Greg Sherwood MW: Is there merit in chameleon wine brands?
By Greg Sherwood, 23 March 2022
What do the big international wine brands Lindemans from Australia, Penfolds from Australia and Mud House from New Zealand all have in common? Yes, they all do happen to be well-established and broadly popular Antipodean wine brands, but this is not the answer I’m after. While many consumers will be scratching their heads and wracking their brains for the answer, I suspect the more savvy wine drinking consumer together with many wine trade professionals will point out correctly that they are all brands that have decided to branch out into other winemaking countries.
As Accolade, the owner of the iconic Mud House Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc brand explains so eloquently in corporate speak, “Moving into a new country of origin will allow us to increase brand awareness and the opportunity to purchase after Mud House saw a 31% increase in volume and 28% rise in value sales year on year in 2020.” Accolade’s Head of Brands Peter English continues, “our consumers are highly engaged with the Mud House brand, and they trust us to deliver quality wines that take them on an adventure. With the release of these two new refreshing, modern wines (there is also a new Chilean Mud House Rosé), we are doing just that. We expect our loyal shoppers to explore these new Chilean wines with the confidence and trust established by the Mud House brand. The Mud House Chilean Sauvignon Blanc builds on the essence of our adventurous spirit and is a perfect extension to our original Mud House exploration.”
So, it’s all about adventures and exploration. Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say. Well, perhaps if we were talking about Captain Morgan Rum or a Camel cigarette sponsored Land Rover expedition, it might make a bit more sense. But is this chameleon-like brand behaviour suited to individual wine brands that have at the core of their essence, a unique, novel and individual set of character traits that have been key in establishing them as distinctive global brands in the first place? Is there a danger that too much brand extension and diffusion will eventually damage the original brand’s reputation in the mind of the consumer?
These are questions that are far more relevant to the South African wine industry than may at first seem obvious. In 2021, the New Zealand region of Marlborough experienced a very high-quality Sauvignon Blanc harvest but unfortunately for the many growers, also a greatly reduced harvest yield with many producers seeing reductions of up to 20% to 30%. In the context of “Brand New Zealand” and “Brand Marlborough”, this was nothing short of a disaster as the thirsty global wine markets consumed Kiwis Sauvignon Blanc at ever greater quantities mid-pandemic. Something was going to have to be done to alleviate the growing pressure on New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc supply – Extend your brand offering or face the prospect of losing market share to cheaper, external lookalike competitors.
In the UK, the NZ Sauvignon Blanc shortage has manifested itself in the form of top brands being very tightly allocated to all trade customers. In the premium retail sector, names like Cloudy Bay, Greywacke, Isabel and Dog Point have had to be allocated for the first time in over a decade. For many wine merchants in the UK, South African Sauvignon Blanc seems the obvious choice to fill the breach, being possible to produce high quality styles in South Africa that come very close to imitating the New Zealand zesty tropical character but at greatly reduced prices. For Mud House however, bulk buying cheaper Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and bottling it in the UK evidently seemed a more lucrative proposition and perhaps a longer term, cheaper alternative supply source than even South Africa.
But what of the quality of these brands? Speaking to renowned UK wine journalist Dr Jamie Goode, he was very dismissive of the whole Mud House Chile idea, saying “it’s incredibly short-term in outlook, and I think it’s a poor decision. By doing this, one of Marlborough’s most identifiable brands is kingmaking Chilean Sauvignon. It’s saying, hey folks, this Chilean Sauvignon is just as good as the stuff in Marlborough, so we are putting our label on it. Our brand equity is precious, so we wouldn’t risk it if we didn’t think the wine was good enough. I suspect there were a lot of shaking heads in New Zealand when this wine came out.” Needless to say, Goode was not a big fan of the wine itself, scoring the 2021 vintage a meagre 82/100 and criticised Accolade for sourcing Central Valley bulk instead of at least trying to make something more interesting from cool climate fruit from either Leyda, San Antonio or coastal Colchagua.
At this point, I am going to confess that my initial fascination in this whole Mud House Chilean brand extension saga was actually triggered by a bottle of wine I drank while in South Africa recently. Just a few weeks ago, I finally popped my cherry and got to taste the much talked about Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2020 from Marlborough. At R256 a bottle (or circa £13 pounds), the Diemersdal expression can certainly be classified as a premium offering. Now I know the comparison with the Mud House tale does not bare an exact, direct comparison, but it did get me thinking a lot about global chameleon brands, brand extensions and in general, about how far producers and brand owners can actually take the concept in the name of “increasing brand awareness and opportunity to purchase.” Meerlust Rubicon Napa Valley? Kanonkop Paul Sauer Pauillac? Or maybe an Eben Sadie Old Vine Series Côte Rôtie?
But before I digress too much, I should note my assessment of the Diemersdal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc which I believe is already the third edition to hit the market. My tasting note was as follows:
Diemersdal Sauvignon Blanc 2020, Marlborough, New Zealand, 12.5% Abv. – The first sniff of this Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc indicates that there is a lot going on in the glass. The aromatics are classical, subtle and complex with notes of pithy white citrus, green apple cordial, white peach, dried herbs and savoury tinned petit pois nuances. The palate is taut and crisp with a strict linear structure in the mouth bolstered by cool, clean green crunchy acids and layers of green papaya, crunchy pears, apple pastille and white peach fruits. Never too fruity or too pungent, but always cool and crystalline with some lovely limestone minerality on the finish, this is quite a grown-up expression of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from the Wairau Valley. Drink now and over the next 2 to 3 years. (93/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
After my chat with Goode and taking into account his own fairly scathing tasting note on the Mud House Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, I decided I could not possibly complete this article without tasting the wine first hand. So, on my recent return from South Africa, I popped into my local Tesco supermarket and bought a bottle for £9 (or circa R180). The first thing that struck me about the wine was the intense fermentation bouquet character that remains on the wine. Having spent a week in Cape Town tasting fermenting 2022 vintage tanks, there was something very familiar about the aromatics. Looking beyond this slightly awkward feature, there are notes of crunchy green fruits, hints of green melon, and to borrow from Jamie’s note, a certain musky green table grape character. The acids are as fresh and zingy as you would find on many cheaper, bulk shipped New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs but there is also a rawness to the acids that is only somewhat mitigated by the sweet pear and green apple nuances on the wine’s finish. I don’t get the bitterness Jamie refers to in his tasting notes but perhaps it is the rasping, slightly forced nature of the wine that he is referring to? All in all, it’s a pleasant, fairly simple glass of Sauvignon Blanc that consumers will need to tread carefully around when buying so as not to be fooled into thinking they are in fact buying a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. I am less offended by the wine so will settle on a slightly more generous 84+/100 score.
Doing a little bit more digging, I couldn’t help but uncover a few more ‘man in the street’ consumer reviews that the Mud House Chile brand has already received. Sadly, they are all fairly predictable considering the wine’s relatively punchy price point of £9:
Disappointing – I bought this totally under the impression it was New Zealand Mud House Sauvignon Blanc (should have read the small print!). Unfortunately, it was Chilean and very disappointing – so not worth the money.
Yeah not for me – Mud House Marlborough, lovely… Chile, meh, not so lovely.
Chile not Marlborough – Disappointed. Bought the Marlborough before and enjoyed it, picked this by mistake, didn’t notice it was from Chile? Completely different. Not as good.
So, I guess the moral of the story is if you are going to dabble with overseas adventures, make sure you do it properly like Diemersdal evidently have, creating a wine with genuine sex appeal and a point of difference. South Africa has so many quality Sauvignon Blancs to offer at every price point, but sometimes you need to drink some of the competitions’ wines to remind oneself how spoilt the wine consumers are at home in South Africa.
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.