New Zealand

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

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…)

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…)

Tastes Like Home: Experimenting With Waipara Riesling

Tastes Like Home: Experimenting with Waipara Riesling

Post by Chuck Hayward | September 28th, 2011

Terroir is a hot topic, no doubt. The idea that winemakers are required to transmit the specific qualities of a plot of land to a finished wine is gaining traction, and for many critics, it is considered bad form for the vigneron to leave an imprint that reflects personal style. That camp believes the winemaker’s role is to act as minimally as possible and take a hands-off approach in order to highlight a wine’s terroir.

However, I think it’s impossible to separate the impact of man from winemaking. We as humans are the ones who recognize superior vs. inferior terroir. Growers decide what grapes to plant and how to grow them. Winemakers make endless judgments about when to pick grapes, what yeast to use, how long to age, and so on. The actual decision to practice minimalist winemaking is probably the most important choice that can be made.

Wine writer Dan Berger inspects a bottle of his favorite varietal

Cut to an interesting tasting recently sponsored by New Zealand Winegrowers, responsible for educating consumers and the trade about kiwi wines. In 2010, twelve New Zealand winemakers agreed to create wine from the same batch of fruit— riesling from the Waipara growing region just outside of Christchurch—and were given four tons of uncrushed fruit from Mud House vineyards. They each produced 250 cases of wine at their own facilities, scattered throughout six of the country’s growing regions. (more…)

Separation of Pinots: New Zealand & More Mt. Difficulty

Separation of Pinots: New Zealand & More Mt. Difficulty

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 25th, 2011

Back when New Zealand pinot noir first entered the US market, our collective knowledge of these wines was infinitesimal. The country’s first serious attempts at producing pinot noir production had begun only a decade earlier, so the 1995/96 vintages that made the initial splash had few reference points. At that time, no one could say how Marlborough differed from Martinborough. Rather, the question was how the pinots of New Zealand compared to those from Burgundy, California and Oregon.

As the pinot noir industry matured, it became easier to understand the unique attributes and qualities among New Zealand’s growing regions, which was important so that customers could purchase the style of wine they prefer. Almost right away, however, it became apparent that not all wines from Central Otago were the same and that Marlborough pinots from the valley floor were markedly different compared to those from the southern hills. The quest to learn about a New Zealand wine appellation’s subregionality became important rather quickly.

In Central Otago, where subregional differences first became apparent to me, there are 6-7 loosely defined districts whose pinot noirs offer their own unique interpretations of the grape. Martinborough, Marlborough and Waipara also see differing pinot styles depending on their site, while Hawkes Bay Bordeaux-style red blends show incredible diversity that can be attributed to subregional differences.

Mt. Difficulty Single Site Pinots from 2009

(more…)

No Difficulty Tasting a Vertical of New Zealand Pinot Noirs

No Difficulty Tasting a Vertical of New Zealand Pinot Noir

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 2nd, 2011

New Zealand is a relative newcomer to the wine scene in the United States. Though the arrival of the 2011 vintage will mark my 20th year working with Kiwi wines, their real growth in America has only occurred over the past decade. Given that New Zealand is a Johnny-come-lately to our shores, there aren’t many chances for a retrospective look at older vintages of any wine. Unless someone in the States actually saves multiple vintages of the wine (how would I find them?) or a winery pulls them from their cellar and ships them over (an expensive proposition), the only option is to cross the date line and taste them in New Zealand (even more expensive).

A vertical tasting of Mt. Difficulty arranged horizontally

So when I heard Mt. Difficulty was going to host a vertical tasting of seven vintages of their estate wine, I cleared the calendar. Sourcing fruit from their vineyards located in the Bannockburn subregion of Central Otago, Mt. Difficulty is one of the region’s leading pinot noir producers. Their estate pinots show the rich and concentrated, yet soft, style that comes from that particular appellation. One of the few New Zealand wineries with a long-term history in the United States, sales date back to the 1998, their first-ever release. (more…)

Winery Spotlight:Dry River Wines

Winery Spotlight:Dry River Wines

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 22th, 2010

Dry River is widely acknowledged to be one of New Zealand’s most monumental wineries. Without a doubt, Neil McCallum and his staff produce world-class wines across the board that represent the pinnacle of what’s coming out of the country. The wines from this property have always been scarce, as the 3000 case production is mainly sold to mailing list customers and fine restaurants, with only the most passionate promoters of New Zealand wines seeing any of their output.

map of New Zealand

map of New Zealand

Founded in 1979 during the beginnings of New Zealand’s modern wine industry, Neil McCallum set about planting pinot noir in the Martinborough area located about an hour east of Wellington, the country’s capital. Along with Clive Patton of Ata Rangi, Larry McKenna of Martinbourough Vineyards (and now at Escarpment) and Stan Chifney of the now defunct Chifney Estate, the four winemakers are credited with being amongst the first to make serious attempts towards the production of quality pinot noir in New Zealand. While pinot remains the core of Dry River’s production and its concurrent fame, the winery also excels in other varieties including riesling, syrah and gewurztraminer… with a total of 8-10 different wines produced each year.

Neil came to winemaking from a background in botany, in which he received a doctorate from Oxford. His scientific background led him to be an articulate spokesman on topics regarding the intersection of wine, terroir and viticulture. Nowhere does that fact appear so clearly as on the winery website which contains numerous essays by Neil that delve into these themes (e.g. “Where does the expression of terroir end and that of winemaking begin?,” “Tannins, palate structure and longevity in pinot noir,” or “Musings: The Brain is a blunt instrument.”  Click here to read these and more). They are more direct, detailed and serious writings compared to the sly humor often found in similar jottings from Randall Graham of Bonny Doon.

Dry River Vineyard

Dry River Vineyard

Pinot Noir makes up a majority of Dry River’s production (about a third of the total production) and given Neil’s passionate opinions about winemaking, his style is a personal one. Accordingly, Dry River pinots have become quite controversial compared to the classic burgundian model. As Neil Martin of Parker’s site declares about McCallum’s approach: “It is beautifully crafted in a style that is contradictory to what I believe pinot noir should be.”  The pinot noir of Dry River is devoted to finding the optimal colors and flavors that can be derived from its site. The gravelly soils of Martinborough, along with viticultural innovations from Neil, such as reflective mulch, have created pinots that are intensely dark and opaque in color with a similar density of fruit on the palate. He is devoted to understanding what New Zealand pinot noir is capable of becoming.  He knows, however, “it will take some time before the new styles are completely accepted because Burgundy has been centre stage for so long.”

Where Dry River’s pinot elicits much debate and discussion, the rest of the portfolio seems to garner more universal praise by the wine world. The aromatics (riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot gris) all share pure varietal expression with an initial sense of youthful restraint. It is with brief time in the cellar that the power of the wine reveals itself. Neil’s stickies are rare releases but always have a combination of pristine fruit flavors with botrytis. Meanwhile, the peppery syrah showcases why the grape is poised to become New Zealand’s new wine star.

Dry River Post

Dry River Post

I have been fortunate enough to have sold more than 10 vintages of Dry River pinot noir and have never been less than blown away by the intensity of this wine as well as its impact on those customers lucky enough to have tried it. But as is so often the case with wineries that make more than one iconic wine that captivates critics and consumers, it is tasting Dry River’s entire portfolio that makes one realize the strength of vision Neil McCallum has enshrined within his wines. His commitment to wines that require cellaring– the chance for them to unwind over time– is rare to find in a world of instant gratification. The ability to balance a wine’s flavors on a pinpoint shared equally between power and lightness is a rare skill in the wine world, and Dry River has done that again and again.

Regional Spotlight: Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc

Regional Spotlight: Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc

Post by Chuck Hayward | April 26th, 2010

The Martinborough region has gained worldwide acclaim for its pinot noir

Photo courtesy of winesfrommartinborough.com

but few people realize that sauvignon blanc is an important aspect of the area’s wine production. In the last vintage, 47% of the grape production in the Wairarapa region (which includes Martinborough along with the Masterton and Gladstone subregions) was pinot noir while 35% was sauvignon blanc. Yet it is Marlborough that has established itself and gained international recognition for sauvignon.

Sauvignons from Martinborough are quite distinctive and different from the prevailing Marlborough style. The palate profile is typically elegant and restrained with a long, lingering mineral presence on the finish. Flavor-wise, there are the classic lime and lemon citrus elements that are tightly wound about the mineral laden spine. Most examples are tank-fermented with a small portion (usually 10-15%) of barrel fermented juice added to the final blend for complexity. There are some notes of herbs and spices that show the grape’s varietal characteristics, but you rarely see the more pungent, herbaceous aromas that are prevalent in Marlborough.

Photo courtesy of winesfrommartinborough.com

The minerality that is so clearly evident in Martinborough sauvignons is probably a result of the soils of the region. The so-called “Martinborough Terraces” are considered the geological backbone of the area and are composed of deep layers of alluvial and gravel deposits. These soils are perfect for drainage, but also retard vegetative growth that can increase a grape’s grassy components.

There are relatively few Martinborough sauvignons in the American market despite their ability to offer a distinctively different style to what Marlborough produces. This is partially due to the fact that pinot remains Martinborough’s principal attraction. But it is also a very small region, only 3% of New Zealand’s grapes are planted there yet it only accounts for 1% of the country’s wine production to due consistently low yields. Nevertheless, brands like Ata Rangi, Palliser Estate, Craggy Range and Martinborough Vineyards are worth the search.