MARLBOROUGH, New Zealand – U.S. wine lovers have taken a definite shine to New Zealand’s major entrant into the world wine scene: cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc.
In some ways, it has benefited the grape variety around the world, but has created a problem in some places.
After a rocky first-look entrance to the U.S. wine market two decades ago, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc quickly overcame some of the “What is this stuff?” confusion to capture the attention of wine quaffers because it was audaciously divergent from the more introspective Sauvignon Blancs that had slowly grown popular as a Chardonnay alternative.
The distinctiveness of this wine from down-under might have been truly off-putting with American wine buyers because of its exotically odd gooseberry, lime, grapefruit, passion fruit, and even (yes) cat-urine scents and high acidity were it not for a development that no one seems willing to take credit for.
After the first really dry Sauvignon Blancs hit U.S. shelves about 1999 and were met with histrionic un-interest, a few NZ producers tried to explain Sauvignon’s true character. They correctly said this wasn’t a grape of floral fruit, like the more popular Chardonnay, but a grape whose aromas included dried and fresh savory herbs, more like thyme, summer savory, tomato pith, fresh sage (similar to its scion Cabernet Sauvignon), lime zest, asparagus, and cilantro.
No one listened. What changed the wine into a popular, broadly appealing sipping wine was sweetness, which many New Zealand wineries began to use when they heard complaints that the wine was austerely acidic. Sugar cured the tartness.
Acid is a natural result of growing grapes in an area cursed daily with strong. Here marine winds from both east and west keep acid levels so high that most people would rather sip vinegar than a dry white.
By leaving Sauvignon Blanc and other whites with substantial residual sugar (more than in many Rieslings!), New Zealand winemakers found that most of their Sauvignon Blancs would become fascinating quaffing wines with dramatic, distinctive, and exotic aromatics.
It changed how consumers worldwide now approach the grape.
As New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has gained broader appreciation by younger consumers, so too have what some (unfairly) call “more serious” Sauvignons, such as those from northern California (Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake counties), the eastern Loire Valley (Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé), and even a few White Bordeaux.
Many California wineries loved sweet Sauvignon Blanc because novice wine lovers adored them, but the problem that occurred was that too many domestic Sauvignon Blanc s were sweet without the necessary acid that allowed New Zealand’s efforts to shine.
Those who adore Sancerre and other so-called serious Sauvignon Blancs (mostly dry) say they become utterly sublime with bottle age, a fair statement. Sweet versions age erratically.
Most of New Zealand’s producers have worked diligently to capture Sauvignon’s more complex elements, moving it from the often one-note-samba of Chardonnay to an utterly sublime expression of varietal harmonies that include lemon, hay, chili peppers, tobacco leaf, and even white pepper.
A recent visit here to four of the major growing regions in New Zealand enlightened me to several new sub-styles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. One comes from the less-herbal areas of Central Otago and Hawke’s Bay, both of which are better known for red wines. Central Otago’s Pinot Noir and Hawke’s Bay’s Syrah now are widely rated as among the world’s best.
The less audacious style of Sauvignon Blanc being pioneered in the two regions, as well as in less well-known North Canterbury (near Christchurch), has classic Euro leanings with compatibilities for white fish dishes.
Another style of Sauvignon Blanc that has expanded the taste profile is treating the grape a bit like Chardonnay, aging it in used barrels, allowing it to remain in contact with the spent yeast cells, and fermenting it with native (wild) yeast strains to add complexities not found when fermented with commercial yeasts.
New Zealand’s top winemakers are among the most adventuresome around. Almost none of them know the phrase risk-averse. Some of their Sauvignon Blancs are capturing the fancy of serious wine collectors who compare them with expensive French white Burgundies with an attitude.
Discovery of the Week
2016 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($28): Winemaker/photographer Kevin Judd, who gained fame at Cloudy Bay, went on his own years ago to found this small brand named after the soils widely seen on the South Island. This striking wine has parallels to Chardonnay for its oak and lees contact, but retains much of its herbal heritage and stunning complexity.