Murphy-Goode

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