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Whitehaven Winery

When wine lovers around the world open a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc they know that what they are getting is a wine that is truly distinctive. At the same time pungently herbaceous and tropical, and even occasionally spicy, this is a wine that is unmistakable, and Marlborough wine producers are intent on keeping it that way.

Located on the north-eastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island, Marlborough’s cool coastal climate coupled with long sunny days has produced wines that, while fruit driven, still retain the grape’s grassiness and acidity.

As the fan base for the wine continues to grow, so too have the wineries that supply this popular drop. Whitehaven Wines, a family owned business, is one of the vineyards gaining popularity on an international scale.

Sue White, the proprietor of Whitehaven, started Whitehaven with her late husband Greg 22 years ago and has seen the winery go from strength to strength in that time. “We’re currently producing around 550,000 cases a year,” Sue said.

“These days around 75 per cent of our Whitehaven branded wine is going to the United States, it’s by far and away our biggest market.”

When Sue, Greg, and young daughter Samantha anchored their yacht in the Marlborough Sounds with the intention to create ‘a respected and critically acclaimed winery’, it is hard to imagine that they would have envisioned the international success they have achieved. “Currently we’re the largest seller of Sauvignon Blanc to the U.S. in the ultra-premium market segment,” Sue said.

“While there are definitely bigger sellers at lower price points, we’ve been fortunate to continue to gain popularity in the US$15-20 a bottle price range. We attribute this to our focus on quality and tendency to consistently over deliver on price point.”

Befriending a global giant

Sue says a lot of their success in the U.S. market has been helped through their business relationship with one of the world’s largest wine businesses, E & J Gallo Winery. “In 2003, Whitehaven entered into an agreement with Gallo for the distribution of Whitehaven Wine in the U.S. and since then things have really taken off,” she said.

“There is really nothing like E & J Gallo, while they are still a family owned business the distribution footprint they have in the States is huge.” The strength of the demand coming from the United States has enabled Whitehaven to expand their winery operations and Sue says they are now seeking to invest in additional vines.

“In the past we’ve heavily relied on the contract growing of grapes with over 90 per cent coming from contract growers,” she said. 

“In the past couple of years we’ve gone from only around 10 hectares of vineyards up to about 110 hectares and we are hopefully going to continue acquisition where possible over the next few years.”

The 2016 vintage has been a bountiful one for Marlborough, which came off the relatively small harvest in 2015. “We had a good harvest this year, helped along by favourable growing conditions,” Sue said. “Yield management definitely became more of a challenge this year but it looks like being a pretty solid vintage. It might not have quite the intensity of 2015 but the long warm days have added their own characteristics and will ensure the wine is well received, particularly in the American market.”

Seducing the American palate

While Whitehaven has taken huge leaps due to the popularity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in the U.S. it does not seem that the market is likely to reach saturation any time soon, particularly as the market starts to show an interest in other varieties. Wine consumption in the U.S. currently sits at around 14 bottles per capita annually; this is compared with Australia at 31 bottles and mature markets such as France with a total of 59 bottles annually. “Americans are slowly moving toward choosing wine over beer and spirits,” Sue said.

“We’re fortunate that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has had a unique position in the market there for a number of years now.

It’s a very distinctive type of wine and it’s of a consistent quality so consumers tend to feel confident when they purchase it, which has enabled the region to maintain a higher price point in the market.”

As the market for Whitehaven wine continues to surge Sue says that the speed in which the business has expanded could not have been achieved without the financial backing and support of Rabobank.

“They’ve been fantastic actually, they’re very attuned to our needs and have an understanding of the wine industry that is invaluable,” she said.

“The account managers we’ve had understand the industry and our business so well that they’ve even occasionally challenged us, in a good way, and asked questions of us that have often brought about better outcomes.”

“We regularly receive the agri research from the Bank and we’ve been fortunate on a number of occasions to have Rabobank agri research experts here to visit and the knowledge they’ve shared has been excellent.”

For wine lovers eagerly awaiting the 2016 vintage, they need only to look for Whitehaven’s distinctive anchor insignia, the winery’s marque of quality, consistency and integrity.