Sarah Kemp, Decanter managing director, says: Too often I find Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc unexciting, tasting more like alcoholic fruit juice than wine. Many of them are bland and one-dimensional and lack the texture and complexity I find in Sauvignons from other regions such as Friuli and Austria.
Bob Campbell MW, DWWA Regional Chair for New Zealand, replies:
When the world discovered Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in the 1980s, Oz Clarke wrote: ‘No previous wine had shocked, thrilled and entranced the world before with such brash, unexpected flavours of gooseberries, passion fruit and lime or crunchy green asparagus spears … an entirely new, brilliantly successful wine style that the rest of the world has been trying to copy since.’
At that time you could walk into a supermarket or wine shop anywhere in the world, choose any bottle of wine with ‘Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’ on the label and the wine would deliver pretty much what you expected.
Predictability, uniqueness and a market that was thirsty for the fresh and punchy flavours of this new wine rapidly drove production and sales to unexpected heights. New Zealand’s vineyard area of Sauvignon Blanc is now more than four times greater than the area of Sauvignon Blanc in Italy and Austria combined. 90% of that land is in Marlborough.
‘The best got better and the worst got worse’
Two things happened as production expanded; the best wines got better and the worst wines got worse.
All Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is certainly not equal. When I search for inexpensive Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on UK wine shelves, I recognise few of the brands. The wines I don’t know have most likely been shipped in bulk and bottled in Europe. I don’t have a problem with that process, but in the battle to meet a low price point, quality is usually the first casualty.
At the other end of the scale you’ll find lots of wines with character, texture and complexity.
Quality conscious producers seek out the best vineyard sites, reduce crop levels for greater concentration and often build texture through barrel fermentation and extended contact with the yeast lees.
Most winemakers seek to enrich the texture without impacting on the wine’s aromatics. Others go a step or two further – Cloudy Bay’s Te Koko is a good example.
‘I’m not trying to make Sancerre in Marlborough’
If it’s terroir you’re after, an increasing number of wines now express strong sub-regional and vineyard identity. Astrolabe’s Sauvignon Blanc is a textbook example of the cool Awatere Valley style, while a recent 10-vintage tasting of Dog Point’s Section 94 Sauvignon revealed a crystal-clear imprint of vineyard character.
The best Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs are serious, high-quality wines by any international measure. Collectively they demonstrate the diversity of a dynamic wine region that is now home to winemakers from France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
As Sancerre producer Henri Bourgeois explained when he established Clos Henri (another wine to try): ‘I am not trying to make Sancerre in Marlborough, but I am trying to make the world’s best Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.’