This post is the first of several which encourage newcomers to wine or creatures of habit to try something a bit different from their usual drop.
It was prompted by a few requests from friends plus some of the twitter debates over the past few months or so, including whether wine expertise is bunkum or not. More precisely, one phrase often declared by novice wine drinkers is “I know what I like”, with the follow on (usually unspoken) being “I know what wine is best for me and I won’t try anything else”. Now, I’m not going to tell those people they are wrong (as such!) – I just want to give those that are hesitant to try something other than their favourite type a path which they could explore.
So firstly, why do people like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc??
It’s crisp, fruity, fresh, widely available, consistent in quality and reasonably priced – it offers a lot of bang for the buck! In particular “Savvy” has more intense aromas and flavours than often found in white wine.
Of course I should declare an interest here and say that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favourite wine styles, though not every bottle. This article is also an excuse for me to post some of the photos I took on honeymoon in Marlborough in 2009!
So if you’re stuck with the same old bottle, week in week out, what should you do?
Step 1 – Buy A Better Brand
Nowadays most supermarkets will have a gondola end of Oyster Bay or even a made up label where excess production has been bought up at rock bottom prices and then vinified on the cheap. This came to a head when more vineyards came on stream at the same time as the Global Financial Crisis reduced demand for wine in New Zealand’s traditional markets.
Hopefully the glut is over, but there are still brands which are a notch above the bottom, even if they are mass-market.
Brancott Estate used to be called Montana but this caused confusion with American drinkers thinking it came from the US State of that name. Brancott’s everyday drinking Sauvignon Blanc is a great example, and it’s available nearly everywhere wine is sold in the UK and Ireland.
The other go-to label for me is Villa Maria, now sporting a new look for 2013. For many people in Ireland in the late 90s and early 00s this was a treat to look forward to at the weekend. Still privately owned, quality remains consistently good.
Step 2 – Pay More! (Trade Up)
Here I don’t mean pay more for the sake of it. While quality and price aren’t perfectly aligned, you often get what you pay for in New Zealand. There are lots of quality-conscious wineries in Marlborough, both large and small.
Cloudy Bay is the label that put the area and New Zealand as a whole on the wine map for international drinkers. It became New Zealand’s first “icon” wine, and for many years was only available on allocation. Although quality has wavered slightly over the years, especially as production volumes increased, it remains a great drop and is always the one to beat.
Villa Maria make a fine entry level SB, as mentioned above, but their black label Clifford Bay is on another plane entirely. Less immediately pungent but smoother and richer – it’s just sumptuous! In fact I like it so much that it was the white wine I chose to have served at my wedding.
Another well-regarded producer is Dog Point, founded by Ivan Sutherland & James Healy, the former viticulturist and oenologist respectively from Cloudy Bay. Their old boss Kevin Judd, who was the founding winemaker of Cloudy Bay, also left to set up his own firm Greywacke. For his first vintage he bought grapes and rented some winery space from Dog Point, but he moved on to purchasing his own vineyards and facilities.
Other Marlborough producers who are worth trading up to include Astrolabe (particularly their Awatere Valley), Stanley Estate (also from the Awatere Valley), Nautilus Estate, Saint Clair, Lawson’s Dry Hills, Mahi, Wither Hills and Mud House.
Step 3 – Same Again, But With A Twist!
One of the things many people like about Sauvignon Blanc is that it usually tastes fresh and hasn’t seen any oak, whether barrels or staves or oak chips in a teabag. This isn’t the only way of making Sauvignon Blanc, and some of the better Marlborough producers have been following the Sancerre (see next post) practice of either fermenting the must or maturing the wine in oak – or both. The amount of oak used really does vary, and for many wines only a proportion will be oaked, and perhaps with older rather than brand new barrels.
Great examples from Marlborough include Cloudy Bay Te Koko, Dog Point Section 94, Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, and the newly released Brancott Estate Chosen Rows. These wines will often be released a year or so after their unoaked stablemates.
Step 4 – Head Down The Road
In the eyes of many wine drinkers, Marlborough has become synonymous with New Zealand, particularly for Sauvignon Blanc. It does make up the vast majority of Sauvignon production, but if we do a tour of the rest of Aotearoa then we can find alternative expressions of the grape.
Firstly, to Nelson which is also in the north of the South Island. Sauvignons here are often more mellow and a bit weightier than Marlborough, so can be easier to match with food. The most prestigious producer is Judy & Tim Finn’s Neudorf, better known for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Also check out Woollaston Estate (plus their sibling Tussock and Wingspan labels) and Greenhough.
Towards the east coast of the South Island, just above Christchurch, lies the up-and-coming area of Waipara (not to be confused with Wairarapa!) Waipara specialises in Pinot Noir and Riesling but does have some Sauvignon Blanc produced by Waipara Springs and Pegasus Bay under their Main Divide label.
Heading south west but keeping to the eastern side of the Southern Alps, we eventually reach Central Otago, the most southern of New Zealand’s established wine regions. “Central”, as it’s known for short, is Pinot heaven – the unique climate helps make powerful but supple Pinot Noir, primarily, but also Chardonnay, Riesling and some Sauvignon Blanc. The region actually has several sub-divisions, (with recommended producers): Bannockburn (Mount Difficulty, Carrick), Gibbston Valley (Gibbston Valley Winery, Peregrine, Chard Farm), Wanaka (Rippon) Cromwell Basin (Amisfield) and Bendigo (Misha’s Vineyard).
From Marlborough, taking the Inter-Islander ferry over the Cook Strait to Wellington then a short drive north east brings us to Martinborough, part of the larger Wairarapa region. Also celebrated for its Pinot Noirs, it has some fantastic Sauvignon Blanc producers in Ata Rangi, Palliser Estate, and Craggy Range (Te Muna Road). These can often be even more tropical than their counterparts in Marlborough.
Further north the long-established region of Hawke’s Bay, which includes the towns of Napier and Hastings, has a reputation built on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Some of these great producers (such as Trinity Hill, Mission Estate, CJ Pask) also make lovely, more gentle, Sauvignon Blancs.
I hope this has given you some ideas of what you could try as your first few steps out of your wine comfort zone. It’s always good to try new wines, you will hopefully expand your taste and find more types you like.
Part 2 looks at other countries’ versions of Sauvignon Blanc
Part 3 looks at alternatives to Sauvignon Blanc