James Lawther MW visits New Zealand to taste the Sauvignon Blancs

new zealand sauvignon blancs marlborough james lawther MW People & Places Articles
  • Monday 8 June 2009

A river of the once universally loved New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has led some to decry the wine as one-dimensional and bland. James Lawther MW went to its heartland, Marlborough, in search of regional nuance

Connoisseurs might pooh-pooh it but vibrant, zesty, pungent, fruity Sauvignon Blanc is the people’s grape. Parisian bistros plying the steelier Loire version kept the secret for decades, but it was New Zealand – or, to be precise, Cloudy Bay and Marlborough – that took Sauvignon to the wider world in a full-throttle way.

The competition, though, has hotted up, with other countries (Chile and South Africa to name but two) muscling in. Consumer loyalty can be fickle, as the recent dampening in the love affair with Australia has shown. There’s been sniping from critics as well: too samey, abuse of the name, dilution creeping in. New initiatives are welcome and perhaps a little order in the house to boot. But what are the Kiwis doing to re-emblazon the flag?

On my first visit to Marlborough in 1987 there were barely 500ha (hectares) planted. Cruising through by car last November, I was amazed to see a sea of vines. The stats I was given announced 23,600ha (hectares) under vine. Of these, 13,800ha were fruit-bearing in 2008 – 70% was Sauvignon Blanc.

Over the past decade, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (the region boasts 85% of the variety in New Zealand) has more than quadrupled its area of production to 9,650ha. In addition, rumour has it that the average regional yield hovers between 12–15 tonnes/ha or a whopping 85–105hl/ha (hectolitres/hectare). By comparison, in Bordeaux, most Sauvignon producers would limit themselves to 50–60hl/ha. The mantra of ‘let’s bung it in and crank it out’ could perhaps benefit from a little more restraint.

The expansion of the vineyard has led to a flood of Marlborough Sauvignon on the market – and accusations, from purists, of ‘sameyness’ – making the notion of sub-regional styles an attractive one to producers and consumers alike. But only providing they are recognisable, and sufficiently different. The bulk of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc still comes from the flat plains of the Wairau Valley, but planting has gathered pace in the perpendicular Southern Valleys and, south-east of Wairau, in the cooler, drier Awatere Valley. In reality, 85% of the production is still a regional blend, but these sub-regional denominations are beginning to find their way on to labels. The question is, what do they each offer?

Defining styles

Awatere is a clearly identifiable style with justifiable sub-region status. If you like the more immediate, grassy, nettley, herbal, ‘tomato stalk’ (as New Zealand winemakers call it) spectrum of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, this is the one for you. Wairau Valley wines are gently pungent, with riper tropical fruit and citrus notes, a touch of blackcurrant leaf and a lusher feel. Wines from the Southern Valleys are marked by greater weight, volume and texture on the palate, still with a tropical-citrus nuance. The line that distinguishes the last two is not always blindingly obvious.

The next step along is site-specific or single-vineyard wines. The Wairau Valley has a variety of soils of diverse fertility that give a varying nuance to the wines. Saint Clair has made a successful job of isolating a number of these into ‘blocks’ and bottling the wines separately under the Pioneer Block label. Much to the surprise of owner Neal Ibbotson and winemaker Matt Thomson, it has been the heavier soils of the lower Wairau Valley that have given the most intense flavours – passion fruit and gooseberry to the fore.

Craggy Range continues its overall policy of single-vineyard wines and, from stonier soils in the Wairau Valley, produces Old Renwick Vineyard and Avery Vineyard in an elegant, restrained style. In this respect there’s a similarity with Clos Henri further up the valley. Sancerre-based Domaine Henri Bourgeois planted its first vines in 2001 and now has 34ha in a single block. The wine has the pungency of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc but the soils and lower yields (52hl/ha) add minerality and length on the palate.

Intensity, texture, length and complexity without loss of the vibrancy, aroma and zing – this is what most of the better producers are now striving to achieve. A number of factors contribute: soils, yields, method of vine cultivation, harvest date and even winemaking techniques. Looking back at my ancient tasting notes, I see that way back in 1986, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc included a percentage of Semillon and barrel-fermented wine, which I noted helped to ‘take off the hard edge and add depth and length on the palate’.

Barrel-fermented

Estates such as Churton, Dog Point Vineyard and Seresin are focused on yields and cultivation; Dog Point is organic and converting to biodynamics. ‘Quality can be improved tremendously,’ says English former wine merchant Sam Weaver, now the owner of Churton. ‘So far the region’s got away with a lot of easy winemaking and viticulture.’ He gave a small vertical of Churton Sauvignon Blanc back to 2003, the wines textured, poised and bone-dry.

The last piece in the jigsaw in terms of furthering Marlborough’s reach and diversity is barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea as the tangy, ‘bright fruit’ aromatics, the essence of Marlborough Sauvignon, can be lost. Successfully accomplished, it adds another layer of complexity, texture and weight, but the wine cries out for food. I preferred the first vintage of the 50% barrel-fermented Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2007 at Seresin to the fully fermented Marama for this very reason. The most harmonious and complex full-barrel ferments were Dog Point Section 94 2006 and Ram’s Hill 2007, the new and limited offering from Italian investor Lodovico Antinori of Mount Nelson.

I liked what I tasted of the 2008s, though rain at the end of the harvest made it a less consistent vintage than 2007. But that avalanche of new fruit and a winemaking-by-numbers approach does make me worry about standardisation and quality in the long term. Sub-regions and single vineyards will hopefully lead the new charge – but so will growers that act responsibly in the vineyards.

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