So you think you know (New Zealand) Sauvignon?

Although it feels like the 70s only happened twenty years ago it might come as a surprise to learn it is actually closer to fifty years ago (proving that you are older than you think). Nevertheless, the first usable quantity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was only produced in 1974, which is really quite astounding for a world-renowned variety with such a solid and recognisable profile.

While vine propagation in New Zealand had its roots planted much earlier in history, Sauvignon Blanc cuttings were relative newcomers to the viticultural scene when they arrived on the North Island from the University of California. Although there was no real prestige in the vine it was a workhorse — considered hardy, durable, vigorous, and had a distinctive flavour profile being both aromatic and boasting zingy acidity in abundance. Matua Valley’s first site in Swanson, Auckland produced the first quantities of the wine and it was Montana in Marlborough (now known as Brancott Estate) who first introduced that recognisable bell pepper, lime, fresh-cut grass character that eventually became so internationally envied.

Cloudy Bay Cellar Door, Marlborough.

When I was a sommelier at London’s Southbank-based Oxo Tower Restaurant in the noughties we could not keep the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in stock, such was its popularity. Our most coveted bottle was Marlborough’s Dog Point, a bright and refreshing, jasmine and orange-blossom soaked Sauvignon from winemakers James Healy and Ivan Sutherland who had previously worked together at Cloudy Bay. Cloudy Bay, founded by David Hohnen of Australia’s wildly successful Cape Mentelle Estate, was probably the most famous and prestigious of all Marlborough Sauvignon Producers. The wine became a by-word for the New Zeleand Sauvie style and later, when I oversaw the wine needs of rich yacht owners, there was rarely a lunch where a request for Cloudy Bay wasn’t made, such was its draw. With each shipment selling out instantly upon release, it set a benchmark for mouth-watering, zesty, premium Sauvignon. With its grapefruit gooseberry intensity, roundness from oak and touch of Sémillon in the blend, many New Zealand producers sought to emulate its popularity with varying degrees of success.

Bought first by Veuve Clicquot in 2003 and then acquired by the luxury goods juggernaut that is LVMH, it still exports in excess of 1.5 million bottles a year. Not bad for a 38 year old. What Cloudy Bay and those early manifestations achieved, essentially, was to pave the way for an explosion in New Zealand experimentation with the grape and we can trace its metamorphosis from those early brash, lime-drenched manifestations into more subtle, complex and long lasting versions available today.

Although it will never lose that unmistakable grassy, herbaceous character, barrel ageing in different types and specification of oak has softened the profile while various viticultural choices such as using wild and / or malolactic fermentation, lees contact and stirring has muted the crunchy green gooseberry, asparagus ‘rawness’ of earlier versions. Flavour profiles ranging from punchy and honeyed tropical to more unbridled complex flavours such as tarragon, saffron and white floral can vary due to climate and topography creating niche sub-categories within the identity of the country’s cachet of Sauvignon.

Image from NZ Wine Book.

Marlborough is home to over 89% of the country’s Sauvignon and Jules Taylor, owner and winemaker of Marlborough based Jules Taylor wines, has said of the wine; “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is truly unique and always identifiable in a line-up of Sauvignon Blancs from around the world. But it is not all the same.” The region’s steady and cool maritime climate with copious hours of sunshine have it made it an unrivalled region for that often copied fruit-forward style but that is not to say there hasn’t been a quiet evolution happening which is diversifying the style and keeping it fresh and relevant. Some styles which border on Burgundian are being made in Marlborough, wines like Smith & Sheth’s CRU Wairau Sauvignon Blanc which comes from mature vines in the stony soils around the Renwick township in Marlborough, blended with biodynamically grown hillside fruit from the Churton Vineyard. Fermented at cooler temperatures with cultured yeasts in stainless steel, with small portions fermented in oak, the wine is left on light lees for six months to provide texture before bottling. This is a wine brimming on the palate with gooseberry, fresh lime, and hints of ripe nectarine, finishing with a lovely long feel of the stony soils and refreshing salty acidity.

New and exciting CRU wines from Smith & Sheth

Nelson is a relative newcomer to New Zealand’s viticultural scene despite being long renowned for its bountiful crops and fruit orchards. Nelson’s sheltered climate, protected by mountain ranges to the south, east and west, with mild sea breezes from Tasman Bay to the north, eases the plentiful heat in summer. Clear, cool nights preserve flavour and varietal character, letting fruit acids reduce gradually over settled autumn months. A mineral, fruit-based acidity underpins all varieties providing definition, structure and elegance.

In the mid 1800s German settlers planted grape vines in Nelson but it was slow to catch on to the world-shaking success Marlborough achieved with Sauvignon Blanc. Greenhough is a boutique winery founded in late 1990, by Andrew and Jenny Greenhough, who left the fast pace of Auckland to re-settle in a rural pocket of Nelson, encouragingly named ‘Hope’. This four hectare property had been partially established in the mid-70s by a pioneer amateur winemaker but after their arrival Muller Thurgau and green-edged Cabernet Sauvignon vines were removed, a property next door was purchased, and new Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted. In 2008, Andrew and Jenny challenged themselves again, committing to organics and beginning the conversion to full BioGro NZ certification. All of the current nine hectares are certified organic. Greenhough’s Sauvignon is vibrant, crunchy and organic to boot with the ripe fruit harvested in several parcels to ensure a spectrum and balance of flavours. Predominantly tank fermented using a selection of aromatic yeasts, a small percentage of high-solids juice is wild fermented in barrel, contributing a subtle but distinctive savoury, spicy and textural character to the finished wine and imparting bucketloads of welcome complexity.

Jenny and Andrew Greenhough, Greenhough Wines, Nelson

Waipara North Canterbury is more usually known for production of Pinot Noir, aromatic varieties like Riesling and some Chardonnay. The region sits sheltered in the valley of the Teviotdale hills along the east coast of the South island. Warm north-westerly wins that come from the Southern Alps provide a warming influence and mean that along with low rainfall and warm autumns, the alluvial, free-draining soils typical of the area encourage good vine health and are often cited as the reason for the characteristic flintiness in the Sauvignon styles from the region. Waipara also has one of the longest growing seasons in New Zealand. The effect of the long ripening season means an added rich flavour complexity to the resultant wines. Although the area under vine in Waipara is relatively small compared to its northern neighbour, Marlborough, it is already asserting itself as a region of extremely high quality.

Brian Sheth and Steve Smith of Smith & Sheth and Pyramid Valley Wines.

The wines of Pyramid Valley are born in the dramatic soils and slopes of the Waikari Estate in North Canterbury and the Manata Estate in Central Otago, South Island New Zealand. The estate was reinvigorated in 2017 by good friends and business partners Steve Smith and Brian Sheth. Steve, known in New Zealand and internationally as a wine superstar, was also renowned for establishing Craggy Range in Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough. Pyramid Valley Sauvignon Blanc is a blend of two vineyards sustainably farmed and free of artificial chemicals or fertilisers made from grapes fermented with natural vineyard yeasts in a combination of tank, neutral barrels and clay amphora with 5% fermented on skins for two to three weeks. The wine sat on its ferment lees without SO2 for 3 months prior to blending, and was bottled unfined. Pale yellow straw in appearance, with sweet smoke, lemon curd, citrus and spicy jalapeño aromas the wine is medium bodied with good density and texture. Flavours of citrus, lemon pith meadow herb with a saline finish, which will age nicely over the next five years.

The future of New Zealand Sauvignon looks characteristically golden and as Jules Taylor says there is still a love (and market) for the “party-pants SB, the aperitif style with octopus arms that hit you with eight different flavours from all directions”, but this is now morphing into what she refers to as a ‘New Classic style.’ Some of that original audacious pungency has been dialled back and more sophisticated stone fruit and sweet herb flavours like basil and thyme have crept in, in part due to canopy management keeping ‘green’ flavoured chemical compounds in check and allowing the fruit to ripen longer and more fully thus encouraging a more mellow personality to emerge.

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