If I were to say “New Zealand wine,” it is likely that the first thing you would think of is sauvignon blanc from Marlborough.
After all, sauvignon blanc is New Zealand’s most widely planted varietal. It makes up 72 percent of the wine production of New Zealand, according to the 2014 New Zealand Winegrowers’ Annual Report. There are more than 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) planted to sauvignon blanc with more than 17,000 of those hectares in Marlborough.
If I were to then ask you how to describe New Zealand sauvignon blanc, I am sure some of the following descriptors come to mind – grassy, gooseberry, bell pepper, grapefruit, lime or even cat’s pee. New Zealand sauvignon blanc is recognizable in a glass by its pungent aromas and bold acidity on the palate.
But not all sauvignon blanc from New Zealand is one-dimensional and predictable. Giesen Wines is on a mission to change the dialogue of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and elevate the status.
Giesen Wines is a family brand owned by three German brothers, Theo, Alex and Marcel. They were first drawn to the cool climate of the South Island in New Zealand more than thirty years ago. They planted their first vineyard in 1981 and produced their first wine in 1984.
In 2008, with the over-production of sauvignon blanc in Marlborough, prices began to fall. Prices went from $2,500 per ton to 1,000 per ton. By 2009, Marcel Giesen said when he was recently in Los Angeles for a winemaker dinner, “it was like a race to the bottom. It was all about who could make the cheapest sauvignon blanc or come up with something different, including sparkling wine and pink wine made from sauvignon blanc.”
As more and more inexpensive sauvignon blanc came into the market, the Giesen brothers started to move in the opposite direction. They began looking for vineyards with unique soil characteristics and vine age. They focused on reducing yields and increasing quality. They are now committed to environmentally sustainable wine production practices.
In 2011 and 2012, the Giesen brothers added two single vineyards. Today, they have 700 acres of vineyards, 15 percent of which are certified organic, and offer four ranges of wine – The Estate, The Brothers, The Organic and The August 1888.
They also offer a Single Vineyard Series. Under the various labels, Giesen produces chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer, syrah, merlot and of course sauvignon blanc.
Giesen Wines demonstrates an array of styles with their sauvignon blanc. While they still let the fruit express itself, they are more focused on the soil from which the grapes grow. Each vineyard expresses the grape differently and the climate also has an effect. Marcel explained that they have vineyards with free-draining river ground.
Here, the grape gives tropical and mango aromas in a cool season but loses flavor in a hot season. Vineyards with alluvial deposits and coastal influence offer green spectrum aromas, such as pepper and gooseberry, in a cool season and cut grass and nettles in a warm season. By blending different vineyards together, they can produce a wine that is consistent year to year.
Giesen Wines produces eight different sauvignon blancs. At the dinner with Marcel Giesen, I tasted six of these wines.
Giesen Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2015 – A blend of 60 vineyards from across Marlborough, including the Wairau and Awatere Valleys, the wine is a pale straw color with aromas of elderflower, kaffir lime leaf, grapefruit and dried herb. On the palate, it is zesty and bright.
Giesen The Brothers Sauvignon Blanc 2014 – Sourced from five vineyards, the grapes are vinified separately in stainless steel and blended before bottling. The wine has the classic flavors of gooseberry, lime and grapefruit zest and is crisp on the palate.
Giesen The August Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 – Named after their grandfather, The August 1888 vineyard is organic. This wine is 100 percent barrel fermented with wild yeasts and matured on lees. It demonstrates a richer expression of Marlborough sauvignon blanc. The wine is well-balanced with savory and spicy notes, as well as minerality on the palate.
Giesen The Fuder Dillons Point Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 – From the single vineyards series, Dillons Point is located a few miles from the coast. This maritime influenced vineyard is certified organic and the old vines are non-irrigated. Whole bunch pressed, the juice is fermented in Fuder German oak barrels. The resulting wine has aromas of flint and gooseberry, and on the palate it is a focused wine with intense fruit and elegant acidity.
Giesen The Fuder Mathews Lane Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 – Also from the single vineyard series, these grapes come from a vineyard with free-flowing river bed soils. The wine is aged for 11 months sur lees in new Fuder German oak barrels. The resulting wine is complex with herbaceous notes of grass and thyme, as well as ripe fruit. The wine is elegant and delicate with a creamy texture.
Giesen The Brothers Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2013 – The grapes, which come from Giesen’s Alma St Vineyard, were left hanging in hopes of botrytis but weather conditions did not behave. The grapes remained clean and shriveled on the vine to be picked for late harvest. Fermented with wild yeast, the wine is filtered but unfined. On the nose, it is a tropical basket of apricot, passion fruit, guava, grapefruit, quince and honey. On the palate, the wine is rich and sweet but is also vibrant with beautiful acidity.
The diversity of each of these wines proves that New Zealand sauvignon blanc is more than a “one-trick pony”. It is a variety that offers a range of styles and Giesen Wines is proving that.