Sunday, September 16, 2012


It is not widely known but Cabernet Sauvignon (pronounced cab er nay soo vee non, or in Kiwi, cab sav) has been grown in New Zealand for many years.

Not always successfully.

Grapes, in order to reach their full potential need terroir suitable to them. Terroir (not to be confused with terror for which there is a war against) is a summation of the effects of soil, climate, geography and viticulture that give the grapes their characteristics.

Cabernet Sauvignon, optimally should be a red grape making a red wine.
Terroir can help in this.

In the early growing days in New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon was grown in and around Auckland. This was because all of the New Zealand wineries and vineyards were based there, owned and operated by Dalmatians.

Not these


Dalmatians had migrated to New Zealand after the Great Exodus in 1865 caused by the Temperance League of Women usurping power in Croatia and driving the winemakers out. Initially converting their farming skills to extracting kauri gum from Northland swamps, they settled in and around Auckland and grew grapes to make wine.
Success came with production of many robust hybrid varietals that with the judicious (and injudicious) addition of water, sugar and alcohol gave passing resemblances to ports and sherries. Experiments with classical varietals though, especially Cabernet Sauvignon were doomed to failure.
The terroir, particularly in the soil make-up wasn't suitable and the white and brown clays imparted no suitable colour to the grapes so Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in Auckland looked like this:

and the resultant Cabernet Sauvignon wine looked like this:

The winemakers knew that there was a problem and needed to find a solution.

By now the old chaps were getting long in the tooth and, having been away from their female counterparts for the best part of three quarters of a century (remember the Great Exodus of 1865) and knew that fresh blood was needed.

Fortunately by now the power of the League of Temperance Women had diminished. Without wine or any forms of alcohol being consumed population levels had fallen dangerously low. The dilemma of this was that with the male population of Croatia and surrounding countries having left for greener pastures and the female population having aged so much, alcohol was definitely needed as an inducement for procreation. This led to the Great Exodus 2 where many of the women belatedly followed in the footsteps of the men from the Great Exodus looking for 'companionship'.

A generation later the new breed of winemakers was ready to follow their fathers' dreams of making the perfect New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon.

They knew that Cabernet Sauvignon was a red grape. They wanted to grow red grapes and make red wine. All results to date were disappointing with white grapes making a muddy looking white wine.
Serendipitously, most of the vineyards not only grew grapes but also grew vegetables to supply the local markets. Beetroot was the answer.

In the 1960's judicious (and injudicious) additions of beetroot juice to fermenting Cabernet Sauvignon grapes resulted in the long sought after red wine. The wine was full bodied, bright red (care had to be taken with spillage on table cloths and white shirts) and, when properly filtered, looked like a good Bordeaux wine.

The only trouble was that it tasted like beetroot.
(an interesting but unrelated fact is that modern Pinot Noir grown in Central Otago smells and tastes like beetroot!)

Something still had to be done.
Terroir was the answer.
Red soil = red grapes surely?
The young winemakers dug around all over Auckland in search of the red soil.
Most was white/brown clay but the more adventurous found pockets in:

The crater of Mount Eden.
The slopes of Rangitoto
The suburb of Ponsonby (although this later proved to be as a result of the old brickworks there).

Vineyards were established and grapes grown with promising results (not the Ponsonby ones) but the logistics of grape harvesting from inside the craters and off the slopes of volcanoes proved to be impossibly difficult.

The experiments were abandoned in the early 1970's.

Once again serendipity came to the rescue.

The late 1960's and early 1970's saw the birth of supermarkets in New Zealand. At first welcomed these fledgling enterprises were seen as progressive. How little they knew. In years to come they would develop into a big and cruel cartel that would rip the heart out of the wine industry.
Anyway, at this time the rise of supermarkets (really mid size grocers) put great demand on the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. The winemaking/vegetable growing Dalmatians couldn't keep up so bought land and planted in Hawkes Bay.
Some of them experimented in grape growing there and, when ripping the land to plant vines discovered red soil, particularly around the Gimblett Gravels area.

Oh Joy!

Cabernet Sauvignon was planted and the result was:


All was good but - 'plus ca change, plus ce'est la meme chose' (almost).

Many of the Dalmatian wine companies were gobbled up by the first wave of greedy corporates in the 1970's and 80's.

Driven by the need for volume growth the new companies went further afield to plant grapes. There were some failures (we all remember the Great Hukunui Harslevelu Disaster of 1976 and the Gisborne Grenache Glut of 1978) but there were successes too.

One of the new breeds planted grapes in Marlborough, initially to supply that new-fangled creation the wine cask.

This invention (like Pavlova to be disputed between Australia and New Zealand but anecdotal evidence points to a wine cask (not plastic as it hadn't been invented then) with a tap on it being used in parties and celebratory occasions in Gore in 1913) was to revolutionise the wine industry and introduce wine drinking to generations of new drinkers (many unfortunately who have been literally born into this form of wine packaging and who haven't moved on even today).

Experimentation in growing red varietals to fill the lesser (but still significant 37%) red portion of the wine cask market were doomed to failure. The result as I'm sure you won't be surprised at was this:

and this:

Now this:

wasn't really a problem as even as early as the late 1970's the corporate wine producers had realised that consumers drinking wine from cardboard and plastic wine 'casks' weren't very discerning and would drink any old shit as long as it had alcohol in it and they thought that they were being sophisticated but,

it wasn't red.

What to do?

Add beetroot?

No. Beetroot had become fashionable as a salad vegetable and, since the rise in popularity of the hamburger, was a staple ingredient - and had become expensive.

Only one thing to do re the red wine for casks, go back up North to plant in the red soil (or for the lesser scrupulous corporates) in any soil coloured red whether it was from old brickworks, iron foundries or meatworks.

Fine for the wine cask drinkers but - there was a lot of planting of Cabernet sauvignon going on in Marlborough. 

Remember this?:

But, remember serendipity? Or, at least the canniness of the Dalmatian winemakers?

At least one of them had hedged bets and planted vegetables amongst the vines.

No, not beetroot, but garlic, peas, potatoes and, for our history - asparagus.


according to Wikipedia is:

Asparagus officinalis is a spring vegetable, a flowering perennial[1] plant species in the genus Asparagus. It was once classified in the lilyfamily, like its Allium cousins, onions and garlic, but the Liliaceae have been split and the onion-like plants are now in the family Amaryllidaceaeand asparagus in the AsparagaceaeAsparagus officinalis is native to most of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia,[2][3][4] and is widely cultivated as a vegetable crop.Asparagus officinalis is a spring vegetable, a flowering perennial[1] plant species in the genus Asparagus. It was once classified in the lilyfamily, like its Allium cousins, onions and garlic, but the Liliaceae have been split and the onion-like plants are now in the family Amaryllidaceaeand asparagus in the AsparagaceaeAsparagus officinalis is native to most of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia,[2][3][4] and is widely cultivated as a vegetable crop. 

Anyway it grew wild and was in danger of taking over the Cabernet Sauvignon plantings (not that anyone cared). 
But then there was the Terrible Marlborough Thunderstorm of 1978 when sheet lightening gave way to vicious thunderbolts that struck the earth with never-seen-before ferocity. 

Somehow, when the lightning struck the vineyards fusion occurred. At harvest time the grapes looked different.

Remember this?

Well now they had :

These grapes looked strange, smelled strange and tasted strange.
Vineyard workers, supplementing their paltry wages ate the grapes and reported that their pee smelled funny.
(Agricultural Workers Union representatives and various Ministry officials checking on this and reported that the 'strange urine smell' was in fact preferable to the normal urine smell that pervaded the workers and public lavatories and took no action)

Remember serendipity?

Well some of the vineyard owners were Dalmatians.

Not these

 and, ever practical people they harvested and made wine out of these strange new grapes.

Once made into wine the result looked like this:

It poured like white wine and looked like white wine but smelled like cats pee and tasted like 
gooseberries and what was worse, when consumed and peed out it smelled like the result of asparagus over-indulgence.


What to do?

So much had been harvested and made into wine it had to be sold.

"Send it to the Pom's" one wit said and it caught on.

It was sent to the UK the country where warm beer, old Champagne and cider was considered acceptable and, who would have thought, they loved it and wanted more.

Pisshead wine critics like Oz Clarke raved about it and major retailers couldn't get enough of it.

More Cabernet Sauvignon X Asparagus was grown, vinified and bottled.

It had to be shipped and marketed. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on which camp you were in) the Hawkes Bay producers who had finally cracked the Cabernet Sauvignon problem and were producing a fairly decent style which in years to come would usurp USA and Australian examples and challenge Bordeaux, didn't like this Southern  'pale imitation' and lobbied the emerging NZ Wine Institute to put pressure on them.

After a bloody stoush (The Great Winemakers Battle of 1983) the Marlborough producers admitted that their Cabernet Sauvignon was in fact a white wine and agreed to change the name under which it is marketed.

The result?


which has gone from strength to strength in recent years.

God knows why.

It smells like cat's piss, tatstes like gooseberries and makes your pee smell funny.


Richard (of RBB) said...

I like Cab Sav. Looking forward to the post on Chardonnay.
I wonder if I'm the only person who read this post?

Anonymous said...

No The The Richard (of RBB) The The, a The The lot of The The us read The The The Wine Guy's The The posts.
The The The Guy

Anonymous said...

Hey, they become quite popular in the very distant future, sort of like the Egyptians are to us.
Different Time Zone Bill

My Spurt said...

Well, I'd have to say a tad long but a thought provoking post. I'll certainly be popping back, once in a while. There you go, The Wine Guy, you've got a thinking guy reading your blog now.

Bin Hire said...

I enjoyed this post. Okay, I'd had a few wines when I read it, but still a good post.

Second Fiddle said...

I'm just having a little of the last of a Longridge 2011 Sauv Blanc some one gave me and i totally agree with the post. Yet people ask for it...why?

Richard (of RBB) said...

I hope you're not intending to post after drinking that wine Second. Remember the Prowse Brothers and the cannabals joke you posted last time.