The key to New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc success
© Sue Courtney
Auckland, New Zealand
17 March 2004

What is it about New Zealand that makes their Sauvignon Blanc so successful?

Denis Dubourdieu This is a question that many have asked and desperately want to know the answer to. There are many theories but esteemed researcher and winemaker, Professor Denis Dubourdieu (pictured) of the University of Bordeaux, has some answers. "Light, water and nitrogen," he said at a University of Auckland Wine Conference in November 2003. Of course there are other factors such as the growing season, viticultural practises, the maturity of the grapes at harvest and the methods of vinification including the types of yeasts used. But light, water and nitrogen play such an important part.

When it comes to light there is no doubt that the light that shines on New Zealand is more intense than in many other parts of the world. Even explorers and early artists recorded the brilliance and radiance that the light of New Zealand emitted and tourists and first time visitors to our country comment on its clarity. Good light is essential for good grapes.

When it comes to water many Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, especially in Marlborough, are planted in river valleys close to rivers and even on old riverbeds. Soils composed of river gravels make it easy for roots to penetrate to the water table and proximity to rivers allows viticulturists to draw off water or to sink wells to provide the water for irrigation. The secret with water is how much and when.

However the amount of nitrogen in the soil seems to be the real key for our zippy, zingy, vibrant flavours. Nitrogen affects the levels of the precursors for the aromatics that we associate with distinctive Sauvignon Blanc. Aromas such as capsicum, herbs, grass, cats pee (or boxwood as it is commonly referred to in the Northern Hemisphere), passionfruit, grapefruit, citrus zest, smoke and ever so rarely, truffles, for example. It seems the higher the nitrogen in the soil, the more these characters will be pronounced when the Sauvignon Blanc grapes are made into wine. While this is good for Sauvignon Blanc, it is bad news for its close cousin Cabernet Sauvignon, which perhaps explains why Cabernet Sauvignon does not produce good wine from Marlborough.

Our best Sauvignon Blanc vineyards are rich in nitrogen perhaps because New Zealand has an historic farming background with little history of grape growing. Vineyards were developed and are still being developed on virgin grape land, land that was once clover-rich pasture abounding with nitrogen. If nitrogen is needed to develop the Sauvignon Blanc aroma precursors, there seems to be no shortage of it. No wonder that Sauvignon Blanc does so well. And it seems to explain why first crop Sauvignon Blanc grapes seem to produce wines with an exuberance of flavour that grab you with their intensity.

One such "first crop" Sauvignon Blanc is the Matua Valley "Paretai" Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003, one of my top two Sauvignon Blanc wines tasted during 2003. It's a new wine for Matua Valley, harvested from first crop vines on the northern banks of the Wairau River in Marlborough's Wairau Valley and from the Awatere Valley, the next big river valley that drains the great mountainous divide, about 30 kilometres further south. This powerfully smelling wine is zesty and spicy with prickly melon, nettles, herbs and well defined acidity. It's rich, ripe, bright and punchy, with mouthfilling apples, gooseberry, melons, grapefruit and a touch of passionfruit-like tropical fruit that leads into an awesome, lingering, pungent finish. Well balanced with good acidity, it displays the attributes of great New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the start to the finish.

New Zealand's First Sauvignon Blanc
The Matua Valley "Paretai" Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc continues a long trend for Matua Valley that started in 1974 when the owners, brothers Ross and Bill Spence, produced New Zealand's first commercial Sauvignon Blanc. However the grapes were not grown in Marlborough, but on the Spences' vineyard in Auckland.

Ross had attended the University of Fresno in California, where he tasted wines made from grape varieties he hadn't heard of back in New Zealand. When he returned home he found that some of the varieties were growing at the government viticultural research station at Te Kauwhata, a little south of Auckland. Although heavily virussed, he took cuttings and planted them anyway. One was Sauvignon Blanc and the grapes, with their distinctive flavours, looked promising. It was 1969.

The following year, government viticulturist Frank Berrysmith imported a number of vines from the University of California, Davis, amongst them Sauvignon Blanc from vine no. 6 in UCD's foundation vineyard F4. Cuttings from this new vine, affectionately known in New Zealand as UCD1, were planted by Corbans Wines in their vineyard in Kumeu, nearby. Spence then obtained further cuttings from Corbans to bulk up his own trial to commercial levels. A trial wine was released in 1973, with the first commercial release in 1974.

In a time when New Zealand was awash with hybrids and the fashionable Riesling Sylvaner, which was what called dry versions of Muller-Thurgau was called, the unknown Sauvignon Blanc was hard to sell. So the Spence brothers followed Robert Mondavi's lead and called the wine "Fumé Blanc." People started buying and other growers became interested. With further trials and a disease-resistance rootstock, the vines from Matua Valley's Waimauku vineyard in Auckland provided the source wood for all the early plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand - and that includes Marlborough where about 85% of New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc is now grown.

The first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was produced in 1979 by Montana Wines, known in the U.S. as "Brancott," named for the Brancott Valley vineyard in Marlborough where the grapes were grown.

Sauvignon Blanc is now proud to be known by its own name, rather than by a pseudonym to aid its sale.

The success of "first crop" Sauvignon Blanc
Many high flying Sauvignon Blanc wines have made their names from first crop vines. It's not surprising when you consider how rapidly New Zealand's wine industry has blossomed. As new viticultural regions that are perfect for Sauvignon Blanc are discovered, such as Marlborough's Awatere Valley, and as traditional farmers relinquish their grazing land for grapes in established areas like the Wairau Valley, new vines are planted.

First crop vines do not compromise Sauvignon Blanc quality in New Zealand and the best producers, who wooed with their first productions, will endeavour to consistently produce good wines from year to year, perhaps with more structural complexity as the vines get older.

There are no really old Sauvignon Blanc vines in New Zealand. The Spence brothers' original Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in Auckland still exists because these vines were planted on rootstock. However Marlborough's early vineyards were developed from cuttings. Phylloxera got the better of those vines and the vineyards had to be replanted. Some of those have been since been replanted again when new clones of Sauvignon Blanc became available.

Fill up a case of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
How do you choose twelve top Sauvignon Blancs when there are so many Sauvignon Blancs in New Zealand and so many that are terrifically good? What takes your fancy may well depend on when and where you drink the wine, your mood, who you share the wine with and the food - if any. However I'd be absolutely elated if someone arrived at my house with a case of wines filled with the twelve selections below. Whether they are all available wherever you are in this big wide cyber world, I don't know. Therefore website addresses are added so interested readers can contact the winery for local and international distributors.

All these wines can be lightly chilled.

Matua Valley "Paretai" Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap)
(see description above) 12.5% alc.
http://www.matua.co.nz

Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap)
The second of my two Sauvignon Blanc wines of 2003 and I've tasted it several times this year as well.
Pale straw, with classic musky "Marlborough sweat" on the nose and in behind that a delicate hint of smoke and citrus zest, it's powerful and zingy with a suggestion of capsicum and concentrated gooseberry, passionfruit, limes, stonefruits and grassy flavours all harmoniously integrated into its wonderful fleshy texture. It has a silky flow, terrific weight, good acidity and a long pungent finish. Summer herbs emerge to linger with the subtle muskiness of the pungent fruit. 13% alc.
http://www.saintclair.co.nz

Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap)
You can't have a case of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc without the benchmark Cloudy Bay. I've tasted this wine several times over the 7 months since release and tasting several days from the same bottle, I think it is going to be its best in the mid to latter part of 2004. Water pale and pungently aromatic, smelling of herbs, grass, capsicum and tropical fruit, it's rich, ripe and fruity in the palate. Fresh and grassy, classic Marlborough flavours of lemon, capsicum and gooseberry meld together then toasty passionfruit explodes in the mouth and takes over to linger with summer herbs and limey citrus, long after the wine is swallowed. It's electrifying and vibrant and I love it.
http://www.cloudybay.co.nz

Goldwater "New Dog" Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap)
This used to be called "Dogpoint" after the vineyards where the grapes were sourced, but the owners of the Dogpoint Vineyard have now decided to produce their own wine. The Goldwaters had to find a new vineyard and a new name. Hence "New Dog." I tasted the wine a couple of months after release. Pale straw in colour with fresh nettle and lemon aromas, it's concentrated and fruity, a little spicy with a warm, slightly oily texture. Crisp gooseberry and lime give way to a lovely hit of bright tropical fruit and pineapple on the dry finish that has a green herbal twist. As the wine sits in the glass, the aromas open up to show more passionfruit, lime and gooseberry and a myriad of flavours emerge. I just love those herbs. It will be drinking well through 2004.
http://www.goldwater.com

Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap)
Pungent on nose with passionfruit, plum flesh, limes and grass. It's rich, full, spicy and prickly in the mouth with lots of vibrant classic Marlborough gooseberry, grass and oily herbs then a touch of green melon joins in as well. It's a beautifully balanced savvie that is dry, ripe and rather delicious and fills out on the finish with a suggestion of toasted stonefruit and the merest hint of hokey pokey, while gooseberry and citrus flavours linger. It has finesse and length 12.5% alc.
http://www.kimcrawfordwines.co.nz

Lawson's Dry Hills Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap)
Richly aromatic on the nose with gooseberries, lemons, grass and herbs, then an explosion of pungent and powerful flavours in the mouth where gooseberries, lime and tropical fruit mingle. There's a prickly, spicy grassy herbaceousness, the texture is slightly oily and there's a hint of oak on the long, rich, pungent, slightly smoky, toasty finish. Passionfruit and herbs linger. 13% alc. 3.5g/L rs.
http://www.lawsonsdryhills.co.nz

Wither Hills Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap)
This is exactly what I expect Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to be with 'leap out of the glass' lime, gooseberry and passionfruit aromas and flavours that so characterise the region. Pale straw in colour, crisp, fresh & zingy, weighty, full of fruit with a prickly grassiness and a long pungent gooseberry & passionfruit finish, there's a touch of guava and some musky 'sweat too'. Very smart. 13% alc.
http://www.witherhills.co.nz

Villa Maria Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003
I've tasted so many Villa Maria wines from the vintage - the Reserve Clifford Bay, the Reserve Wairau Valley, the Reserve Single Vineyard Taylor's Pass, the Reserve Single Vineyard Seddon, the Cellar Selection and the Private Bin - they are all good. But I think my favourite was the Villa Maria Taylor's Pass Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, a new vineyard on the northern side of the Awatere River and made from first cropped vines.
Villa Maria Taylor's Pass Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap) This is what I'd call more "classic" with its green, grassy, crisp, herbaceous and intense gooseberry aromatics. It's a dry racy wine, slightly grainy textured, with a fantastic array of juicy exuberant fruit from crisp and zingy gooseberry to underlying passionfruit and tropical feijoa with hints of tobacco on the finish. It's a fruit bowl of a wine with terrific palate weight that makes it seem soft and round. This one doesn't need food - if you want to sip on it unaccompanied, it will do quite nicely, thank you. It hides its alcohol well. 14.5%.
http://www.villamaria.co.nz

Other than Marlborough
Although Marlborough is tantamount to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, the 15% of this variety's grapes that are not grown here are spread through out the rest of the country. There's a tiny bit in Auckland still, including those historic "first" vines but the rest of the Sauvignon Blanc is mainly found in Hawkes Bay, the Wairarapa (which includes Martinborough), Nelson, Canterbury and Central Otago. Here are a few selections from those regions.

Te Mata Woodthorpe Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (cork)
Hawkes Bay, on the east coast of the North Island, is the second largest wine region in New Zealand and is noted for its rich robust Merlots and creamy Chardonnays.
The Te Mata is a rich, voluptuously flavoured Hawkes Bay savvie with fresh summer herb aromas leading into gooseberry, lemon and pineapple flavours. It's full-bodied, warm and textural yet dry and zingy with a touch of musk and slightly pungent, sweaty stonefruit characters on the full-bodied, juicy finish. Passionfruit and tropical fruit linger. It's softer in acidity than most Marlborough wines. 12.5% alc.
http://www.temata.co.nz

Borthwick Wairarapa Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (cork)
The grapes for this wine are grown about 45 kilometres north of Martinborough, which is at the bottom of the North Island. The area is called "Dakins Road."
There's a sweetness to the musky fragrance of concentrated apple and passionfruit on the nose of this toasty rich, ripe rounded sauvignon. It has fantastic mouthfeel and a lovely, lovely, silky texture, flavours of apples, passionfruit and grass, just everything you want in a savvie. There's just the slightest hint of muskiness with sweet ripe fruit lingering on the persistent finish, it's a powerful wine but not overpowering. 13.5% alc.
http://www.borthwick.co.nz

Greenhough Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap)
Nelson is west of Marlborough at the top of the South Island. This is my favourite Nelson rendition, a richly concentrated sauvignon with a touch of musky sweat, juicy green apple, smoke, grass and citrus, it's full-bodied in flavour with a satiny texture and an immensely long finish that fills out with classical Sauvignon Blanc pungency and persists for ages. Powerful, rich, mouthfillingly delicious. A terrific follow-on to the outstanding 2002 vintage from this producer. 13.5% alc.
No web. Email greenhough.vineyard@clear.net.nz

Amisfield Central Otago Sauvignon Blanc 2003 (screwcap)
If you wonder why anyone grows Sauvignon Blanc in Central Otago where Pinot Noir is the Royal Family of grapes, this is one reason why. Another reason is that Sauvignon Blanc is a perfect wine for summery days in Central Otago wine cafés.
The Amisfield is a super, super wine, made by Jeff Sinnott, who was responsible for the "Isabel" Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs until he moved south from Marlborough to Central Otago in 2002.
Flint and grass on the nose, gooseberries, grass, apples, summer herbs, pears and just a hint of sweat in the palate, this has an absolutely gorgeous silky texture. Subtle oak compounds the body and adds a smoky nuance to the grassy finish. There's a touch of prickly acidity too and an array of complexities with a suggestion of stonefruit, lemons and just a few nuts. A lovely full-bodied wine that lets the grapes speak. 13% alc.
http://www.amisfield.co.nz

Footnote:
If you are technically minded and want to find out more about the research on the aromas of Sauvignon Blanc at the University of Bordeaux, I suggest you look at this prize winning paper by Takatoshi Tominaga, who studied under Professor Dubourdieu. It's an Adobe Acrobat (PDF) file written in French.

The researchers at the University of Bordeaux haven't yet found a precursor for the "sweaty" character in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as it does not appear in the wines of France. But now that a Wine Industry Research Institute has been established at the University of Auckland, we are sure to find out soon.

Dr Denis Dubourdieu, as well as being renowned for his work at the University of Bordeaux, produces a number of wines. The most famous of his labels is probably Château Doisy Daëne. As well as the famous second-growth Barsac-Sauternes sweet wine, a Château Doisy Daëne Bordeaux Blanc Sec is made exclusively from Sauvignon Blanc and is historically the first dry white wine to be made in the Sauternes area. Find out more from http://www.denisdubourdieu.com.

© Sue Courtney, March 17, 2004

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