Sauvignon Blanc – world class wine at a budget price

Like Split Enz, Sam Neill and Keisha Castle Hughes, Sauvignon Blanc was discovered by the wider world before we began to really appreciate it. It took rave reviews from people such as English wine writer and TV wine show host, Oz Clarke, to make Kiwis start to wonder whether we might be making something really special. Clarke summed up the impact of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in his Wine Atlas when he wrote, “No previous wine had shocked, thrilled, 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 attempting to copy ever since”.

Today far more Sauvignon Blanc is tossed back by people who struggle to order a bottle of Te Whare Ra (tastings) than it is by Kiwis. We’re inclined to take local talent for granted.

I’ve always thought that Riesling was this country’s best value wine. After a recent tasting of New Zealand’s finest wines across a broad range of styles I’m now starting to think that Sauvignon Blanc gives more bang for your buck than any other wine type. Add the word “Marlborough” and the statement gains a great deal more strength. Narrow it down to “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from the 2006 vintage” and it’s unarguably accurate.

The latest vintage has produced the best Sauvignon Blanc ever made in Marlborough and, arguably, the world. Critics such as Jancis Robinson in the UK and Australia’s Jeremy Oliver have suggested that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has gone off the boil and that equivalent wines from other countries offer a serious challenge. Top wines (and there are many) from the 2006 vintage must surely silence anyone who doubts that this country makes the world’s best.

What other truly world class wine can you buy for $20 or less? Expect to at least double or treble that price for a world class Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir or Syrah.

How to pick a good one

As well as offering good value, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is one of this country’s more consistent wines. If you order an unknown Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc off a restaurant wine list you can be pretty sure you’ll get a dry, tangy wine with exuberantly pungent flavours that are a mix of exotic tropical fruit and grassy vegetal-type characters.

The best wines tend to have stronger flavours. Flavour intensity can be increased by deliberately reducing the crop of grapes per vine through pruning, shoot-thinning or by removing a portion of the crop while bunches are still small and green, a practice known as “green harvest”. Reducing crop to increase flavours comes at a cost. It’s my guess that the cost of grapes in the more concentrated examples is at least double the cost of grapes in more insipid wines.

The other factor that separates the good from the great and the ordinary is texture. The very best examples are as smooth as silk. At the other end of the scale Sauvignon Blanc can be coarse and grippy. The secret of a soft texture is minimal skin contact. Grapes that are gently pressed as soon as possible after harvesting tend to produce the silkiest wines.

Sauvignon Styles

If you’re lucky enough to visit a Marlborough vineyard shortly before the Sauvignon Blanc grapes are harvested in late March or early April search around to find a large bunch of grapes that’s well exposed to the sun. The grapes are likely to be slightly golden in colour with brown freckles. Pop one in your mouth and it should taste of passion fruit and other tropical fruit flavours. Now turn the bunch over to expose its shaded underside where the berries are smaller and greener. Taste one and you’ll discover flavours from another planet – gooseberry, cut grass and possibly green capsicum.

When the grapes are harvested and pressed those flavours run together to form the unique character of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. In a warmer year such as 1998 the pendulum will swing toward the riper tropical fruit end of the spectrum. In cooler vintages like 1992, 1993 and 1995 you’ll find greener, grassier flavours dominating.

Not all Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is equal. There are three distinctly regional styles within the wider Marlborough region. Grapes grown in the lighter, stonier soils found in the northern part of the Wairau Valley tend to produce lighter, more delicate wines with passion fruit and lemon grass flavours. Stoneleigh 2006 Raupara Series Sauvignon Blanc (tastings) is a good example. The heavier soils in the southern Wairau Valley produce richer and more intense wines that also show strong tropical fruit flavours and sometimes a pungent whiff of box hedge or “fresh sweat” character. That’s not as bad as it sounds. Some of Marlborough’s very best wines show a touch of armpit. Wither Hills 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (tastings) is a top wine from that area. Wines made from grapes grown in the cooler Awatere Valley tend to have more pronounced vegetal characters such as tomato leaf, fresh asparagus or green capsicum flavours. Astrolabe 2006 Awatere Valley Sauvignon is a perfect example. Many wines are blends from two or three of those Marlborough districts. Blending blurs district character but can add greater complexity.

Sauvignon Blanc made from grapes grown in the warmer Hawke’s Bay region are very different from their more southerly cousins. Less pungent and with less intense flavours these gentler, softer wines tend to have nectarine and other tree fruit flavours. They’re good candidates for barrel maturation to add the flavour of oak as well as a fresh bread character from the yeasty deposit left after fermentation.

Martinborough wines can be very similar in style to Marlborough with perhaps a suggestion of tree fruit flavours (peach and nectarine) giving a nod in the direction of Hawke’s Bay. It’s difficult to define Nelson, Canterbury and Central Otago Sauvignon Blanc styles. They can be similar to Marlborough styles with the southerly regions showing cooler characteristics such as higher acidity and some mineral flavours.

An increasing number of winemakers are putting their signature on Sauvignon Blanc. Most notable of these is Cloudy Bay’s Te Koko (tastings), a big, rich and complex wine that’s a product of barrel maturation, plenty of yeast lees influence and even a buttery malolactic influence. Buried under all that winemaker artefact is some Sauvignon Blanc fruit flavour but you’ve got to work hard to find it. I love the wine. Others are less enthusiastic because it’s simply too quirky. Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc (tastings) is another “boots and all” Marlborough wine in a similar mould.

Sushi, oysters, roast chicken, pan-fried snapper – the list’s endless

Sauvignon Blanc is so deliciously quaffable without the complication of food that it’s often described as “food-fussy”. I disagree. When I’m in the mood for a chilled glass of exuberant Sauvignon Blanc it seems to make a happy partnership with just about any food that happens to be on my plate.

There’s an annual competition in North America where they choose the best wine with oysters out of around 1000 candidates. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc seems to win first prize just about every year. In my view any seafood that is garnished with lemon or lime juice tastes better with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The acidity in the citrus juice tones down the acidity in the wine making it deliciously mellow. Taste the same dish with a less acidic wine and the wine can taste too bland.

I’ve got a wine cupboard in my house where I keep ready-to-drink bottles. I remember opening the cupboard to find it bare except for one lone bottle of five year-old Sauvignon Blanc. I’d never really fancied the wine after tasting another bottle four years earlier. Finally it was a slightly dodgy Sauvignon Blanc or nothing. I chose the dodgy bottle. Dinner that night was chicken breast in creamy garlic sauce. On its own the wine was nothing special but matched with the dish it was sublime! I discovered that strong garlic and aged Sauvignon Blanc are made for each other.

Sauvignon Blanc seems to hit the spot with many Asian dishes and is especially good with Sushi and aromatic, lightly-spiced Thai curries. I’m not sure why they match so well. It’s something to do with the fresh, bright flavours shared by both the wine and the dishes.

Young or old?

I tend to favour young Sauvignon Blanc although when the students in my wine courses take a vote older Sauvignon Blanc usually wins by a small margin. Young Sauvignon Blanc is fresh, pungent, very fruity, crisply acidic and easy to understand. Mature Sauvignon Blanc (more than two years old with a cork or over five years old with a screwcap) is mellow, more savoury than fruity, quite complex and smoother than more youthful wine.

Older Sauvignon Blanc suits richer and more flavoursome foods than younger Sauvignon Blanc which is best served with fresher and lightly-spiced foods or on its own without food.

Screwcaps are better

There aught to be a law against putting a cork in a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. Screwcaps keep the freshness in Sauvignon Blanc. The wine lasts longer and tastes better. It’s also consistent. One of cork’s greatest failings is the variation from bottle to bottle. Corks make most Sauvignon taste slightly woody after a few years.

I’ve found that Sauvignon Blanc sealed with a screwcap (in fact any wine sealed with a screwcap) improves after being sloshed into a decanter and left to “breathe” for 15-30 minutes. To prevent the wine from warming up I chill the decanter in the fridge before filling it with wine. Don’t put the opened decanter in the fridge – it can pick up a brackish “fridge” aroma.

You gain nothing by removing the cork or screwcap and letting the wine “breathe”. The surface to volume ratio is simply too great to have much effect.

Chill out

It was once fashionable to chill all white wine until a layer of ice formed on the surface. The pendulum seems to have swung too far the other way. Now the very fashionable drink tepid white wine. It’s all a matter of personal taste but serving temperature makes a big difference to the way that a wine tastes and feels.

Chill wine and it has less flavour, more pronounced acidity and develops the familiar pleasing tactile sensation that all chilled liquid offers. Over-chill it and you might as well drink iced water. Drink it warm and the wine lacks freshness. Somewhere between these two extremes is perfection. My wife, Marion, likes Sauvignon Blanc at fridge temperature (around 4oC). I prefer it at 10-12 oC. We both agree that Sauvignon Blanc needs to be chilled. We disagree on the level of chilling.

It’s easy to chill wine quickly in a slurry of ice and water, with a Rapid Ice sleeve or simply by putting the bottle in the fridge or freezer. It’s even easier to warm wine in the microwave. Mess with both to find the right temperature for you – it’s worth the effort.

Sauvignon Selection

My top Sauvignon Blanc selections from the 2006 vintage are arranged according to style with a special list of wines under $20 that offer exceptional value.

Fruity – Seductive wines with intense passion fruit and other tropical fruit flavours

  1. Villa Maria 2006 Reserve Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $24.95 (tastings)
  2. Saint Clair 2006 Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $29.95 (tastings)
  3. Saint Clair 2006 Pioneer Block 7 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $24.95 (tastings)
  4. Stoneleigh 2006 Raupara Series Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $25.95 (tastings)
  5. Matua Valley 2006 Paretai Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $28.95 (tastings)

Funky – Complex and concentrated wines with a suggestion of box hedge/armpit characters

  1. Saint Clair 2006 Pioneer Block 6 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $24.95
  2. Kim Crawford 2006 SP Spit Fire Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $29.95 (tastings)
  3. Wither Hills 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $19.95 (tastings)
  4. Lawson’s Dry Hills 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $19.95 (tastings)
  5. Auntsfield 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $22 (tastings)

Grassy – If you like gooseberry, capsicum and cut grass flavours (I do) these are the best

  1. Villa Maria 2006 Single Vineyard Taylors Pass Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $24.95 (tastings)
  2. Astrolabe 2006 Awatere Valley Marlborough $26
  3. Villa Maria 2006 Reserve Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $24.95 (tastings)
  4. Foxes Island 2006 Sauvignon Blanc $27 (tastings)
  5. Villa Maria 2006 Single Vineyard Graham Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $24.95 (tastings)

Elegant and Restrained – Wines of subtlety and power – an iron fist in a velvet glove

  1. Cloudy Bay 2006 Sauvignon Blanc $29 (tastings)
  2. Villa Maria 2006 Single Vineyard Richmond Brook Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $24.95 (tastings)
  3. Nautilus 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $23.95 (tastings)
  4. Muddy Water 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Waipara $20 (tastings)
  5. Goldwater 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $19.50 (tastings)

Top Wines Under $20 – You don’t have to pay a fortune to get top quality

  1. Astrolabe 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $19.95 (tastings)
  2. Sacred Hill 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $19.95 (tastings)
  3. Mount Riley 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $15.95 (tastings)
  4. Wild South 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $16.95 (tastings)
  5. Dashwood 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $15 (tastings)

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Jan 2007.

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