This year marks 50 years since vines were first planted on a commercial scale in New Zealand’s Marlborough region.
While now synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc, the perceived wisdom at the time was that the South Island too cold for the variety. So it wasn’t until two years later, in 1975, that growers replaced those original Germanic and fortified varieties.
And then, in 1979, Montana Wines (renamed Brancott Estate by parent company Pernod-Ricard in 2010) released the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
Scroll down for tasting notes and scores of 15 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2022 wines – all under £20
‘It was a ground-breaking, direction-changing moment that changed the fortunes of the New Zealand Wine industry,’ Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, told Decanter at the country’s recent annual trade tasting in London.
‘We have a variety, and a place, and a people and a culture – an open-mindedness to innovation and a confidence in being uniquely New Zealand. When you get all that right in the moment, as Marlborough did with Sauvignon Blanc, then it sets you apart.’
Jamie Marfell, chief winemaker of Brancott Estate and sister winery Stoneleigh, has worked 32 of the 50 years that vines have been planted in Marlborough and has seen the style of Sauvignon Blanc evolve considerably.
‘What we thought was good in the past – picking early, aiming for 11% alcohol, focusing on greener notes – is not what we aim for now,’ he says. ‘Back then we were worried about acidity – even deacidifying – now it is the opposite: acidity is our gold when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc.
‘Now we pick riper, looking for around 13%, and with that natural acidity and alcohol all you need to do is tweak the residual sugar – just one or two grams – to get the perfect mouthfeel, texture and richness without losing any of that aromatic purity.’
Sustainability over sub-regions
This evolution in style has come hand-in-hand with investment in the vineyard, particularly in replanting older vineyards.
This is key, says Marfell, given the price of land in Marlborough: 50 years ago it was between NZ$80 and NZ$120 a hectare, now it is NZ$400,000 a hectare, with much of the viable vineyard pockets already planted out.
The focus on regenerative farming has seen New Zealand become one of the greenest winemaking countries in the world, with 96% of its vineyards certified sustainable, 10% of those also certified organic and several biodynamic.
Producers have been quick to promote this on wine labels far more readily than identifying sub-regions or single vineyards.
‘It’s safe and simple being Marlborough,’ says Natalie Christensen, chief winemaker of Yealands, explaining that not only is it a brand in itself, with instant global recognition, but producers can blend within the Marlborough sub-regions when vintages are difficult.
‘For consumers, brands still come first. We like to think people know all about sub-regions and single vineyards, but there is a long way to go.
‘Putting a sub-appellation on the label is useful to celebrate it – to be proud of the unique qualities of a certain vineyard or area. And yes, that certainly helps as part of consumer education, which is important. But widespread sub-regionality will take time.’
Varied Marlborough Sauvignon styles
Awatere is the most distinctive of Marlborough’s sub-regions, lending herbaceous, nettle and tomato leaf aromas and flavours to its Sauvignon Blancs. In general, Wairau is what many might call the ‘classic’ Marlborough style, with punchy tropical and passion fruit tones, while the Southern Valleys offer more of a gooseberry, citrus and melon spectrum.
While most wines are purchased and enjoyed within a year or so of the vintage, aged Sauvignon Blanc releases are increasingly common, showcasing nutty, earthy almost truffle-like notes that offer exciting food-pairing opportunities. Brancott Estate’s Chosen Rows 2015 and 2013, as well as Jackson Estate’s 2017 Somerset Sauvignon Blanc are characterful examples.
Partially barrel fermented and/or matured wines are another particular style (along with those fermented with wild yeasts) which some argue masks the purity of fruit for which Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has become famous. Several new releases tasted, however, were successful, such as Greywacke’s Wild Sauvignon Blanc 2020, Vineyard Productions’ Spoke Resolute 2021 and Saint Clair Family Estate’s Barrique 2020.
The following 15 Sauvignon Blancs from the 2022 vintage – all under £20 – are a selection of more than 50 tasted at the New Zealand Annual Trade Tasting in London.