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
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.”
Interestingly, 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.”
Well, December already team. It has been a strange year with a few downs to go along with the ups for some of us on a personal level.
That is not to say that it has been a bad year for our Cellar Club, quite the contrary in fact. Let’s review our year. By a long-established tradition, we began with our summer BBQ at the end of January. The usual excellent occasion and we continue to appreciate that Derek makes his premises available. February saw us heading to Askerne Estate in Hawkes Bay. The Hawkes Bay wineries never let you down. March was with the very well established Villa Maria presenting. While the winery originated in Auckland, the company has expanded over the years and produces wines from most of the major regions in New Zealand.
April saw something of a coup for the club with Joelle Thomson presenting. Joelle is a well-recognised personality in the New Zealand wine world as an author, wine writer and tutor. Another great tasting. May is the inevitable AGM then in June Simon Bell from Colab Wine Merchants took us on a tour of Europe. Simon brought along some large wine glasses and some time was spent on discussing the virtues and differences that wine glasses can make to your wine experience. On to July for the mid-year dinner at the Trade Kitchen.
Off to Nelson for the August tasting with Waimea Estate. Over the years Waimea has gathered 150+ Gold Medals and 26 Trophies across nine different wine styles. Nelson producers are right up there as a wine region. Cenna Lloyd for Negociants presented in September. She presented wines from two wineries, Misha’s Vineyard and Two Paddocks, both from Central Otago. Much enjoyed by those who attended and really great orders from a smaller group attending.
In October we celebrated the Rugby World Cup with a selection of wines from countries competing in the Cup. Keith Tibble was the presenter. November saw the very early return of Cenna Lloyd for the South American wine and food match evening outlined below. Cenna had been to South American after presenting in September and was keen to share her experience.
It only remains to anticipate yet another December Dinner. We have been to Cashmere Lounge before and we are sure you will not be disappointed.
Waimea Estates is one of Nelson’s larger producers with over 140 hectares of their own vineyards. The cool climate and alluvial soils of Nelson’s Waimea plains combined with the highest sunshine hours in New Zealand allow vibrant, fruit-focused wines to be made.
Waimea’s export varieties are based on highly awarded Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, and over the years Waimea has gathered 150+ Gold Medals and 26 Trophies across nine different wine styles – proving the versatility Waimea and the Nelson region provides. More next month.
Fictional chardonnay swillers, Bridget Jones, and Kath and Kim have a lot to answer for when it comes to one of the world’s noblest grapes, and why, for the past 10 years or so, many of us have stopped drinking it. Not only has it become uncool to drink chardonnay but the product itself has suffered due to the deluge of cheaply produced, homogenised and heavily oak-chipped versions of this most versatile Vinifera. The 1980s and 90s were awash with over-the-top, tropically scented, fat, blousy and nearly chewable renderings of the grape that Australian winemakers went on to conquer the world with.
Back in its hometown of Chablis, France, chardonnay has been revered for more than 500 years. Depending on where and how it’s grown, the grape’s versatility is unquestionable. Great examples can swing from lean, steeled, cold stream refreshment, to sweet late harvest wines of heady line and length, stopping at all stations, good, bad, and ugly, as it goes. Nowadays, a zippy glass of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, is more popular with your average drinker than a glass of heavy, creamy, chardonnay. In fact, sav blanc accounts for 72% of the total wine produced by New Zealanders, with Aussies being the largest export market.
You could argue that if scenes from Kath and Kim were being written today, these reflective characters would, more than likely, be pouring themselves a glass of Sauvy Bee, instead of “Kar-don-ay”. But chardonnay is timeless, and its ability to match effortlessly with food means phrases like, “ABC; Anything But Chardonnay”, is something you will rarely ever hear spoken, by those in the know.
I love New Zealand chardonnay. In the warmer, sunnier climes of the north, in places such as Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, and Nelson (top of the South Island), chardonnay is scented with fresh tropical fruits and rounded textures, similar to the rolling hills that bound along the horizon. The further south you go, the cooler it gets, and chardonnay grown in the Marlborough, Waipara, and Central Otago regions, here, express their revitalising, snow peaked landscapes, as New Zealand’s alpine country pushes further up, into the sky.
After a recent visit, here are my top picks of New Zealand chardonnay.
James and Annie Millton have been biodynamic before it was cool. Second tier, but by no means second rate, the Shotberry chardonnay is like a safe option gateway drug into the wonderful world of northern New Zealand chardy. A blend from two distinct estate owned sites, Riverpoint and Opou, this wine is like drinking Gisborne in a glass. Ripe yellow fruits and florals, cooled by ocean spray, ripple above a barely noticeable raft of oak, which seems only there for textual protection, rather than full-blown armament.
2013, Bilancia Chardonnay, Bilancia, Hawke’s Bay, 13%, $29
Winegrowers, Lorraine Leheny and Warren Gibson are all about balance. There are six letters in both of their last names, they are both Libran, and their wines taste as if Lady Justice had made them herself, hence the name; ‘”bi’lancia” (be-larn-cha), meaning balance, harmony and equilibrium in Italian. If their La Collina syrah is the rapture, then this chardonnay is like some kind of intense party beforehand. The smell of gunsmoke and soft white flowers mingle with the air inside the glass, carrying with it pear skin, white stone fruit and salted honey aromas, while flavours of crisp green apple, buttery shortbread, like baked apple pie with slices of white peach glazed on top, provide the formula for flavour in this divine example of chardonnay from Hawke’s Bay.
Andrew Greenhough is a man with a masters in art history, who gave up his ambitions of being an art gallery curator – a career which would have seen him showcasing other people’s artistic creations – and instead moved to Nelson with his wife Jenny, where they purchased a vineyard, in a place called Hope. There they set out to grow and create their very own works of art. This wine showcases the real strength of this region’s potential for making great chardy, à la the revered clays hills of the Moutere. Breathe deep, the golden sunlit liquid that possesses fleshy aromas of yellow nectarine, salted buttered popcorn, and green pineapple core. Luscious, not lean, curvaceous, never flabby. This wine is not distributed in Australia, and I have no idea why, but if you are travelling in the region it’s worth stocking up on.
2014, Chardonnay, Te Whare Ra (TWR), Marlborough, Certified Organic, 13.2%, $38
Anna and Jason Flowerday take winegrowing very seriously. After all, their livelihood depends on it. That’s why all their wines have a certain laser-guided precision about them, which is not to say that they lack soul, but rather, drinking a TWR white wine is like listening to a high-fidelity live performance of Daft Punk, circa 2007.
Last year was an outstanding year for the Flowerday’s, and it shows in this vitally brilliant single estate wine. Imagine, butter melting on hot river stones while cool glacial waters that smell like white linen flowers, citrus, crunchy nectarine and other stone fruits rush over them at pace, cleansing and cooling the stones, and leaving behind fine mineral traces of residual adrenaline and joy … well, that would be an understatement.
2014, Home Chardonnay, Black Estate, Waipara , 12.5%, $45
Located in North Canterbury, on New Zealand’s South Island, Waipara valley is home to a number of premium winegrowing estates, including Black Estate, where they grow chardonnay from 21-year-old vines that were last irrigated in 1998. Winegrower, Nick Brown’s meticulous attention to detail has resulted in a wine that is all torque, which is backed up with precise lines and sleek curves. In another life, Nick may have been an Italian carmaker.
Full secondary ferment provides a textual grip that seems to have done nothing to squash the racy acids this wine drives along on. Gunsmoked cheddar, lemon spritz and coconut shavings provide the perfect hook to open wide and drink deep all the angular richness of mango skins, lace, and green pineapple core that’s held inside the glass.
The Central Otago landscape was carved from hyperbole. The mountains, the ranges, the rivers and lakes, the snow, the dirt, and the green, then gold, then red leafed vines. From sunrise to sunset, Central Otago is proof that God is a wine drinker.
Felton Road might just be the most unimaginative name for a wine label, and yet they make some of the most captivating wines in the country. The Block 3 chardonnay is deeply golden in colour and smells like frozen tropical fruits; crisp melon, fleshy pineapple, mango skins – then, soft lime, nuts and spiced honey. Upon each element sits tiny frozen flakes of ice, providing razored tension. Like sails unfurling in the wind, this wine is supple, nimble, and graceful as it goes in a round, around your mouth, down past your heart to, at last, rest in your belly and shine sunlight on your soul.
Things are now starting to settle and it looks like the rest of the year’s programme might actually proceed without the hitches that have upset the programme for the first half of the year. Having said that, and as my old Gran was fond of saying “it’s an ill wind that turns none to good”, the resulting changes have been very successful as is evidenced by this month’s tasting.
Vines of Nelson
Of course, some members may not fully understand the drive that leads your committee in the quest for new and interesting tastings. Below is a picture of your President and Secretary undertaking the arduous task of investigating the effects of terroir and climate on the vines of Nelson. Such deep and meaningful research is not foreign to us.