Kim Crawford’s Evolution

The No.-1 New Zealand import continues to make gains in the U.S.

Kim Crawford (lineup pictured) has long dominated the New Zealand wine category in the U.S. Between 2008 and 2018, the brand grew from 298,000 cases to 1.3 million cases.
Kim Crawford (lineup pictured) has long dominated the New Zealand wine category in the U.S. Between 2008 and 2018, the brand grew from 298,000 cases to 1.3 million cases.

After more than two decades on the U.S market, Constellation-owned New Zealand wine Kim Crawford continues to sustain its growth arc, largely thanks to the enduring popularity of its Sauvignon Blanc, which accounts for approximately 90% of its overall sales. From 2008-2018, the brand rose from 298,000 cases to 1.3 million cases. This year it’s looking to surpass 1.4 million cases as it continues to lead the New Zealand import charge, which increased 6.7% to NZ$557 million ($3.6 million) in the 12 months through June 2019, according to the New Zealand Winegrowers trade group.

Founded in Auckland as a “virtual winery” in 1996, Kim Crawford began exporting to the U.S. in 1998. It was acquired by Constellation Brands in 2006 as part of a deal with Canadian wine giant Vincor International that also included Washington’s Hogue Cellars, California’s R.H. Phillips, and Canada’s Inniskillin. Kim Crawford soon became the biggest growth brand from that acquisition.

While Kim Crawford’s Sauvignon Blanc ($18 a 750-ml.) dominates the portfolio, it also offers the higher-end Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($25), which launched in 2018 and thus far is the only label in the brand’s Signature Reserve line. In addition, Kim Crawford produces a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, though it hasn’t yet hit the U.S. market. Other offerings include  Pinot Gris ($18), Chardonnay ($18), and rosé ($18), the last of which is made from Merlot rather than Pinot Noir, which head winemaker Anthony Walkenhorst says creates a fuller flavor.

Kim Crawford’s Pinot Noir ($20 a 750-ml.) itself is seeing growth, though it accounts for only a small portion of sales. The fruit is sourced from the cool-climate regions of Marlborough and Central Otago, where a variety of clones and soil types are used to capture balance and flavor. “Our Pinot Noir is generally appreciated for its freshness and lush aromatics, compared to those from California which often have riper flavors thanks to a hotter growing climate,” notes Walkenhorst.

Kim Crawford owns nearly 5,000 acres of vineyard land in New Zealand, including two vineyards in Marlborough and one in Hawkes Bay. Walkenhorst, who joined the company in 2005, enthuses about working in the various Marlborough sub-regions, which offer a range of meso-climates and diverse soil types. “We’ve broken down each sub-region into vineyard blocks that we harvest individually in order to capture the specific characteristics of each vineyard parcel,” Walkenhorst says. He adds that Kim Crawford’s work in the sub-regions is concentrated on Sauvignon Blanc, which in a typical year contains fruit from the Lower Wairau Valley and the Awatere Valley, and often from Rarangi, Blind River, Southern Valleys, Upper Wairau, and Rapaura.

On the marketing front, last year the company launched its “Make It Amazing” campaign and partnered with the United States Tennis Association as the official wine of the U.S. Open. More than 100,000 glasses of Kim Crawford wines were sold during the Open in 2019, and the brand also ran TV spots on both weekends of the tournament.

Kim Crawford is also reaching consumers by tapping into mixology and keeping up with the latest trends. Its website promotes an extensive list of cocktail recipes—like the Rhuby Rad, comprising Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, Lillet Blanc aperitif, lemon juice, and rhubarb syrup—and food pairing suggestions. In addition, late last year the company extended its range with canned wine offerings ($13 a 2-pack of 250-ml. cans). The brand is also leaning into today’s low-alcohol movement. “New Zealand started seeing a demand for low-alcohol wines a few years ago,” Walkenhorst says. Grapes are now picked a bit earlier—making for naturally lower sugar levels—in order to make balanced wines at 9% abv.

For now, Kim Crawford will concentrate on tasting trials and continuing to grow its small batch production. “The focus will stay on increasing our wineries and vineyards to be able to handle the growth in Sauvignon Blanc and rosé,” Walkenhorst says. “For the longer term, we’ll focus on supply. Marlborough is getting very full, with not much room left to plant grapes, so that’s going to be a challenge.”