A short harvest, compounded by shipping delays, means consumers might have to switch to other white options
The shortage of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is likely to get worse before it gets better, with one retailer describing the situation in the run-up to Christmas as “frightening”.
With some leading brands sold out, on strict allocation or unlikely to last much beyond Christmas – and with some orders being delayed for weeks or months by shipping problems – retailers are contemplating alternative ways to satisfy customers’ appetite for one of the UK’s most popular wine styles.
“New Zealand, and particularly Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc is normally the most popular thing to order in the UK, but we just don’t have the stock, our suppliers don’t have allocations,” says Sarah Boucher of Specialist Cellars, the Brixton-based wine bar, shop and online specialist in New Zealand wines, told The Wine Merchant.
“We’ve taken quite a big hit. We haven’t got very much to sell. It’s quite frightening, particularly as we head into the busiest time of the year.”
“The big problem with Sauvignon Blanc is that there isn’t any,” adds Matthew Hennings, managing director of Hennings Wine Merchants in Sussex. “We’re just trying to get through to Christmas with our trade accounts. We’ve withdrawn the sub-£10 stuff from retail and we’re just trying to kick the can with our on-trade customers until the New Year.”
The shortfall had been on the cards since the unusually small harvest in New Zealand this spring, a result of cooler than usual spring weather (including some severe late spring frosts), and long-term labour shortages, which were exacerbated by New Zealand’s strict Covid travel restrictions preventing the arrival of temporary workers during harvest.
According to New Zealand Winegrowers, the crop was down by 19% on 2020, with a total of 370,000 tonnes of grapes harvested, and with “regions throughout the middle of the country – including Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson and North Canterbury – down over 20%”.
In June, when the official data was released, Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, said that, while the quality was “exceptional”, the shortfall amounted to 7 million 9-litre cases of New Zealand wine, at a time when stocks were already low after “unprecedented demand” in key export regions.
“The overall smaller harvest means many of our wineries will face tough decisions over who they can supply in their key markets,” Gregan warned.
“There is going to be some supply and demand tension because of this. Wines from vintage 2021 promise to be something special, but in some instances, the question may just be whether there is enough to go around.”
We were panic buying Sauvignon Blanc way before fuel became the thing to panic buy
The short harvest has been compounded by problems in international shipping that are not specific to New Zealand, with long delays caused by a combination of Covid restrictions, a long-term issue with the availability of shipping containers and post-Brexit paperwork.
“We had one shipment of Kumeu [River] that was meant to arrive at the beginning of August and it’s only just arrived [in late September],” says Boucher at Specialist Cellars. “It was supposed to go on one ship, but then it had to go another and then they had to check every single bottle.”
“The whole logistical thing is more and more difficult, but [its causes] are quite varied and not just limited to New Zealand,” adds David Gleave, managing director of Liberty Wines.
For those retailers with enough cash flow and capacity, the dire warnings coming out of New Zealand in the spring and early summer prompted what Hennings calls “a panic buy. We were panic buying Sauvignon Blanc way before fuel became the thing to panic buy! We bought a load [of a brand] that we normally buy for the on-trade in late May, early June. We’re lucky, we’ve got space, but it ain’t gonna last forever.”
Gleave was able to make a similar decision, although he puts it somewhat differently. “This shortage was a problem for us six months ago, but I think because we have consultant winemakers who work for us and are based in Marlborough we were getting reports on this quite early on, and we were aware how short the vintage was going to be. We managed to buy up more 2020 so we could run a bit longer with our 2020s.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve covered our requirements,” Gleave adds. “Some will be a little short, something like Greywacke. But we always sell out our allocation of that anyway, so it’s really a matter of selling it out in early August rather than late August.”
For businesses of more modest scale such as Specialist Cellars, however, taking on large amounts of stock is much more problematic. “The suppliers that don’t do allocations, they just send an updated stock list, and I have to bulk buy, which isn’t ideal for a small business, with dead stock sitting there,” says Boucher.
Both Gleave and Hennings believe the problem is largely confined to the sub-£10 and bulk end of the market – where the lack of supply has inevitably forced up prices, making £7 to £10 RRPs unsustainable in the short to medium term.
Gleave thinks this may lead to some positive long-term outcomes for New Zealand, if it manages the situation well. “Prices have gone up: grape prices are up; bulk prices have gone through the roof. So we’ll see what effect that has.
“New Zealand producers, who have been coasting a bit in my opinion, will need to work harder to justify those higher prices.”
Hennings, for his part, is wondering what will happen to consumers when they are deprived – as he believes is inevitable at the beginning of 2021 – of their generic Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc fix.
“The supermarkets are selling Yealands 2021 at £7 a bottle … when they run out they’ll just go on to something else,” Hennings says.
“It might wean people off it. And then you’re thinking, what’s going to replace it? Do you look away to another aromatic style? Are you looking at Riesling, or a nice light fresh Chenin?”
Or it could be the “really nice cool-climate” Chilean Sauvignon Blanc that Hennings says he’s sourced and which could plug the gap in the New Year when it’s surmounted its own shipping delay.
“We’re pushing alternatives,” says Boucher, who has struggled with allocations of top Pinot as well as Sauvignon (her allocation from one leading producer was a matter of six bottles rather than several cases). “Chardonnay is a harder push, but we are finding that some people will have other things – they’re trying things they haven’t had before. There’s always a silver lining.”