New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is one of the wine world’s most dramatic success stories. It went from zero to hero in the 1980s and 1990s, stunning the world with its uniquely extrovert character, and paving the way for an entire nation’s wine fortunes to be revolutionised.
Some people are a bit snobby about Kiwi Sauvignon – too easy, too obvious, too samey, they say. But the truth is that Sauvignon can be every bit as diverse, complex, age-worthy and fine as other great white grape varieties. In this episode we take a very DEEP dive into the subject, exploring in our longest episode to date what (and where) Sauvignon is, before moving onto its story in New Zealand – from virtual unknown to spearheading a wine revolution in New Zealand and now offering a range of styles that speak of regionality, winemaking diversity and (whisper it) fun.
We chat to James Healy (formerly of Cloudy Bay and Dog Point, now ABEL in Nelson), research scientist Dr Wendy Parr, Yealands chief winemaker Natalie Christensen, and wine merchant and restaurateur Melanie Brown. We also taste our way through an array of Sauvignons, from low alcohol to blush, from classic to new wave styles, from the young to the old via the elegantly oaked. Salmon ceviche and monkfish with asparagus risotto are on our table and we talk about other dishes too.
This is a sponsored episode in partnership with New Zealand Winegrowers, who are kindly offering a prize of 6 bottles of the Sauvignons we highlight in this episode to one lucky winner. You just have to tell us what your favourite accompaniment to Sauvignon is – food, music, occasion, person, etc – by Friday 14th May 2021 (on social media, email or via SpeakPipe).
One of Peter’s all-time favourites, ceviche is the ideal dish to serve with a punchy, lip-smacking New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. In this version (found via a quick Google search), the combination of creamy salmon and avocado with zesty tiger’s milk, fragrant coriander and spicy jalapeño, is unbeatable – and the perfect way to kick off an alfresco summer supper.
This roasted monkfish with asparagus risotto and lemon-thyme butter is one of a handful of dishes that we love to return to as soon as the asparagus season gets underway. It’s adapted from a Tom Oldroyd recipe taken from a Waitrose magazine back in 2016. You could easily substitute salmon, cod or halibut for the monkfish, just make sure that everyone gets a decent chunk of really top quality fish.
James Healy (JH): It was just as Sauvignon Blanc in NZ was starting, just on its very fledgling first steps. And I was working for a winery in Auckland. And we had vineyards down here in the South Island in Marlborough. But we got the fruit, we took the fruit, in those days there was only 1 winery in Marlborough, Montana, in those days. And we took the fruit to Auckland and to Gisborne, where there was a winery. And I just couldn’t believe, after everything I’d experienced with New Zealand grapes, and this was 1981, I couldn’t believe how much fruit intensity in the grapes. That hooked me on the idea of coming to the South Island, which I did in 1990
Susie Barrie MW (SB): You’ve been in wine over 40 years…
JH: I feel it!
SB: You wre first involved with Corbans then Cloudy Bay for 13 years. What was it like in those early days of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?
JH: Initially I think everybody was just amazed at the intensity of flavour and the style. And I suppose you’d call it the typical Marlborough style. And everyone was just in love with it because it was so new and there was no other wine like it.
SB: How have things changed since those early days, when people loved the fresh upfront fruity style, how has it evolved over time?
JH: I think the biggest advances in Sauvignon Blanc here has been in the viticulture or vineyard. There’s so much being learned: how to train the vines, crop levels, what you can expect flavour wise from certain soils, that’s huge. For example in Marlborough, in the Wairau Valley in the stony Wairau plains, the Sauvignon flavour there is typically very lifted, very passion fruit, quite tropical. If you go to the Southern Valleys, in the southern areas of the Wairau where soils not stony but clay, you still get very intense wines but they’re more citrus in flavour: lemon, lime, grapefruit. And that’s quite distinct after a while, you can recognise the sub-regional styles. Over the hills to Awatere Valley, the wine’s equally intense, cooler over there, and the wines are like fresh herbs, like basil, that kind of thing, a very attractive flavour. Most of the wines you’ll see will be blended from different vineyards so you don’t see the effect of that so much generally. But people doing different vineyard bottlings, you can see those characteristics a lot more clearly.
SB: If we just look at Dog Point, your project before the one you’re involved with now – we’re talking about style. You became known there for making a new wave style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. So a flinty, mineral character rather than opulent passion fruit gooseberry. Then Section 94 is oaked, with a reductive or struck match feel. Talk us through that, why that is, how you achieve that, how people reacted to it in terms of that distinctive style.
JH: That kind of handling probably would go back to my interest in Chardonnay from probably the mid-90s. Also a couple of special wines I tasted that I couldn’t believe they were so amazing. I started to realise, when I was tasting really good Burgundy, and it was virtually exclusively Burg, though you do see a bit in cooler areas of California. One or two people in Australia do it. Very little was happening in NZ at the time. And that’s the preparation of the juice prior to fermentation. So what our normal handling of grapes juice would be – to harvest fruit, machine or hand, settle it, chill it, to get all thick solid material to sink to the bottom of tank. When you machine harvest fruit, you get a lot more lees. Because the process of taking grapes off vine, skins are broken and the grape is pulverised. Experimenting with using different levels of solids, bit of a journey I can tell you, if you can judge that right (experience allows you), you can start to get that really nice level of flinty minerality. And it’s also when it’s really successful, it’s quite crunchy, really attractive. And it’s not a fruity thing, OK, so if you’re trying to make a fruity wine, using that sort of technique is probably not a good idea. Cos you’re competing with the fruit. It’s like smothering something with too much oak. And so, going down that track not adding yeasts, experimenting with various levels of solids. And with Chardonnay I found you could quite easily just use all the solids most years, and it really gave the wines a flavour and texture that improved the wine, it made the wines into a style we were more pleased with. With Sauvignon, Section 94, that’s what we started doing. It’s a deep clay loam vineyard. The wine has never been incredibly fruity. But always had great structure, the wine off that block. That’s what we did – not new barrels, just older barrels, we didn’t want oak but wanted to see the effect of the solids and the flinty character in the wine. And we’ve come a long way with that and very very pleased with where we are.
SB: Exciting times ahead!
JH: Yes! Thank you Susie.
Natalie Christensen (NC): I’d have to say probably the pungent aromatics and the zippy…I dunno, you just can’t miss New Zealand or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. It sticks out a mile. It’s always a pleasure to taste in the vineyard because it definitely wakes you up. We’ve just come out of harvest in New Zealand and smelling the ferments is always incredibly exiting and invigorating. Just a beautifully vibrant, beautiful, sassy style.
Peter Richards MW (PR): love sassy. Can it be too much? You say it’s full of character, can that be too much?
NC: Yeah, it can be. Depends what style you’re after. There’s a diverse range of Sauvignon Blanc out of Marlborough. Where we are in Awatere Valley, we get different styles: more herbal, mineral, aromatics more restrained, more of a textural style. Having said that, we get pockets of volatile thiols, so those punchy passion fruit, grapefruit characters coming through, like the Lower Wairau region, closer to coast, they can be those really sweaty cat’s pee, tropical, almost like oozing out your pores styles of Sauvignon. Which some people love and some people do find a bit confronting.
PR: You talk about Awatere – a sub-region of Marlborough, you have a large vineyard there. Let’s start there. Can you talk to us about Awatere, what it gives to the wines, you mention texture. And also, more broadly, the sense of place in Sauvignon Blanc, we’re starting to see that in Marlborough.
NC: The Yealands vineyard is known as Seaview, it’s right on the coast in Awatere Valley. We get a very distinct style of Sauvignon coming out of that pocket of Marlborough. Being so coastal we tend to get a lot of moderating sea breezes so we’re a long growing season, usually 10 days to 2 weeks after Wairau for picking. So we’ll start later. It’s very cool and very dry. Being so coastal, we almost get a salty minerality through the wines, and it gives a beautiful texture, almost a crushed oyster shell, like a chalky salty deliciousness with aromatics of green herbals. But it can get…warmer more sheltered pockets can get stone fruit character. So diverse. On sub-regionality – Sauvignon Blanc is such an incredible variety because it does show such a sense of place. There’s minimal winemaker intervention with Sauvignon, especially when you’re making those vibrant Marlborough styles, stainless steel fermented, no oak influence, just pure expression from that site and that season. And you can clearly see site variation and seasonal variation. When you work with Sauvignon Blanc and Marlborough, all the pockets have their different personalities, so there’s definitely sub-regionality and different styles coming from Marlborugh.
PR: are we gonna see that developing more in the future, ever more diversity of styles, driven by regionality?
NC: potentially. Depends how things go. A lot of blending does happen. Depends what tier people making wines into. A lot of producers do make single vineyard wines and sub-regional wines do an expose of those different characters. There are also a lot of alternative styles out there too. Not as mainstream as what people might expect from Marlborough Sauvignon. People have been making oaked styles of Sauvignon for a very long time, if you’re not prepared for it, you think: wait a moment this isn’t my vibrant zippy Marlborough Sauvignon. There’s some toasty notes or softening Malolactic fermentation. So different. People touching on natural wine movement – skin fermented Sauvignon, minimal intervention, low sulphur wines and that sort of thing. So people are playing around with alternative styles and you’ll see more of that in the future, but I still think it’ll be a niche. Won’t be massive unless consumers really get behind it. Which they might!
PR: you do a bit of that: oak, concrete eggs with State of Flux. Is that necessary for Sauvignon to be taken more seriously, developing more niche, ambitious, esoteric styles?
NC: I think Sauvignon is such a versatile variety. This year we have, just finished harvest, fresh in my mind, different clones in Sauvignon. There’s a Bordeaux clone that’s less aromatic than traditional Sauvignon Blanc we work with. So we’ve put into oak barrel as when you have that vibrant fruity Sauvignon intermingled with oak, can have too much going on. So yeah, structural textural style of barrel fermented Sauvignon. And then with the eggs – for those of you listening, basically there’s a ferment vessel in the shape of an egg and it holds 1700 litres, as tall as me and bit wider than me – the whole concept of fermenting in concrete egg, convection currents, yeast lees in suspension creates texture and structure. Sauvignon is versatile, got beautiful acidity, aromatics, and just playing around with different winemaking techniques to see what other things we can get out of it.
PR: Wonderful. Thank you!
NC: You’re welcome.
Dr Wendy Parr (WP): I’ll just step back from the science first for one minute, when it first came on the market, it was just different. Most people knew Sauvignon in terms of Loire, Sancerre, and it was just different. I think people felt that the people who were making it were very brave taking it to London in the form it was in as a Sauvignon. That’s the first thing that attracted attention. But, from our research, talking about the science, it was the particular combination of both green and fruity notes. And there wasn’t a fixed combination but both were needed, our research showed up quite quickly when we looked at what people considered a typical Marlborough Sauvignon. Essential green + fruity combination. Along with that, we also found, interestingly for me, it distinguishes other wines that are like Marlborough Sauvignons, like Chilean wines for example, it’s a freshness, zestiness, citrus acidity. That kind of thing. It just has the fruit notes have this freshness and even the green. That’s what made it so distinctive or different first up.
Peter Richards MW (PR): just to touch on the specific flavours: we’re talking green…there lots. Key ones? Boxwood or tomato leaf?
WP: On that herbaceous end, yes. The original Sauvignons, cos I’m old enough to have known those, were very grassy green, it was a greenness of methoxypyrazines, and for those who understand the science the c-6 compounds that give that grassy note. But the vegetal notes of pea, asparagus, green bean, when one of those methoxypyrazines gets quite high, they dominated. It was really when Awatere part of Marlborough was developed, people started to notice the herbaceous notes: tomato leaf, tomato stalk. The boxwood or cat’s pee was always there but can come out in other ways as well, herbaceous ways – basil, other notes rounded out away from just the unripe-ish green notes
PR: When we talk about the fruity component, things like passion fruit?
WP: Yes, that’s one a lot of people identify with. Across the country, in warmer areas like Hawke’s Bay, you get more stone fruit notes: white peach, apricot. Even sometimes into the tropical guava spectrum in a really ripe year. But the other fruits: more apple, citrus in the cooler areas. So the spectrum varies and varies by region but also by vintage. Even though the big producers try to blend to make a consistent product for the consumer so you know eg in London wine shop what you’re going to get. In actual fact, looking at single vineyards, they’re very different across vintages.
PR: To touch on preferences – why do people like this style so much, what does your research show, apparently even the French like it?!
WP: Yes, I’ve had to a lot of work with our French colleagues to retain harmony in our groups! I don’t think it’s rocket science. This distinctiveness – the wine just has a personality. Our research has identified what this personality is. But to me there are two things talking about consumers and wine pros. It jumps out of the glass at you. The flavours are there. So it’s got something. And I think a lot of wine consumers can feel intimidated in wine in social circles, and with Marlborough Sauvignon you know what you’re getting, you can recognise it at a function or wine tasting or whatever, and it gives people confidence. It’s quite interesting as a wine. It might not be one of the great wines of the world, in terms of the way most people think about it, but it has its role here because people not only get something out of that, it’s accessible. Most people in other research we’ve done, they don’t want to work hard on wine all the time, they don’t want to have to extract flavours out of a complex Chardonnay or whatever. They actually like Sauvignon cos sitting in the sun, an aperitif, it’s easy, you get something out of it. So too the recognisable aspect of it works for people too. They like to feel confident and recognise a wine. They don’t get it wrong. Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pgrigio, they’re more difficult for inexperienced people. But Marlborough Sauvignon – nobody gets that wrong!
PR: Has your research indicated how have preferences changed over time?
WP: we haven’t got a lot of data on this but having worked with studies for 15+ years, we’ve seen in our data that yes there are changes. The most obvious ones are – the greenness, the vociferous nature of that almost raw green upfront in the early wines that’s mellowed. People are happy to have a bit more complexity, palate weight, more concentration of fruit. Quite separate in terms of new styles. But people get riper fruit, people more focusing now on reducing crops, fruit concentration. So people are seeking more palate weight now, not all upfront. The third thing we’ve picked up is: the first studies we looked at the concept of ‘mineral’ – flinty or stony notes – they were definitely a no-no for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. A wine rated high in minerality was judged low in typicality for Marlborough Sauvignon, wasn’t an ideal one. The more recent work we’ve done – having some mineral study was now judged positively. So the preference has shifted away from raw green and big fruit to a bit more in it.
PR: Wendy Parr, thank you very much for your time.
WP: Nice to meet you, it’s been a pleasure, bye!
Melanie Brown (MB): New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has personality. There’s so much that contributes to the success. Has a lot to do with the industry. New Zealand itself, has done an exceptional job in retaining the rock star status that we know and love for Sauvignon. They’ve managed to consistently produce a style that’s captivating. But of an exceptional quality as well. So has a lot to do with the terroir of New Zealand, and particularly Marlborough, being able to sustain that as a whole. But also the industry as a whole, they’ve worked together, championed, shared research, ultimately that’s a testament to its success.
Susie Barrie MW (SB): You’ve been selling New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to punters for a while both retail also in bistro. Does it work equally well in both?
MB: Absolutely. Firstly with our online retail, Specialist Cellars, Sauvignon Blanc is our top white wine seller above everything else. Again, that’s testament to how wonderful New Zealand produces Sauvignon, and consistency of style. Chardonnay is quickly becoming the 2nd biggest seller. But equally in our bistro, the Laundry, our punters really understand the quality of Sauvignon. So to see a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on the list, that’s equally something that punters grab onto. We’re seeing, with a Picpoul and Sauvignon side by side on list at same price point, both are equally flying out the door.
SB: talking about bistro. You’ve got a culinary background. You were a chef, worked with Raymond Blanc, Peter Gordon, Jamie Oliver. What are your top tips matching Sauvignon Blanc to food? Do you have a favourite match?
MB: ooooh. The burrata salad is a perfect match on our menu at Laundry: crisp fresh style you get with Sauvignon Blanc perfectly matches the burrata.
SB: talking about the style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, how would you describe the evolution?
MB: it’s been a really interesting evolution. When Sauvignon Blanc landed here: it was full-on savoury in your face. Over time, evolution slowly mellowed out a little bit. The style a bit more refined now, bit more tropical in nature, the public here in UK really loved watching that evolution happen over time. We’re starting to see eg barrel fermented. But also Sauvignon Blanc that are ageing. So at the SB conference a few years ago, we were seeing Sauvignon Blancs 10-12 years old, that’s an interesting concept for UK consumers, don’t necessarily see Sauvignon Blanc that old. But to see a consistent quality wine that can age gracefully is again testament to the producers in New Zealand.
SB: Melanie Brown, thank you for your time.
MB: No worries, thanks Susie.