Happy birthday Sauvignon Blanc

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first commercial release of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. Why is that worth celebrating? Because Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc put New Zealand wine on the world wine map. This distinctively zingy and pungently fruity wine now dominates our wine exports with a robust 75% share. Without Sauvignon Blanc New Zealand wine wouldn’t have cracked through the billion dollar export barrier last year. Thanks to Sauvignon Blanc wine is this country’s sixth most important export commodity.

I was lucky enough to attend a planting ceremony in Marlborough in 1973 when Montana Wines (tastings) established the region’s first vineyard. As a young accountant for the company I recall feeling nervously excited as I listened to the heroic speeches of various dignitaries. New Zealand had never witnessed viticulture on such a scale, particularly in a brand new untested wine region. It was a make or break venture.

It was nearly break. An unexpected drought killed most of the vines at the outset but when irrigation was installed the second wave of vines thrived and wine drinkers loved the wine. Marlborough’s future as a wine region and Montana’s financial viability seemed assured.

Recognition in export markets didn’t really happen until Australian winemaker, David Hohnen, established Cloudy Bay Wines (tastings) in 1985. Skilfully made wines were marketed with flair at a premium price. Until Cloudy Bay arrived on the market New Zealand wines were perceived as being too expensive. Almost overnight they became more marketable, according to London-based distributor of Kiwi wines, Margaret Harvey MW.

The history, if not the commercial success, of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand goes back a lot further than 1973. It now seems likely that the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were brought into the country by Government viticulturist, Romeo Bragatto, in the early part of the twentieth century. Ross Spence, founder of Matua Valley Wines (tastings), tracked down clones of Sauvignon Blanc which he planted in 1969 and subsequently made a wine which I recall was very good. The vines suffered from a virus and were subsequently replaced with a superior clone which also supplied Montana’s new Marlborough vineyard. Spence can rightly claim to be the founder of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand’s modern wine industry.

Marlborough rules

Marlborough is clearly this country’s Sauvignon Blanc capital although other regions have proved capable of making excellent wines from the variety. I tasted a wide range of wines from many regions. My top ten wines (featured below) are from Marlborough – a not unexpected result.

What are the characteristics that make Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc this country’s and arguably the world’s best wine from the variety?

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is more pungently fruity that wines from other regions and countries. Untwist the cap on a young bottle of good Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and you’re likely to get an instant preview before you’ve poured the wine. It’s so exuberantly aromatic the wine’s aroma fills the room whenever I taste a line-up of young samples.

The flavour profile of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc can vary from delicate passion fruit and currant bud to big, bold and grassy, although most examples are a combination of passion fruit and grassy characters. Scientists have analysed the gooseberry flavour often found in young Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and, guess what, it’s exactly the same as the flavour compound that makes gooseberries taste like gooseberries. The difference between gooseberries and young Sauvignon Blanc is that gooseberries only taste like gooseberries while young Sauvignon Blanc has an array of other aromas.

Sauvignon Blanc is mostly dry although winemakers sometimes leave a small amount of residual sugar to balance the variety’s often tangy acidity. The result is typically “dry-ish” rather than being noticeably sweet.

Variety adds spice

There are a surprising range of Sauvignon styles made within Marlborough. Wines made from grapes grown in the Awatere Valley, for example, tend to be grassier than those from the Wairau Valley. Vavasour 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (tastings) is a good example of the Awatere style.

An increasing number of winemakers are fermenting Sauvignon Blanc in oak barrels to produce wines that tend to be fuller, richer and more complex. Cloudy Bay Te Koko (tastings) and Dog Point Section 94 (tastings) are two excellent examples (neither wine was included in my tasting).

Different weather conditions can influence Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc styles from year to year. Wines made in the excellent 2007 vintage tend to be richer and riper than the grassier and more acidic wines made the following year. In 2009 many grape growers deliberately reduced their crop size to make higher quality wines. The strategy seems to have worked. This latest vintage appears to have produced some of the region’s best ever wines.

Drink now or later?

The arrival of screwcaps has dramatically extended the life and quality of Sauvignon Blanc. If you like your Sauvignon Blanc fresh and fruity you need to drink them within a year of vintage if sealed with a cork and within three years if under a screwcap.

For many years I invited students in my wine classes to compare a young Sauvignon Blanc against a similar wine that was three or four years old. Curiously, the majority preferred the older wine while I always favoured the more youthful sample.

I recently discovered that Sauvignon Blanc lovers tend to prefer younger wine while those who are less enthusiastic about Sauvignon Blanc like it with a few years bottle age. It’s easy to understand why. As Sauvignon Blanc ages it becomes less fruity with softer acidity and mellower flavours. It becomes less Sauvignon Blanc-like and more Chardonnay-like. If you like Sauvignon Blanc, drink it young. If you don’t, let it age in bottle for a few years (or drink Chardonnay).

Top Ten Savvies

94 Vavasour 2009 Awatere Valley Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $21

A beautiful example of the distinctive Awatere Valley style with pure mineral, tomato leaf, nettle and passion fruit flavours. Juicy acidity and a lingering finish set it apart from the crowd. – view on bobcampbell.nz

94 Blind River 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $25

Concentrated wine in a fresh and highly aromatic style. Gooseberry, capsicum and pretty nettle flavours dance on the palate. An ethereal texture adds to the wine’s appeal. – view on bobcampbell.nz

93 Mud House 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $20.90

Pungent wine with fresh and vibrant gooseberry, red capsicum and lemon grass flavours. Delicate and charming Sauvignon Blanc with a lingering finish. – view on bobcampbell.nz

93 Saint Clair 2009 Pioneer Block 2 Swamp Block Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $24.95

Concentrated and complex wine with pea pod, box hedge (not everybody’s cup of tea, but I like it) plus a medley of tree fruit and aromatic herb flavours. – view on bobcampbell.nz

93 Wairau River 2007 Home Block Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $25

Late release of a wine from an excellent vintage. Pure, tangy green capsicum and lemon grass flavours with emerging toasty bottle development. Holding well and with good potential. – view on bobcampbell.nz

93 Villa Maria 2009 Wairau Valley Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $25.99

Pungent, heady wine with lifted box hedge, green capsicum, mineral and passion fruit flavours. Beautifully pure and impressively powerful. – view on bobcampbell.nz

93 Saint Clair 2009 Cash Block 20 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $26.95

Concentrated and pure mineral, gooseberry, red capsicum, passion fruit, box hedge and subtle nettle flavours. Powerful wine with character and considerable length. – view on bobcampbell.nz

93 Saint Clair 2009 Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $32.95

This bold, complex, and concentrated wine captures the essence of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and multiplies by a factor of two. Contentious wine with strong matchstick characters. – view on bobcampbell.nz

92 Saint Clair 2009 Block 3 43 degrees Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $24.95

Intense wine in a classic Saint Clair style with strong box hedge, armpit, mineral, green capsicum, gooseberry and nettle. Rich, mouthfilling wine with rather mellow acidity and a lingering finish. – view on bobcampbell.nz

91 Craggy Range 2009 Old Renwick Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $19.95

Fresh, gooseberry-driven flavours of this pure and powerful wine impress me greatly but its rich, mouth feel and ethereal texture are its star features. – view on bobcampbell.nz

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Jan-Feb 2010.

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