Celebrating New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Text and photos by Steve Thurlow
(with introduction by Treve Ring)

It was the Steve & Treve show representing WineAlign in Marlborough earlier this year, crossing paths at the International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration along with 300 sommeliers, trade, producers and journalists from around the globe. Steve details the Celebration and Kiwi translation of Sauvignon Blanc below, but I wanted to start with a little primer into the distinctive grape itself.

SAUVIGNON BLANC {SOH-vin-yohn BLAHNGK; soh-vee-nyawn BLAHN}

also known as “Cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush.”

#SauvBlancThat was my initial introduction to sauvignon blanc. For a budding wine enthusiast this was at once terrifying (you want me to drink what?) and relieving (finally wine descriptors that make sense!), and now even as a gnarly vine wine enthusiast that description has stuck with me. Of course, sauvignon blanc is so much more than that memorable phrase. This green-skinned grape most likely hails from France’s Loire Valley, where it can blindingly shine in the Kimmeridgian limestone and Silex flint. As the third most planted white variety in France, sauvignon blanc (from the French for sauvage, meaning wild), is also comfortably at home in Bordeaux, blending in harmony with Semillon; as well as throughout Languedoc-Roussillon, contributing greatly to lean and tart Pays d’Oc IGP. The highly vigorous grape is widely adaptable, spreading as easily worldwide as its tangled and aggressive foliage. All things green are its hallmark: grass, hedge, meadow, asparagus, kiwi, green peppers, gooseberries, as well as passion fruit and elderflower in slightly warmer climates. Crisp, piercing acidity permeates all wines, save for those harvested in the hottest regions, and helps preserve freshness and zest in late harvest or oaked examples. As Steve writes below, the grape rocketed to fame over the past 20 years in New Zealand, finding a prime home for a concentrated, pungent, fresh and unoaked style.

May 6th marks the 7th annual International Sauvignon Blanc Day and celebrations will kick off in New Zealand and travel around the globe in restaurants and bars, and on social media. You can share in the celebrations by using the hashtag #SauvBlanc on Twitter and Instagram – all in fun to share the love for New Zealand’s most popular grape. May also brings us the Great New Zealand Wine Tiki Tour with trade and consumer events being held in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto. You can find complete details here, including a special offer for WineAlign members.

~ TR

Celebrating Sauvignon Blanc

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

Marlborough sauvignon blanc has been a runaway success story. No other country has been able to enter the modern world of wine with a premium priced product and grow its market share like New Zealand. Other recent arrivals on the scene like Chile, Argentina and South Africa have brought us value wines, but are still struggling to get us to buy their premium priced products. No wonder everyone wants to emulate New Zealand’s success.

In Canada, New Zealand, and in particular Marlborough, has been the reference for sauvignon blanc for the last ten years or so and its very distinctive style has become the benchmark for producers across the world. Previously it was the steely, minerally sauvignon from Sancerre in France that winemakers were aiming to emulate, but that has been replaced by NZ as the benchmark by most of the New World producers.

I first visited New Zealand in 2004 and have been back there almost every year since, closely watching the growing success of this far-away wine producer. So I was delighted to be among 300 people from all over the world who gathered in Marlborough in February of this year at the first ever International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration (#SauvignonNZ). Since they are the current world leaders in this variety, it was appropriate that we all met there (and it was also a good time for me to escape a Canadian winter).

Before I recount what I discovered on this visit, let’s examine why Marlborough sauvignon blanc has been so successful. To start with, this grape has one good thing going for it. As Matt Kramer told us in his keynote address to the conference, “Sauvignon blanc is the world’s most reliably good dry white wine.” Notice he did not say it was the greatest white wine, just that it was reliable. An excellent go-to-wine when you just want something white to drink that is predictable.

But Marlborough sauvignon blanc is not just any sauvignon blanc; it has its own special distinctive signature. So distinctive that even those unblessed with great vinous skills are usually able to recognize it. It is this distinctiveness that is one of its greatest attributes and why it is emulated by winemakers around the world.

From the moment in life that you first approach a juicy succulent Marlborough sauvignon blanc you will always remember those gooseberry-tinged, green apple, passion fruit, green pepper, green grass, blackcurrant leaf aromas touched by honey that have become its signature. You will soon then notice that your palate is entranced by that lime or grapefruit mouthwatering acidity and its fresh, clean, slightly bitter finish, all wrapped with just enough sweetness to make it delicious.

New Zealand did not start making wine until around 1980, making its wine industry approximately 45 years old. Its success is totally tied up with the success of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, which represents nearly 80% of what they produce. With New Zealand population levels modest, it has, by necessity, been an export driven success.

Being distinctive and popular has facilitated the growth of a brand. I noticed about five years ago that there was a similarity developing within this brand. Every producer was aiming for the same thing and by 2010 they were mostly getting there. The wines were starting to taste and look the same and sell for about the same price, which is understandable when you have seen such success. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing wrong with this; the wines were delicious and it demonstrated the ability of growers and winemakers to deliver a consistent product to meet growing demand. And since no other region is able to replicate your brand, why not make hay while the sun shines?

At the conference I detected the sense that wineries were reaching a mid-life crisis. They need to be sure of the path to take to continue to be successful. There seemed to be two major pitfalls that will need to be considered, price and premiumisation.

In the last five years I have been tasting some sauvignons from elsewhere that are starting to replicate the Marlborough style. Some wines from the Leyda Valley and the coastal Aconcagua Valley in Chile, from Darling in the Western Cape in South Africa and Carcassonne in Southern France are getting there. These are not high cost producers so there is a vulnerability here for New Zealand to watch since it is a high cost producer. Another danger of such distinctiveness is the difficulty to establish more premium brand extensions. That is to say, how do you improve on the accepted norm and get people to spend more money, when they are happy with the status quo.

Wairau Valley Marlborough

Wairau Valley Marlborough

The conference and the weeks of personal travel that followed were a great opportunity to see where things were going. As in all successful wine regions that produce a single varietal wine, there has been a steady trajectory for more site-specific wines. The success of many of the early wines from the region was down to complexity created by blending grapes from different parts of the region. In Marlborough, somewhat simplistically, there were originally two basic regions: The cooler Wairau River to the north and the Southern Valleys holding the tributary rivers of the Wairau River to the south, where it is warmer and drier with different soils. Further south over the hills, there was little planted in the nearby Awatere Valley. It’s a different landscape now, with massive planting in the last ten years in the Awatere. So today, three places provide the fruit that goes into the regional blends to create the distinctive wine that we all know. And it’s a wine that is largely made with little manipulation by winemakers. It is the growers and those who blend the wines from different sources who have made  Marlborough what it is today.

There is a movement for more site-specific wines and the three large regions are being delineated as wineries bottle wines from these subregions. In time, I am sure people will start to put boundaries on viticultural maps and give these places names that we will come to recognize. I will look at some of these wine growing activities later on, but first let’s look at what winemakers are doing.

Marlborough sauvignon blanc is mostly made today without maturation in oak barrels and using cultivated yeasts. The techniques employed have been perfected to produce the fresh, clean, pure, flavourful and balanced wines that put the place on the map. So it is also a natural that winemakers are starting to experiment with new styles using natural yeast fermentation, oak maturation and other techniques to enhance what nature, soil and climate have so far delivered. I was most anxious to see these efforts and there were certainly some promising results.

However, I do want first to recognize and give credit to the big players who have put the region on the world map, as they inevitably do in any successful wine region. These are the companies with an international reach and established sales channels who can also, because of economies of scale, make very good, inexpensive wine. The success of Marlborough would not have been possible without their presence and they will continue to open new markets in places yet to experience the delight of Marlborough sauvignon blanc. They will also be able to make better blends and fight off any emerging international competition. Pernod Ricard New Zealand, with its Brancott and Stoneleigh wines, Constellation with Nobilo and Kim Crawford, Delegats with Oyster Bay and Villa Maria, along with others, have played a vital role in today’s success.

As well as continuing to develop new international markets, these big organizations are leading the search for the next big thing. They are bottling site-specific wines and providing resources to their winemakers to make even better wines. A recent development is surely designed to attract the drinkers of lightly sparkling wines – wines like Prosecco from Italy that are so popular recently. Lightly sparkling sauvignon blanc is being made by a few wineries now. These wines are very appealing, simple and sweetish and are very drinkable as a party or reception wine. This may be a hook to get these folks to try the more traditional brands.

Anyway let’s start looking at specific producers and wines that illustrate what I have been talking about. Most wineries these days are making more than one sauvignon blanc. There is usually an entry level wine, often a regional blend, and then others at a premium price that are from a single site, or have been enhanced by the winemaking techniques already mentioned.

Stoneleigh

This is one of the best known and most popular NZ brands in Canada. Their sauvignon blancs are mainly sourced from the Stoneleigh vineyard in the central part of the Wairau Valley region. The gravelly river soils in this region augment the stonefruit aromas and flavours and add mouthwatering grapefruit acidity to the Stoneleigh 2015 Sauvignon Blanc making it lively and exciting to drink. The Stoneleigh 2015 Latitude Sauvignon Blanc is more understated, maybe classier, with some complex aromas and more crunchy green apple flavours.

However it was the Stoneleigh 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Wild Valley that really excited me. Marlborough sauvignon blanc is traditionally made with a cultured yeast once the natural yeasts have been killed off following crushing. This wine, however is fermented naturally using the yeast that lives in the vineyard with the grapes. Winemaker Jamie Marfell uses this to give the wine added texture and enhanced flavour. The natural process is slower which allows the wine to develop texture along with more complex flavours.

More Stoneleigh wines reviewed here.

Jamie Marfell Winemaker at Stoneleigh

Jamie Marfell Winemaker at Stoneleigh

Brancott Estate

The southern side of the Wairau Valley, where the Brancott Vineyard is situated, has a higher clay content than the river bed soils further north. It is also warmer and drier with less stone and more nutrients. The Brancott brand is relatively new to Canada and the very impressive Brancott Estate 2015 Letter Series B Sauvignon Blanc has just arrived at the LCBO. It is a complex wine that has benefited from an elaborate winemaking process. About 20% of the fruit is handpicked and then wild fermented. The other 80% is machine harvested, which seems better at preserving the components that yield the elevated passion-fruit, grapefruit and tropical aromas (thiols) that characterize Marlborough sauvignon blanc. A small percentage of the machine picked fruit is matured in oak vessels. It is a delicious well priced white that is elegant and complex with a mineral tone and lovely lively fruity palate.

More Brancott Estate wines reviewed here.

Brancott Estate Marlborough

Brancott Estate Marlborough

Villa Maria

Villa Maria was founded by George Fistonich in 1961. It has been a major contributor to the wine industry ever since and seems to win more awards for its wines than any other winery. As one travels around New Zealand one meets countless winemakers and viticulturists who at some time in their careers have worked at Villa Maria. Everyone has phenomenal respect and admiration for the founder and his winery which remains a family business.

Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc has always been one of the best value sauvignons and it is deservedly one of the most popular. The Villa Maria 2015 Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc is consistent and faithful to the successful distinctive style with classic aromas of gooseberry, passion fruit, grapefruit, white pepper and delicate fresh herbal notes of green peas and dill.

For a few dollars more one can upgrade to the Villa Maria 2015 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanca very classy Marlborough sauvignon with lifted classic aromatics. The nose and palate are pure and fresh with a rich creamy texture.

Villa Maria 2015 Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc is a charming well-made, pure, fresh bubbly with aromas of passion fruit with grapefruit, mint and nettles. It is creamy smooth with a hint of sweetness and is very refreshing. Not that complex but quite delicious as a party or reception wine.

More Villa Maria wines reviewed here.

Villa Maria Auckland Winery2

Villa Maria Auckland Winery

Whitehaven

Whitehaven winery was founded in 1994 by the late Greg White. His widow, the energetic Sue White, manages the operation which has expanded considerably in recent years. They make two wines from sauvignon blanc. Whitehaven 2015 Sauvignon Blanc is a classic fresh, fruity style, quite herbaceous with a nice mineral salty tang and excellent length.

Whitehaven 2015 Greg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc is a single vineyard wine from the Alton Downs Vineyard in the Awatere Valley. It is well structured and quite mineral with aromas and flavours of gooseberry and guava fruit with spearmint, peapod and lemon tones. Designed for short term ageing, it still needs another year or two of bottle age before it hits prime time.

More Whitehaven wines reviewed here.

Awatere Valley

Awatere Valley

Dog Point Vineyard

This winery was founded by two veterans of the NZ wine business, James Healy and Ivan Sutherland. These pioneers met at Cloudy Bay where they worked together for many years, Ivan growing the grapes and James making the wines. In 2004 they decided to create Dog Point and since then have become a beacon of excellence in the region. Several family members are actively involved in the affair and they now export their wines to over 40 countries – pretty remarkable for a 30,000 case winery founded so recently. When you sample their wines it soon becomes clear that this is a haven for high quality wine produced by passionate people.

They produce two wines from sauvignon blanc. Dog Point 2015 Sauvignon Blanc was the best traditional sauvignon that I tasted this spring in New Zealand. It is textbook Marlborough, made 80% from cultured yeast with stainless steel maturation. The palate is lively and brimming with mouthwatering grapefruit acidity and juicy tropical fruit. The other wine is made 100% from sauvignon blanc but it is called Dog Point 2013 Section 94 after its source in their vineyard. It is fermented with wild yeast in oak barrels and has intense flavours and full bodied fruit. This is another powerful wine best sampled in a few more years when it will become better integrated and age has softened some of its hard edges.

More Dog Point wines reviewed here.

Greywacke

This winery, owned by Kevin Judd, shares the winery facilities of Dog Point. Kevin is another veteran winemaker who also spent many years perfecting his technique at Cloudy Bay. Additionally, he is one of New Zealand’s best vineyard landscape photographers and his pictures are widely used to celebrate the beauty of the NZ wine regions. I have been tasting his wines for many years and have almost always been mega-impressed. The Greywacke 2014 (Kevin Judd) Sauvignon Blanc is in stores in Ontario at present. Quebec and BC also buy this wine each year.

He has another wine in stores in Ontario currently, the Greywacke 2012 Wild Sauvignon Blanc. This is a very impressive and beautiful sauvignon blanc made using wild fermentation in a mixture of new and used oak barrels. The majority also goes through malolactic fermentation and it spends its life prior to bottling on its lees. In effect, it’s made like many chardonnays and as a consequence is a long way from traditional Marlborough style. Complex, elegant and subtle and highly recommended. I also tasted the 2014 vintage of this wine and it was one of the best sauvignon that I tasted on my latest visit. Made largely the same way except very little went through malolactic fermentation and only 7% spent time in new oak. Such was the difference between the 2014 and 2012 harvests. We will have to wait and hope that this vintage also comes to Canada.

More Greywacke wines reviewed here.

Before I conclude, there is need to mention sauvignon blanc produced elsewhere in New Zealand. The Sacred Hill, Craggy Range, C.J. Pask and Sileni wineries located in Hawke’s Bay on the North Island produce sauvignon blanc in both Hawke’s Bay and in Martinborough, as do many other wineries, though the total quantity is small compared to Marlborough. Many of these wineries also have vineyards in Marlborough and so it interesting to compare the pairs of wines from the same vintage and same winemaker.

The other regions tend to be warmer and so the fruit is more tropical, the greenness less strident and the acids softer. For me, the non-Marlborough sourced wines do not have much of a distinctive character such that in blind tastings I have often been unsure of their origin, whereas I think that Marlborough’s  unique signature leads me to guess their origin more surely. Though maybe in future a Leyda Valley or Darling wine might throw me in the wrong direction.

Marlborough sauvignon blanc is one of the great successes of the New World wine industry over the last few decades. It is distinctive, pure and easily recognizable and will, I am sure, remain the go-to wine for many. Provided costs and prices remain reasonable, it will continue to prosper and be the backbone for the entire NZ wine industry.

Innovation and site selection, as we have seen, are being applied to make more interesting and hence more premium wines. There isn’t a formula for these, as there is for the basic brand, and there doesn’t need to be. I will keep watching closely and look forward to returning in 2019 for the next edition of #SauvignonNZ. Meanwhile, I will be focusing on January 2017 which sees the next edition of the Pinot Noir NZ Celebration.

Next week Treve will report on the New Zealand Sparkling and Chardonnay Symposium.

Steve Thurlow

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Whitehaven Vineyard

Whitehaven Vineyard



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