New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc made and/or matured in oak is attracting attention. For publication 25 January 2016.
Sauvignon Blanc usually springs to mind when people think of wine from New Zealand. The country has slightly more than 20,000 hectares devoted to the varietal, representing a massive 56 per cent of all grapes grown. Pinot noir is the next most planted, with a mere 5,500 hectares and 8 per cent of total production.
Marlborough is by far the largest producer, hosting 17,725 of those 20,000 hectares. (Numbers are based on 2014 data and the amount of Sauvignon Blanc is likely to have increased.)
Typically the grape produces fresh and lively wines with characteristic acid zing, combined with aromas of green capsicum and gooseberries, cut grass and tomato stalks, through to tropical fruits like mango or guava. The last occurs when grapes are ripe, though styles vary depending on where the fruit is grown. Sauvignon Blanc thrives all over New Zealand, from Auckland near the top of the north island to Otago near the bottom of the south island. It is New Zealand’s flagship wine.
Almost nine in 10 bottles are exported. Most of that Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc receives no oak. It is meant to be consumed in the current vintage. But in the past few years some winemakers have been fermenting and/or storing the wine in oak and releasing it after a few years in the cellar. A tasting of this style of wine in London this month was a revelation; these are excellent wines that can rival the best from Sancerre in France.
Master of Wine Peter McCombie, born in New Zealand but based in the UK, hosted the tasting. “Most people think of Sauvignon Blanc as a current vintage style wine but we are seeing a growing trend of this oaked style,” McCombie said.
Most Sauvignon Blanc is produced in stainless steel tanks to optimise freshness and zesty fruit flavours, he said. “Think pungently aromatic, vividly pure fruit – herbaceous and exotically tropical – plus mineral depths.” Yields tend to be high because this is a vigorous grape variety, so vines are trimmed and leaves plucked to ensure the fruit ripens.
Some winemakers are fermenting the grape in oak. “Subsequent maturation on the yeast lees adds complexity, richness and longevity to the wine,” McCombie said, and these styles were becoming increasingly popular.
The 2012 Gravestone from the Man O’War vineyard on Waiheke Island, off the east coast of Auckland, represents an elegant example of the oaked style. The vineyard is so named because when Captain James Cook discovered the island in the late eighteenth century it had thousands of tall kauri trees that could be used to make masts for British warships.
The wine is a blend of 75 per cent Sauvignon Blanc with the balance Semillon, and tastes like an elegant white Bordeaux. It won the trophy for best New Zealand white at the recent International Wine Challenge. The wine spent time in older large oak barrels known as puncheons and feels creamy and textured as well as offering that zingy sensation so typical of Sauvignon Blanc.
“Oak ageing [for Sauvignon Blanc] is coming of age in New Zealand,” McCombie said, noting that this wine could be cellared for several years, unlike the typical fruit-driven version of the wine.
Fellow MW Richard Bampfield agrees. “A little bit of oak in sauvignon can actually work really well if it’s practised by someone who really knows what they’re doing,” he told the drinks business magazine late last year. (Note subs: lower case the drinks business.)
Giesen Wine Estate on the south island outside the provincial capital Christchurch produces another excellent oaked Sauvignon Blanc from grapes grown in Marlborough. The 2012 The August 1888 is sophisticated, elegant and restrained yet powerful in the mouth at the same time. This beautiful wine won a gold medal at last year’s International Wine and Spirit competition (IWSC).
Other excellent aged Sauvignon Blancs include the 2012 Summerhouse Monarch and the 2012 Foxes Island Lapine, both from Marlborough grapes. Both exude finesse in the sense that one knows they are quality after just one mouthful.
A brace of 2013 oaked Sauvignon Blancs also caught one’s attention: The Mischa’s Vineyard The Starlet from Central Otago fruit has zing and character, while the Matahiwi Holly from Waipara fruit is another that supplies joy in the mouth. Most vintages of Te Koko by Cloudy Bay are also worth drinking.
McCombie is confident about the potential of this wine style, and the future of New Zealand wine. “With maturing vines, optimum site selection for new plantings, and continued fine tuning of vineyard and winemaking techniques, you can be sure to expect some pleasant surprises in the future,” he said, noting that last year Kiwi wines won 1,580 awards at the four main global wine competitions, including eight international trophies.
Footnote: The first International Sauvignon Blanc Conference will be held in Marlborough in the north of New Zealand’s south island from February 1-3. The value of New Zealand wine exports reached a record high last year and currently stands at $NZ 1.5 billion (USD 973 million).