Next Chapter for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Courtney Schiessl  VinePair| October 21, 2020

The next chapter for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is anything but traditional.

Few wines have a stronger signature style than New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Since the grape was first planted in 1975, it has become a sensation among U.S. wine drinkers — not only for its crisp character and zingy acidity but for its sheer reliability. Even without cracking the screw cap, it’s a safe bet that any given bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand will be youthful and refreshing, with fresh citrus and grassy, herbaceous notes.

“Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is truly unique and always identifiable in a lineup of Sauvignon Blancs from around the world,” says Jules Taylor, owner and winemaker of her eponymous Marlborough winery. But, she says, “it is not all the same.” Today’s producers are increasingly intent on showcasing that there’s more to Sauvignon Blanc — and to New Zealand in general — than its stylistic stereotype. Untraditional vinification techniques like barrel ageing and wild fermentation, offbeat sweet and sparkling wines, and regional distinctions outside of Marlborough are all proving that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has the potential to be an even more diverse category in the future.

Pioneers of Experimentation

ADVENTURE. HARD WORK. and insanely flavorful NEW ZEALAND WINE
ADVENTURE. HARD WORK.
and insanely flavorful NEW ZEALAND WINE

Over the 40 years since Sauvignon Blanc really took off in New Zealand’s vineyards, winemakers have worked to understand the adopted variety. “Our treatment of Sauvignon Blanc has changed and evolved enormously, both in the vineyards and in the wineries,” says Craig Anderson, the winemaker at Hillersden Wines in Marlborough, who has worked in the country’s wine industry for 23 years. Today, most New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is produced to highlight aromatics and acidity, using techniques like mechanical harvesting, fermentation at very low temperatures using commercial yeasts, and clarification and bottling as early as possible.

But this signature style also stems from the natural attributes of the grape’s main production hub: Marlborough, home to nearly 89 per cent of the country’s Sauvignon Blanc. Plentiful sunshine, cool temperatures, and moderating maritime influence shape the intensely aromatic, yet piercingly acid-driven style of the wines.

“For a long time, only the ‘classic’ style was being produced,” says Taylor. “That fresh, vibrant, juicy-acidity style. [It’s] the wine that put Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the world wine map.” These wines garnered international attention for their unique and distinctive character — a zingy, fresh style unmatched elsewhere — and wineries worked to meet that demand.

Similarly, the rise in new styles of Sauvignon Blanc is partially in response to current market demands. “There’s a thirst for more diversity and complexity from consumers, and also recognition from Marlborough winemakers that the style needs to continue to evolve,” says Duncan Shouler, the chief winemaker for Giesen Group in Marlborough.

However, winemakers are curious by nature. With more than four decades working with the grape under their belts, New Zealand’s vintners are increasingly willing to push the boundaries of what Sauvignon Blanc can be. “Now those producers are confident of their understanding of Sauvignon Blanc, they naturally want to explore alternative expressions of the variety,” says James Healy, the co-owner of Dog Point Vineyard in Marlborough. “Almost all serious producers of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand have at least two styles on sale.”

CloudyBayInterestingly, experimentation with Sauvignon Blanc styles is not entirely new in New Zealand. Many point to Cloudy Bay, one of Marlborough’s first wineries, as the pioneer of experimental Sauvignon Blanc winemaking, using techniques like wild fermentation, malolactic fermentation, and barrel ageing in the early 1990s. These early experiments resulted in some of the country’s best-known — and more widely available — untraditional Sauvignon Blancs, notably Cloudy Bay’s iconic Te Koko bottling, first created in the 1996 vintage.

Today, Te Koko showcases a different side of Sauvignon Blanc — a serious and complex version that contrasts the bright and clean Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of the juice undergoes indigenous yeast fermentation followed by malolactic fermentation, and the wine is aged on its lees in a mix of old and new French barrels for 18 months. “This approach builds far more richness, texture, and complexity in the wines,” says Jim White, Cloudy Bay’s technical director, “while the fruit-driven aromas become more complex and some savoury, spicy notes start to show.” It is released as a three-year-old wine.

But the team behind Te Koko has also brought this experience to other wild, barrel-fermented and aged Sauvignon Blancs in New Zealand. Healy, who was one of the winemakers at Cloudy Bay from 1991 until the early 2000s, recognized the potential to craft a Sauvignon Blanc in this style from a specific parcel within the Dog Point Vineyard. “That particular vineyard … produced a wine with a distinct and concentrated citrus influence,” he says, “which, combined with these vinification techniques, made it an obvious choice to make in this way.”

Healy decided to stay away from new barriques, looking instead to other international, cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc regions. “The idea of fermentation in older seasoned barrels, as is done in parts of the Loire, appealed,” he says.

As much as Cloudy Bay’s early experiments informed the creation of Te Koko, they were also tied to the origin of the Wild Sauvignon bottling from Greywacke; co-owner Kevin Judd was Cloudy Bay’s founding winemaker, and the fruit for Te Koko’s 1992 predecessor came from Greywacke Vineyard.

“When we had our first harvest in 2009, it was natural that we would continue the less-trodden path of Sauvignon and develop our own individual style of indigenous fermented Sauvignon Blanc,” says Kimberley Judd, Kevin’s wife and a co-owner of Greywacke. “[Kevin] preferred the richer, in-depth individuality that wild yeast brings to the finished wine.”

While the Wild Sauvignon is made from the same vineyard as Greywacke’s classic Sauvignon Blanc, the two are distinct. “The result is a more savoury, herbal flavour profile in the wine, and a textural quality that builds on the structure and intensity of mouthfeel,” says Judd. “The hands-off process gives the wine some real personality and individuality.”

Exploring New Styles and Regions

Some winemakers are using the country’s signature variety to make wines that are neither still nor dry. “For me, the drive behind making alternative styles of the variety is to show wine buyers and consumers that Sauvignon Blanc as a variety is more diverse than it is given credit for,” says Taylor.

In addition to her classic Sauvignon Blanc and wild, barrel-fermented OTQ, Taylor makes a late-harvest, sweet Sauvignon Blanc in vintages that encourage the development of botrytis, a beneficial mould that grows on grapes, dehydrates them, and concentrates flavours and sugars. The style has been produced in New Zealand in tiny quantities over past decades.

“In the right vintages with good botrytis, a great wine can be made,” says Shouler, who also makes late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc.

Others are experimenting with sparkling styles of Sauvignon Blanc. While many use the tank method to highlight the grape’s intense aromatics, Hunter’s Wines in Marlborough uses the ancestral method to create its Offshoot Pet-Nat. “This Pet-Nat provides a little glimpse at the type of wine our winemakers are used to tasting in the winery before wines are prepared for bottling,” the winery writes on its website.

Because Marlborough is the centre of Sauvignon Blanc production in New Zealand, stereotypical “New Zealand” Sauvignon Blanc is really stereotypical “Marlborough” Sauvignon Blanc. But other regions work with the grape as well, though in markedly smaller quantities.

While nearby spots like Nelson on the upper South Island and Wairarapa on the lower North Island make similarly bright, mouthwatering Sauvignon Blancs, further areas are now defining their own regional styles. The warmer Hawke’s Bay, for instance, has the second-highest numbers of Sauvignon Blanc vines in New Zealand after Marlborough and makes riper, rounder varietal wines. “In the warmer regions to the north, the wines tend to be more tropical and lower in acid, and further south, they are more delicate while retaining good acidity,” says Taylor.

Even Central Otago, New Zealand’s most southerly wine region, counts a handful of Sauvignon Blanc vines among its plantings. “I’ve always portrayed the region as ‘officially too far south and too cold for Sauvignon Blanc,’” says Andy Wilkinson, the director of operations and sales for Misha’s Vineyard in Central Otago. “However, with that said, if you have the right site — one that is exposed to lots of light, both direct and reflected — you can produce the most stunning style of Sauvignon Blanc.”

The rocky soils, longer days of intense sunshine, and cool nights of Central Otago’s continental climate combine to create a gentler Sauvignon Blanc with softer fruit and lifting but less sharp acidity. “The tough conditions that we expose the vines to encourage them to put more energy into the fruit, [producing] few bunches but much more intensity,” adds Wilkinson.

Though these offbeat styles of Sauvignon Blanc are broadening the grape’s spectrum in this island nation, don’t expect that signature New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc style to disappear. “It is a style that is well suited to the geographic and climatic conditions of New Zealand’s major grape-growing regions,” says Judd. “But as the New Zealand industry matures, there will be an increased presence of what we call ‘left-field’ Sauvignon Blancs in the market.”

While this might worry those who have come to rely on the predictable nature of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as a category, stylistic diversity doesn’t undercut the intrinsic tie of these wines to their place of origin. “I think that ultimately, this will eventuate into two, perhaps three styles that will be instantly recognizable as [being] from New Zealand,” says Healy. “The one thing that they will all share is an interpretation of the intensity of the fruit quality that we have seen consistently over the past three and a half decades out of this country. It really is unique.”

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Committee celebrate the end of 2018

Another successful Cellar Club year started with a BBQ, several tastings, the AGM, another tasting, then mid-year dinner, followed by several more tastings, then finally a very successful end-of-year dinner. 

In upholding tradition, and as a way of celebrating the committees’ work throughout the year, the club’s President hosts an end of year celebration for committee, partners and guests. Each year we celebrate by sampling each other’s favourite wines along with a grand selection of food. This year we were fortunate to sample many labels who have presented to the club and some who have not.  The wines came from the labels La Cilla, Hunters, Clearview, Ruby Bay, Alpha Domus, Awatere River, Rapaura Springs, Lindauer, Okahu Estate, Tyrells, Old Coach Road, Olssens, Ransom, Dry River, Rod MacDonald, Rockburn, and Ash Ridge. A large and diverse range that could have gone down well at any tasting.

Thanks to our gracious hosts, club President Murray and Dina, who organised (with the gods) great weather for the event, along with the committee, wishes members and guests a joyous and safe Christmas. We look forward to seeing you all during 2019 starting with the BBQ in January. Details to come.

Koa Kirihimete
Merry Christmas

From the committee

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Hunter’s Marlborough – Jane Hunter – October 2016

Here are the delivered wines on my garage floor
Here are the delivered wines on my garage floor

The evening went very well and what a great turnout.

Jane Hunter presented well and at the right level for the club.  The turnout included some members from Western Hills Wine Club, and it was lovely to be their hosts for the evening.  The wines were good and at a good price resulting in a very high number of orders.  Jane enjoyed the evening and commented that next time she would present bubbles and a Gewürztraminer as part of the programme.  Feedback from members indicated that they enjoyed the evening and it was a great tasting. It was useful that although a bit reluctant, and there was an issue of the batteries having flattened, Jane used the microphone headset and we were all able to hear what was being said.

The wines presented on the night included; Hunters Pinot Gris – 2016 (quaffer),  Hunters Riesling 2012,  Hunters Chardonnay 2015, Hunters Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Hunters Rose 2016,  Hunters Pinot Noir 2014, and the Hukapapa Dessert Wine 2014.

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Condolences, Good Value, Attachments, Alan Scott

The Presidents

Holy smoke, did I just see November 2016 at the top of this newsletter?  Seems you only have to blink and a month has gone by.  Where does the time go?  The only thing that seems to be dragging on is the American Presidential election.  The Lord forbid our club elections should ever be as lively as that election is proving to be.  Quite a bit happening right now with a number of items to address.

Condolences

The Presidents
The Cellar Club Presidents at The Cellar Club’s 25th birthday dinner, The James Cook Hotel, Feb 2006. From left to right Derek Thomson, Ron Thompson, Alan Evans, Wayne Kennedy, Graeme Fountain, Francesca Menzies and John Browning.

It is with deep sadness that we wish to report the passing of one of our Life Members , Ron Thomson.

Ron’s participation in the club dates back to our early beginnings when he was the editor of our newsletters until he relinquished that role to take over as our second President in 1986.

Ron became a life member in 2009 and whilst he has not attended tastings since he moved to Waikanae, he and his late wife Barbara, continued to attend our dinners until more recently when health issues began to intercede.   Ron continued to provide occasional pieces on New Zealand wine history which ran in this newsletter a little time ago.  Our condolences go out to his many friends in the Cellar Club.

And before anyone points out the issue of spelling I am aware that the “p” has slipped.  It is Ron Thomson and Derek Thompson, I just couldn’t change it in the jpeg.

Good Value at the Wine Club

A committee member was interested to hear one of our new member’s comment recently about the ‘good value’ you get from our wine club, and we thoroughly agree.  Just look at the Hunters meeting, all those good wines for less than $15 per bottle.  You won’t get that in a Supermarket.

Attachments

Allan Scott was involved in the first planting of vines in the Marlborough wine region in 1973.
Allan Scott was involved in the first planting of vines in the Marlborough wine region in 1973.

There are several attachments to this newsletter; firstly the payment advice for Nov 2016 which includes the December Dinner; and secondly the menu for Muse in December.  There is a third attachment which honours the achievement of one of the Clubs very early members.  Sharyn Evans was a member of this club way back in the formative years.  She has recently retired after 47 years as a violinist with the NZSO.  I attach an item from the Orchestra’s programme notes a couple of weeks back.  Just emphasises what a talented membership we have had and still have.

Allan Scott

Members may have read the weekend magazine from the Dompost, which featured  an article on Allan Scott.  It mentioned he’d be giving a talk about his new book ‘Marlborough Man’ at Unity Books at 12 pm on November 11.  Just in case anyone is interested.  The item was too long to include in the newsletter.

Cheers
Robin Semmens, Editor

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Lorkin quote, Where does the time go?

Lorkin quote

2016-06-3-5751105912f05“It’s easy to become a Riesling recruit without sending your wallet sideways. You’ll find yourself ticking boxes all over the show. Green apple, check. Lime, check. Lemon verbena, check. Raindrops on hot rocks, check. Long, lean, stylish and elegant, if there were such a thing as Riesling royalty in Marlborough, the Hunter’s household would be the full polo team. Sniff, sip, savour.”

With regard to the Lorkin quote above can I say that I have never yet tasted “raindrops on hot rocks” in any wine I have consumed over the years. Perhaps with my lack of expertise on the subject, I just haven’t recognised it.

Where does the time go?

After this week’s tasting, we only have the Festive Wines and December dinner to see out the year. It’s been a good year, though, let’s hope we can do as well in 2017.

Cheers
Robin Semmens, Editor

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Hunter’s Riesling Double Trophy Win

2016-06-3-57510d4a4e6e62016-06-3-57510de1d2ee9Friday 27 May 2016, Hunter’s Wines collected not one but two trophies for the Hunter’s Marlborough Riesling 2015 at the International Cool Climate Wine Show.

The trophies were presented at Friday evening’s awards dinner at Mornington Racing Club in Melbourne, Australia.

Riesling has always been a winning variety for Hunter’s Wines. The 2012 vintage collected a trophy last year at the Marlborough Wine Show showing the age-ability of Riesling. Every vintage of Hunter’s Riesling has won at least a gold medal in the last five years. But the awards started many more years before.

Jane Hunter commented: “It an incredible result. To win a trophy is always very gratifying and one to be proud of. To go on and win two trophies in the same show is spectacular. It’s very reassuring that our style of Riesling stands up year after year.”

Jane Hunter’s nephew and winemaker, James Macdonald said he has always enjoyed making Riesling saying: “Riesling is a fun variety for Inus [Hunter’s other winemaker] and I as it reflects Hunter’s personal style. Riesling has fallen away in popularity in the last few years but for the more astute wine drinker, it offers so much. Our off-dry style makes it very versatile and food friendly. The double trophy win is a pat on the back for both the vineyard and winemaking teams.”

Hunter’s Wines are available across New Zealand and internationally at all good wine retailers. Contact Hunter’s Wines to find your nearest stockist – 0800 HUNTER or wine@hunters.co.nz.

About Hunter’s Wines

Hunter’s Wines are recognised as one of the pioneers of the Marlborough wine industry and one of New Zealand’s best-known family-owned wineries. Established by Irishman, the late Ernie Hunter in 1979, the company is now headed by Jane Hunter, CNZM, OBE.

Some 30 years on, Jane is the most awarded women in the New Zealand wine industry with an impressive set of accolades, including an O.B.E and was made a Companion to the New Zealand Order of Merit. Jane is backed by a great team and three generations of family.

After winning immediate acclaim in 1986, now with 195 gold medals, 40 trophies and innumerable international awards and accolades later, Hunter’s wines are still breaking new ground.

Find out more about Hunter’s Wines visit www.hunters.co.nz. Find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all via @HuntersWinesNZ.

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