Chuck’s Down Under

The New Faces of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

Sarah Burton of Cloudy Bay Winery

Sarah Burton of Cloudy Bay Winery

In celebration of International Sauvignon Blanc Day, it seemed like an opportune time to look at where New Zealand sauvignon blanc is going. And when we talk about kiwi savvy, we’re really talking about Marlborough savvy…

It’s pretty incredible to think that just over 30 years ago, NZ was more known for muller-thurgau than sauvignon blanc. The first New Zealand sauvignon blanc was released in 1979 and it was only six years before that when grapes were first planted in Marlborough. Back then, just about all the wine made in New Zealand was consumed by kiwis, there was virtually no exported wine. Today 70% of all the wine made in New Zealand is exported and 83% of that is sauvignon blanc. And of all the sauvignon blanc produced in NZ, about 3/4 is grown in Marlborough. So its easy to see why Marlborough and kiwi sauvignon blancs are often considered to be one and the same.

Just about anyone who drinks wine is familiar with the Marlborough style. Its’ easy to identify the fresh, vibrant aromas and crisp flavor profiles that are quite unique in the world of sauvignon blanc. So popular is the style that wineries in other countries try to copy the recipe, as if there really is one.

Yet while Marlborough sauvignon continues to dominate the globe, there’s a quiet revolution happening in the region that seeks to change the face of the varietal. Maybe change is too harsh a word but it’s clear that wineries are seeking to add new interpretations of sauvignon blanc to the classic style. In short, Marlborough sauvignon blanc is being reinvented and the changes are slowing coming ashore.

While there seems to be an impression that there is only one Marlborough style, a lineup of wines will quickly show that there is considerable variability in the category. Rather than being uniform geographically, Marlborough is quite diverse and has a number of microclimates. The variation in wine styles comes from differences in temperatures and soil types throughout the region.

Tasting a barrel sample from Brent Marris' Marisco Vineyards. 2013 is an excellent year for Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

Tasting a barrel sample from Brent Marris’ Marisco Vineyards. 2013 is an excellent year for Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

Most Marlborough sauvignons are blends that incorporate fruit from an variety of different subregions. But some wineries are now isolating individual plots and making wines from vineyards that have some unique attributes. This started with Saint Clair Estate back in 2005 when they introduced the Pioneer Block program. Over the years, they have made wine from ten different sites and the differences are striking. Other wineries, including Brancott Estate and Mahi, have followed suit and are producing an array of vineyard designated wines, each offering unique statements that are distinctly different when sampled side-by-side.

The biggest changes in Marlborough sauvignon blanc, however, have come from the adoption of new winemaking techniques which have helped to add a new dimension to Marlborough savvys. The classic winemaking procedure is to crush the fruit, ferment cold in stainless steel tanks and bottle in 5-6 months. If a winemaker wanted more complexity, the fruit could be picked at different ripeness levels or an assortment of yeasts could be used for fermentation. But basically the winemaker had little to do in making the wine.

To create a more complex wine (or to counteract what might be called “Bored Winemakers Syndrome”) winemakers began to experiment with production techniques more closely associated to making chardonnay. As was done a few years earlier by California wineries such as Chalk Hill and Murphy Goode, Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd used wild yeasts for fermentation, aged the wine in a combination of new and used oak and allowed the juice to go through malolactic fermentation. Cloudy Bay’s “Te Koko” sauvignon blanc, released in 1996, was the first wine of this style and it slowly changed the way some Marlborough wineries make their wines.

Today, many winemakers incorporate some if not all of these techniques in an effort to make a richer, more textured style of Marlborough sauvignon. Many are striving to make a wine that will also benefit from short-term cellaring. Most interestingly, wineries are not trying to build complexity by blending with semillon as done in Bordeaux and Western Australia. It’s clear that wineries see that the future of Marlborough sauvignon blanc will lie entirely with the grape itself and that should provide for some exciting wines ahead.

Here’s a selection of Marlborough sauvignon blancs showing the varied approaches to the grape.

Classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

2012 Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc

2012 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc

2012 Lawson’s Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough

Vineyard Designated Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

2010 Mahi Sauvignon Blanc Ballot Block

2013 Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc Pioneer Block 1

Wild Ferments, Oak Barrels

2012 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc “Wild”

2010 Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc Section 94

Torbreck’s ‘The Laird’ – Pursuing Perfection in One of Australia’s Greatest Wines

Torbreck’s ‘The Laird’ – Pursuing Perfection in One of Australia’s Greatest Wines

Post by Chuck Hayward | May 10th, 2013

Not one, but two (!) vintages of 'The Laird'

Not one, but two (!) vintages of ‘The Laird’

So what is it like to drink perfection? It’s a question frequently asked by consumers and the trade. The following story is about tasting 100-point ‘perfection’. And it begins many years ago…

In the summer of 2010, I heard that Torbreck, one of the Barossa Valley’s leading wineries, had released a new wine from the 2005 vintage called ‘The Laird’. The textured black label stood in stark contrast to the winery’s classic white paper label, indicating a significant departure from Torbreck’s usual range of wines. Indeed, ‘The Laird’ was exactly that, a wine geared for the super-premium market, occupied by legends like Penfolds ‘Grange’ and Henschke’s ‘Hill of Grace’ – with a price to match. I needed to know more. (more…)

For Wine Lovers Down Under, The “Options” Are Endless

For Wine Lovers Down Under, The “Options” Are Endless

Post by Chuck Hayward | March 14th, 2013

The end of the options lunch. Note the small wooden barrel for coins

The end of the options lunch. Note the small wooden barrel for coins

The Sydney Royal Wine Show is one of Australia’s most prestigious wine competitions. Ranking up there with shows based in Adelaide and Melbourne, the organizers have selected an international wine figure to serve as a guest judge since 1986 and this year, I was honored to be selected to fulfill this role. Judging duties kicked-off with one of the show’s most important traditions, the Peter Doyle Options Game.

Leave it to the Australians to take something like blind wine tasting and turn it into a game. Called Wine Options or just plain Options, it was developed by Len Evans, one of Australia’s pioneering wine educators and personalities. Legend has it that he dipped into his cellar after a long lunch and served a bottle blind, asking his mates a series of questions that became ever more specific until the wine was identified. (more…)

Ted Lemon: “The Concept of Noble Place in New World Winegrowing”

Ted Lemon: “The Concept of Noble Place in New World Winegrowing”

Post by Chuck Hayward | February 20th, 2013

Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines

Ted Lemon of Littorai & Burn Cottage

A few weeks ago, I joined a large portion of the wine world that descended on Wellington, New Zealand for Pinot Noir NZ 2013. Held every three years, the four day symposium featured lectures, tastings and seminars, attracting leading winemakers, critics and consumers from around the world.

Wine Spectator critic Matt Kramer delivered an excellent and thought provoking keynote speech that has generated considerable attention. He attempted to answer the question, “Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir?” and in his usual eloquent and captivating manner, Matt laid out his ideas regarding how to make superlative pinot. Whether you agree with him or not, Matt made a convincing argument in support of his theories. And, as might be expected, Matt’s arguments provoked some rather spirited discussions and blog posts. To any pinot (or wine) enthusiast, I highly recommend Alder Yarrow’s transcript of Matt’s lecture.

A week after the New Zealand conference concluded, I found myself with a smaller group in Australia to attend the sixth biannual Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration. As I did, many of those in the audience had also come from the New Zealand conclave, including Ted Lemon, winemaker for Littorai as well as Central Otago’s Burn Cottage Vineyard. (more…)

Pinot Noir NZ 2013 – Notes From Wellington

Pinot Noir NZ 2013 – Notes From Wellington

Post by Chuck Hayward | January 29th, 2013

Jim Robertson of Brancott Estate with Alder Yarrow of vinography.com discuss the vintage

Jim Robertson of Brancott Estate with Alder Yarrow of vinography.com discuss the vintage

Every three years, a large portion of the wine world descends on Wellington, the small capital city of New Zealand. Four days of informative seminars and lectures follow, combined with tastings of current and older vintages of Kiwi pinots. This year sees a large contingent of British wine critics in attendance, including Oz Clarke and Tim Atkin, alongside local representatives such as Matt Kramer and Alder Yarrow, putting forth their observations on New Zealand pinot. Aussies and locals make up most of the rest but there are many other countries represented among the 500 people in attendance.

For many in the trade, Pinot Noir NZ represents a unique opportunity to advance their knowledge about the category and, perhaps, take the steps necessary to place New Zealand’s pinots in a global perspective. I’m here to offer my comments as someone who has worked in the category for twenty years while seeking out exceptional wines for our customers. (more…)

Winery Highlight: Chris Ringland

Winery Highlight: Chris Ringland

Post by Chuck Hayward | February 9nd, 2012

Chris Ringland was surely not prepared for all of this. The popularity, the sudden attention. Working away at a rustic winery where time seemed not only to stand still but actually climbed backwards. He spent that time mentoring young winemakers as they learned the secrets of the Barossa Valley–its vineyards, its people, its history. The last thing he expected was an overflowing fax machine…100 point scores from Parker can do that.

Chris Ringland Surveys his Domain

Justifiably or not, Chris Ringland’s shiraz was catapulted into the global world of wine and things quickly got out of hand. Insane prices. Incessant phone calls. Lots of pot shots. All of this attention resulted in a wine that became bigger than the man and his vines; all thanks to a wine review. The problem is the score regrettably only reflected the wine in the glass. Where was the story? Who was this guy? Where was the information about his plot of dirt? (more…)

From Cloudy to Grey: It’s clear skies for NZ winemaker Kevin Judd

From Cloudy to Grey: It’s clear skies for NZ winemaker Kevin Judd

Post by Chuck Hayward | January 17th, 2012

JJ Buckley is proud to be the first retailer in America to sell the wines from Kevin Judd, the founding winemaker from Cloudy Bay. Named after a local soil type, Greywacke (pronounced gray-wack-y) represents Kevin’s effort to get back to the hands on, intuitive and personal approach to winemaking that had become difficult to pursue as the success of Cloudy Bay grew exponentially. Founded just three years ago, the wines have already received significant international acclaim for being some of the top produced in New Zealand.

In spite of the heaping critical praise and excellent ratings, Kevin was unable to secure an American importer…until now! Connecting with Old

Kevin Judd (c) with his dog and cellar assistant

Kevin Judd (c) with his dog Dixie and cellar assistant Fin

Bridge Cellars (known for their high-end Australian portfolio, including such wineries as d’Arenberg and John Duval Wines), Greywacke has become the first New Zealand wine in their portfolio. Thanks to our relationship with Kevin and Old Bridge, JJ Buckley has been selected to introduce his wines to the American market.

Greywacke’s portfolio resembles the wines he made at Cloudy Bay and, indeed, Kevin is working with particular blocks from the growers he came to prefer in his former job. The wines are made at Dog Point Vineyard, owned by best mates and Cloudy Bay alums, James Healy and Ivan Sutherland. During the time when he could not find an American importer, word about the quality of Kevin’s new venture washed ashore here in America, and a rare opportunity to taste a few sips of his sauvignon blanc a few years ago left me wanting more. Accordingly, I took the opportunity on a recent visit to NZ to catch up with Kevin and taste through his portfolio. It was clear to me that he has raised his game and is now well on the way to establishing one of Marlborough’s top wineries. (more…)