Rebecca Gibb MW, Roger Jones and Philip Tuck MW tasted 53 New Zealand oaked Sauvignon Blancs, with 3 Outstanding and 18 Highly Recommended...
Entry criteria: Producers and UK agents were invited to submit their latest-release New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs produced using any level of barrel fermentation or maturation
Scroll down to see the tasting notes & scores
With quality on display across the board, this tasting proved that New Zealand’s oaked styles of Sauvignon Blanc deserve attention. Rebecca Gibb MW shares the highlights…
Famed for its distinctive rainbow of flavours and its succulent acidity, Marlborough is the home of New Zealand Sauvignon, representing 89% of the country’s plantings, and its dominance was reflected in this tasting, accounting for three-quarters of entries.
While New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has made its name in its pure, fruit-filled expression, there have long been barrel-influenced examples since Hunters wowed the crowds at the 1986 Sunday Times Wine Club with its Fumé Blanc.
However, oaked examples have remained a sideshow in the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc story. This tasting showed that the sideshow should be brought on to the main stage, with a very respectable average of 89.2 points scored across a field of more than 50 wines.
There were some sublime examples: Cloudy Bay’s Te Koko, Greywacke’s Wild Sauvignon and the least famous of the Oustanding triumvirate, te Pā’s Oke, which all offered wildly different stylistic interpretations of the relationship between Sauvignon Blanc and oak. But qualitatively, there were few disagreements: harmony, texture and complexity were the name of the game.
Quick link See all 53 wines in the panel tasting
Philip Tuck MW, wine director at Hatch Mansfield, explained: ‘This tasting was all about interplay of oak and varietal character and it’s easy to get it wrong. When you put Sauvignon Blanc in oak you are compromising the high aromatics. Getting it right is a challenge but when you do get it right it’s very nice. There were only a handful of wines that were overoaked.’
It is clear that the use of new oak currently plays a minor role in the most successful oak-influenced Sauvignon Blanc styles, with secondfill or older barrels chosen for their contribution to texture rather than flavour. Barrel fermentation followed by maturation tends to produce a more harmonious expression – a method common to many of the finest wines in the tasting.
However, the varying approaches reflected the flexibility of New World winemaking: levels of oak ranged from 2.5% to 100%, and new oak proportions from zero to 100%.
There were just three wines that took a leaf out of the Bordeaux (and Margaret River) book, blending Semillon with the Sauvignon Blanc: Te Mata’s Cape Crest, Seresin’s Marama and Hans Herzog’s Sur Lie included a small splash of the rich, weighty variety. But the panel was united in its belief that this pairing could be worth exploring as New Zealand moves into Sauvignon Blanc 2.0.
Tuck noted: ‘I’m surprised there were no more with Semillon in the blend – why not add some?’ But who’s going to buy these top-rated wines?
Wearing his restaurateur’s hat, Roger Jones of the The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, commented: ‘Selling wines over the bar, people want clean Sauvignon Blanc, but if it’s got oak and complexity they are lost. You really need to focus on it and have it with food, which is not what New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is necessarily known for.’
With his business hat on, Tuck added: ‘Commercially it’s a risk. The winemakers are adding cost to the wines because they are releasing them later.’
These styles are not destined to be New Zealand’s bread and butter, but for restaurants and interested consumers looking for the next stage in their Sauvignon Blanc experience, there is a diverse array of aromatics and textures on offer.
53 wines tasted
Highly Recommended 18
Top New Zealand oaked Sauvignon Blancs from the panel tasting:
About New Zealand oaked Sauvignon Blanc
New Zealand oaked Sauvignon Blanc While its claim to fame may be fresh and fruity Sauvignon, New Zealand’s winemakers are now experimenting with more varied and nuanced styles. Rebecca Gibb MW reports
If you think New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can only be fashioned in one style it’s time to taste the country’s leading variety in its increasingly varied interpretations. The fruity yet green style for which the country has become world famous is still a mainstay, but winemakers are now seeking to make Sauvignon Blanc that is less reliant on primary fruit aromas and more interesting texturally.
Sauvignon Blanc producers are achieving a sophisticated, savoury alternative using a variety of methods, which include allowing wild yeast to do its job on rather cloudy juice in tank, French oak barrel or both. There’s also a small but significant number of high-quality producers playing with foudres and the odd amphora. Sacred Hill and Cloudy Bay were early adopters of barrel fermentation in the 1990s but as Tim Heath, senior winemaker at Cloudy Bay, explains: ‘Barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc styles are not as easy to make as you think and can easily become overblown. It becomes quite disjointed with oak and overpowers the fruit. It’s a difficult balance to strike.’ Indeed, the natural fruitiness of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc can be difficult to tame, which can lead to a wrestling match between the grape and the wood.
Experience and research has shown that picking Sauvignon Blanc by hand, rather than machine harvesting, followed by whole bunch pressing diminishes the level of thiols responsible for the exuberant aromatics reminiscent of passionfruit and herbaceous boxwood. A more subtle Sauvignon expression better integrates with oak – when oak, and particularly new oak, is only one part of the fermentation story: Auntsfield, for example combines conventionally fermented tank parcels with barrel-fermented whole bunch lots to achieve harmony in its single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. What’s more, allowing partial malolactic fermentation can also reduce the flamboyancy of fruit – Greywacke allows two-thirds of its highly successful Wild Sauvignon to undergo conversion – but it’s a fine balancing act. Lees stirring also adds an extra dimension to Sauvignon Blanc as we know it, contributing weight, texture and more complex layers.
In the world of Sauvignon, Marlborough unoaked Sauvignon Blancs are inimitable. The barrel-fermented styles are idiosyncratic too: they’re not as razor fine as those of Sancerre, but look positively vibrant next to a Californian Fumé Blanc. While they share a similar weight to Bordeaux whites, New Zealand Sauvignon tends to offer more tropical fruit and lacks the textural, grassy elements that Semillon brings to Bordeaux blends.
Increasingly sophisticated Sauvignon Blanc is emerging from the bottom of the earth. If you thought you knew New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and have previously dismissed it for being overly fruity, perhaps it’s time to think again and try some of the alternative styles that Kiwi winemakers are now dishing up.
NZ Sauvignon Blanc: The Facts
1975 First Sauvignon Blanc planted in Marlborough
1979 First Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc produced by Montana
2002 Sauvignon Blanc becomes New Zealand’s most planted variety
2018 Sauvignon Blanc covers 23,102ha, representing 60% of New Zealand’s vineyard area and 86% of exports
(Source: NZ Winegrowers Annual Report 2018)
NZ Sauvignon Blanc: Know your vintages
2018 Hottest summer on record, leading to early ripening. Coastal regions affected by ex-tropical cylones in February, delaying harvest and elevating botrytis pressure. Ripe Sauvignon.
2017 Difficult season with a cool start and poor summer. Wet, warm and cloudy autumn created botrytis pressure. Early picked crops were the most successful.
2016 Record crop. Warm, often humid. Harvest period was dry and sunny. Excellent whites and highly attractive reds.
2015 Dry and warm. Small, low yielding crop after early frost and cool flowering. Ripe, perfumed and fully flavoured wines.
2014 Record early vintage. Dry and warm summer with little disease pressure. Excellent wines across the board.
2013 Touted as the vintage of a lifetime with a warm, incredibly dry summer and autumn. Ripe, concentrated wines across the North and South Islands.
Rebecca Gibb MW
Gibb spent six years living in New Zealand, where she became a Master of Wine, graduating top of her class and winning the Madame Bollinger medal for excellence in tasting. Her first book The Wines of New Zealand was published in 2018. She also runs wine events and has a consultancy business The Drinks Project.
Jones and his wife Sue own The Harrow at Little Bedwyn restaurant, where he combines chef duties with a love of wine. Jones frequently travels to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, food and wine matching; he set up The Tri Nations Wine Challenges to promote wines from these countries.
Philip Tuck MW
Philip Tuck MW has been in the wine trade for over 30 years, since joining Avery’s in Bristol in 1986. He then worked for wineries in various countries including New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the US, Chile and Italy. Tuck became an MW in 1999 and is currently wine director at Hatch Mansfield.