's first albariño wine in 2011, using fruit from a Gisborne grower. The first commercial volume was made in 2012 under the Coopers Creek brand. It has now been making the variety for nine years.
Nunns says albariño's popularity is increasing. "New Zealand is dominated by sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and chardonnay. Those wines are all magnificent so at no point should you start making wine from a new grape variety expecting to take over the world - that won't happen - but something like albariño gives people an opportunity to try something new and we're seeing more and more of these wines coming to market."
The albariño business is growing and Nunns says he believes that over time it will become increasingly commercially viable.
He says it's hard to say whether it will replicate sauvignon blanc's success. "We know sauvignon is successful now, but that success actually started being seen in about 1985 or '86, 35 years ago, which in the world of wine is a short period of time but in our lives quite a long period.
"I'm not brave enough to say it is going to be the next sauvignon blanc, but I am brave enough to say it is going to make wines of merit."
Nunns, who was previously employed by Coopers Creek vineyard, says more and more winemakers are interested in creating their own albariño.
The variety is also showing up in wine awards, from between one and five entries per show a few years ago to about 20 more recently.
Albariño is on-trend and is a hugely popular wine in coastal Portugal and Spain where it originated, and is making waves in places in places such as London and New York, the albariño expert says. He says these wines are typically priced slightly higher than sauvignon blanc.
"Albariño, because it is a smaller volume wine, at the moment occupies a slightly higher position in the pricing structure."
About 70 varieties of wine grapes grown in New Zealand, compared with about 5000 globally. Nunns says albariño has the potential to become one of New Zealand's top three white wines.
Wine is one of New Zealand's biggest exports, though this country accounts for only 1 per cent or so of global wine volume. New Zealand exports about 85 per cent of the wine grown here, and most of those exports are sauvignon blanc.
"We have been punching above our weight and I believe that will continue because we're blessed with a climate that grape varieties like, and because New Zealand is long and skinny, we possibly have more advantages to spread out plantings from north to south."
Jim Harré, a fulltime international wine awards judge and chair of judges for the New World Wine Awards, says albariño started trickling into wine shows about five or six years ago and has since become a high-scoring wine that was increasing in popularity among consumers.
Harré says most of the albariño grown in New Zealand is for local consumption, which is why award competitions and winning gold medals are so important.
Albariño has a good chance of becoming commercially successful, he says, as it has a number of factors in its favour including peach blossom and citrus flavours, and being able to be grown in more than one location in New Zealand. There's another plus: its name is easy to pronounce.
In flavour, says Harré, it is a cross between pinot gris and some types of riesling, "with a salty note on the finish - that's what makes the wine so spectacular."
But despite its unique flavour profile, Harré says Albariño is unlikely to become the next sauvignon blanc - but not because it doesn't have the necessary qualities. "We're running out of ground that we can plant grapes in.
"Around 70 per cent of all grapes grown in New Zealand are sauvignon blanc so we're unlikely to see that volume come through again, but in terms of popularity, if you equate it to pinot gris, which is a 12-15-year-old wine in New Zealand, and look at how that has taken off in popularity, I think it certainly has the potential to do that."
Albariño grapes grow best in Gisborne and parts of Marlborough, Harré says, and there are five or six companies that are dabbling in making their own version.
Albariño wines won gold medals at the New World Wine Awards and Easter Show last year, which means the wine type is popping up in supermarkets and liquor stores.
"I think that there is no limit to how successful albariño wines can become," says Harré.
Pandemic no barrier for wine exports
The Covid-19 pandemic has been no barrier to success for more traditional winemakers.
Climate conditions for sauvignon blanc in Marlborough resulted in the 2019-20 season being dubbed 'the vintage of a lifetime' and Villa Maria says sales from its harvest during the first lockdown this year have gone "from strength to strength" since March.
Villa Maria is shipping 13 per cent more wine than initially forecast, due to strong demand globally as a result of the favourable climatic conditions and increased consumption brought about by the pandemic.
Marlborough had its driest December to April in almost 80 years, combined with a season that was slightly cooler compared to the previous two years, creating almost perfect conditions for vineyards.
Nick Picone, Villa Maria group chief winemaker, says the shutdown of bars and hospitality venues globally to stop the spread of Covid-19 has no doubt caused the sharp spike in grocery sales worldwide.
"We're so far ahead of where we would normally be in terms of our bottling schedule, and a lot of that demand is driven from the UK market. We've been bottling like crazy this year."
Exports to the UK are almost double what they usually would be for this time of the year, he says.
In the year to June, New Zealand exported about $1.9 billion worth of wine, an increase on the previous record of $1.4b.
Picone says Villa Maria is not alone in its surging sales. "No one could foresee the demand that would come from lockdown."
Even with lockdown restrictions easing globally in recent months, the large increase in sales has been sustained, he says.
"Clearly there's been a slowdown for the on-premise market, restaurants and bars with all the closures, there's been a decline in sales for our higher-margin wines, but the huge demand in the supermarket channel, and particularly export market, has seen us so far ahead on normal."
Picone says it is too soon to know if the increased volumes will be sustained long term, and Villa Maria is having to closely monitor its production planning. It is basing next year's demand on what it is experiencing now.
"We're actually looking at putting our prices up in the UK, which we were going to do anyway in the early new year, which we're almost hoping will slow things down a little bit."