Just as Paris is not France and London is not the UK, New York is a microcosm unto itself. Nevertheless, trends often start in major cities before filtering through to the rest of the country. We asked Tom Geniesse of the Bottle Rocket wine store in New York to describe current perceptions of Sauvignon blanc amongst his clientele and to pinpoint potential for development in the future.
Can you briefly describe your store?
Bottle Rocket wine store has been open for a little over ten years. Our business model is designed to allow people to make intelligent choices when they’re buying wine and offers a physical environment that supports people’s decision making: we probably sell around 500 wines compared with the usual 5,000 and limit our range to a manageable number. We have organised them the old-fashioned way, by country, but also according to the traditional categories and needs that people have – food pairing or gifting for example. We also provide high quality information next to each bottle and offer a very relaxed environment – there’s a kid’s play area, loud rock and roll, a dog tree, cement floors, green-certified building materials, so that everything about the store when you walk in tells you that it’s fun and relaxed, and not a mahogany wood surrounding with squeaky suits and an attitude. This is the people’s store.
How important are Sauvignon Blanc wines to your range?
They are massively important. A lot of New Yorkers reached a point of saturation with their old top pick, Chardonnay, some number of years ago and have branched out wider.
I think many have replaced Chardonnay with Sauvignon blanc as their go-to grape.
Sauvignon grows all over the world in varying styles and quality and certainly for white wine drinkers, it is a major player.
What kind of range of Sauvignon blanc wines do you stock in your store?
We stock them from all over the world. We have a harder time finding good ones from California for instance because they tended to be too rich and tropical for us. Our Sauvignons come primarily from France, lesser US regions and certainly South America – Chile and Argentina – and of course New Zealand which is a fantastic place for the grape too.
Is there a price cap on Sauvignon blanc?
The price range is extensive. We have some $10 whites that are awesome bottles and we have some pretty phenomenal Sancerre and white Bordeaux, obviously blends, that are world class wines. We stock different things at different times and it really does range from the top to the bottom. There are some misconceptions similar to those with Chardonnay – “I don’t like Chardonnay but I love white Burgundy”. There is some of this with Sancerre. People are willing to spend more for what they perceive to be a good bottle of Sauvignon blanc. It’s not a grape where everyone is looking for the cheap bottles, as they would with say Pinot grigio. People certainly have a psychological barrier when buying Pinot grigio or Prosecco or other categories.
What are the most popular styles currently?
Definitely wines from the Loire and Sancerre. People see them as a reliable category – they know that wines from Sancerre will be crisp and minerally and have the bite that they like and that is a very fashionable flavour profile at the moment, at the store and in NY. New Zealand is the other reliable category. People are certainly willing to spend money on what they perceive as a high quality Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, but we sell an ocean of lesser-priced bottles too. It shows though that when someone feels confident that a wine is of a level of quality, they are willing to pay a premium for it.
How about oak-aged versions?
I don’t think we’re seeing a trend towards that. Considering Sancerre is a popular place at the moment, that tells us that people are looking for stainless steel, crisp, high acid wines that are refreshing. That is not to say that someone who loves big, rich Californian Chardonnay would not enjoy a big, rich, oak-aged Sauvignon blanc. It’s not that it’s not a possibility, it’s just that it’s not a taste trend I’m seeing.
How have consumer preferences for Sauvignon blanc changed over the past decade?
More and more people lean on it as their primary white wine grape.
Definitely, that has increased since we opened. Traditionally, American consumers relied heavily on Californian wines and the traditional, heavily oaked ones. That trend has now reversed. The winemakers backed off with the oak for a fair amount. If they do that, it means they’re responding to the consumer
For those who drank so many Chardonnays they just got sick of it, I think they’ve happily moved to Sauvignon blanc.
We are always looking for cool new products so any new trends tend to filter down through to our store. From a consumer perspective, Sauvignon is a big deal grape and very much the centre of interest.
What would you say is Sauvignon blanc’s most serious competitor?
In terms of the major varietals, Chardonnay may find a second wind if producers look to Burgundy for inspiration. I’m not sure, otherwise, that I see anything that could dominate in the same way here. We pride ourselves on having a diverse range of wines, so it’s not all Sauvignon blanc all the time. We delight in offering curious people new things from around the world. But if someone comes in and asks for a white wine suitable for a dinner party, the chances are the conversation will get simpler.
How do you see the future for SB in terms of flavour profile and drinking occasions?
Sauvignon is already such a food-friendly grape and often produced in a very food-friendly style that it’s already a favourite for restaurants on wine lists and for cooks and consumers. So I’m not sure it’s going to suddenly hop into a new place in terms of its utility as a wine. It’s not a new trend – it’s not wine from Jura or Savagnin or a wine geeks’ wine. It’s so huge already that I can’t see it morphing into a whole new direction. However, it’s always been a puzzle to me that white Bordeaux is not a bigger thing. Admittedly, the wines are more rarely only Sauvignon blanc, but sometimes they are or are blended with Sémillon. These are great wines and some of them are age-worthy, but they are not quite as well-recognised for their quality as perhaps they should be by consumers here. Maybe that’s a reflection on people’s approach to Bordeaux in general – they’re maybe a little bit tired of them generally, mostly red, but the whites have been tarred by that trend. Personally I am a big fan of white Bordeaux. For Sauvignon blanc specifically, I think Bordeaux is a region where the quality, the oak ageing and the age-worthiness are not being recognised for their true value.
How would you sum up the reasons for Sauvignon blanc’s popularity?
In all of its styles, it delivers reasonably beefy wines. It’s not so light and flighty and is incredibly useful as a wine and versatile. It’s a great occasional drink – you can have a glass on a porch or you can enjoy it with a sophisticated meal.