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07.18.2010

This Wine Designed by the Government Just For You

I'm one of the last people you'll see jumping on the Mondovino bandwagon to bemoan the homogeneity of the world's wines thanks to the evils of globalization. But nonetheless a recent announcement from New Zealand, definitely has me a little queasy.

You can read the story yourself, but here's the gist of it: the New Zealand government is spending $12 million dollars to improve and bolster the market performance of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Not a bad idea on its face, right? Nice to see a government backing its wine industry and helping it continue to succeed in the marketplace.

But here's how they're going to do it according to project leader Roger Harker: "They want to create a pipeline of New Zealand-centric flavour styles that will generate excitement in the marketplace and further stimulate demand." And according to the New Zealand Herald: "The signature herbaceous, grassy style of New Zealand sauvignon blanc could be played with "at the edges" to create a diversity of tastes at the upper end of the market."

Now, to be honest, I'm not exactly sure what either of those quotes mean, but I really don't like the notion of "coming up with new styles of Sauvignon Blanc." As if the grape just needed a little more tweaking to broaden its range.

Experimenting with wine is all well and good when it involves trying to plant grapes in new places, growing the grapes in different configurations, trying out different clones of the grape in different situations, trying out a new kind of barrel, or different temperatures for fermentation. And indeed the article suggests that some of these will be the kinds of things that $12 million gets spent on. Fine.

But the idea of engineering the flavor of Sauvignon Blanc to try to appeal to specific niche markets in the world that don't like the style that New Zealand seems to most easily produce sounds a bit like a cross between New Coke and the stuff that passes for takeout Chinese food in the Midwest: completely concocted in the vain attempt to appeal to some sense of what you think your customers' palates really want.

Now, I'm willing to accept the possibility that this kind of flavor engineering is merely the interpretation of the journalist who wrote this article (lord knows it wouldn't be the first time a reporter inserted implications that didn't belong), but if it is true, I take it as a very bad sign for the New Zealand wine industry. The country has made gigantic strides with wine consumers by producing excellent wines that are also excellent values, and as a result the country has earned some trust based on its consistency. The last thing it should do is throw that away by trying to artificially broaden the range of what New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tastes like.


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