New Zealand sauvignon blanc was born in a tin shed in Swanson, West Auckland. That is where brothers Ross and Bill Spence, founders of Matua Valley Wines, fermented a barrel of freshly harvested sauvignon blanc grapes and made a brew that excited all who tasted it. Shortly afterwards, in 1973, Montana, the country’s largest wine producer, planted sauvignon blanc cuttings in its newly acquired Marlborough vineyard. These were the first vines to be planted in Marlborough soil since the late 1800s. A severe drought killed most of them, but irrigation was installed and the vineyard was replanted.
The rest is history
Sauvignon blanc now makes up 62% of the national vineyard and 80% of Marlborough’s vineyard area. Ten out of every 12 bottles exported have “Sauvignon Blanc” on their label. Sauvignon blanc, and particularly Marlborough sauvignon blanc, is now bigger than Ben-Hur.
How much good sauvignon blanc vineyard land is left? My best guess is around 10%, before we move into marginal land that is frost-prone and/or has an unreliable water supply. Climate change is another threat, although there are viticultural solutions that can buy extra time.
The biggest threat to Marlborough sauvignon blanc is “the cowboy factor”. Anyone can pick up a phone and buy bulk Marlborough sauvignon that can then be shipped in a large bladder to a foreign market; there it can be stretched slightly (and legally) with up to 15% of cheap Chilean sauvignon blanc and bottled with a brand name of your choice. Exploit marketing has a habit of depreciating the mother ship and may be unsustainable.
What should good sauvignon blanc taste like?
A student in my wine class complained that he had “gone off” sauvignon blanc but then admitted he had never paid more than $15 for a bottle. I suggested he had “gone off” sauvignon blanc under $15, but for a few dollars more he would find a different world of wines.
Sub-regional differences, vintage variation and different winemaking techniques produce a wide range of styles. What the good wines share is intensity of flavour, a perfect sweet/sour balance, purity, clarity and even complexity. They should not be coarse, bitter or insipid.
An increasing number of producers ferment and age a small amount (usually 10-15%) in oak barrels to give the wine more texture without diminishing fruit flavour.
Does sauvignon blanc improve with age?
In my wine classes I feature a young sauvignon blanc and a more mature one, usually five or six vintages apart. When we vote for a favourite, the older wine usually wins. After a few years in bottle, sauvignon blanc loses some of its punchy fruitiness and becomes mellower. Some sauvignon blancs develop an oak-like character that makes them taste a little like chardonnay. Aged sauvignon blanc can be more food-friendly than youthful sauvignon blanc.
A word about prices
The price shown after each wine’s name below is the recommended retail price (RRP) submitted by the producer. The price after each supplier’s name is the in-store retail price a couple of weeks before the wine appeared on the BusinessDesk website. If you are buying in quantity, don’t forget to ask for a discount.
Ten top sauvignon blancs
2021 Rapaura Springs Rohe – Dillons Point Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, $24.90
Quite concentrated, weighty and fleshy, with citrus, passion-fruit and mango flavours and a saline character. Smooth-textured wine with a lingering finish.
Stockists: First Glass Wines & Spirits, Auckland, $19.99; Vino Fino (NZ), Christchurch, $19.99.
2021 Misty Cove Kekerengu Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, $24.99
The coastal district of Kekerengu boasts limestone-laced soils which have given this wine a saline/oyster-shell character together with lime, gooseberry and passion-fruit flavours. Vibrant and edgy, it’s a perfect match for freshly shucked oysters garnished with a squeeze of lime.
Stockists: The Good Wine Co., Auckland, $19.99; Glengarry Wines, Auckland, $19.99
2021 Walnut Block Nutcracker Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, $25
Intense, flavoursome sauvignon blanc with gooseberry, capsicum, lemongrass and subtle struck flint/savoury characters supported by ripe acidity. Delicious wine with pleasing purity.
Stockist: Walnut Block Wines, Marlborough, $25
2021 Rapaura Springs Bull Paddock Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, $27.90
Frost damage reduced quantity but increased concentration of this appealing and slightly rustic sauvignon blanc. Passion-fruit, box hedge, struck flint and green capsicum flavours.
Stockists: Vino Fino (NZ), Christchurch, $22.99; First Glass Wines & Spirits, Auckland, $24.99
2021 Astrolabe Awatere Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, $30
Crisp, dry sauvignon blanc of great purity and length, with lime, green capsicum, gooseberry, nettle, green apple and oyster-shell flavours. Taut and tangy, a classic Awatere style.
Stockists: Primo Vino, Hamilton, $24.99; Vino Fino (NZ), $24.99
2021 Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Martinborough, $30
Intense and juicy with tropical fruit/passion-fruit/guava, lime and red capsicum flavours. Impressive power and fruit purity with a backbone of juicy acidity and a crisp, dry finish.
Stockists: Whisky and More, Waikato, $18.50; Advintage, Hawke’s Bay, $26.99
2021 Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, $34.90
Power and purity with punchy passion-fruit, gooseberry, capsicum and lemongrass flavours. Delicious wine with a mouth-watering sweet/sour balance and an ethereal texture.
Stockists: Vino Fino (NZ), $28.99; Point Wines, Auckland, $29.90
2021 Giesen Uncharted Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, $19.99
Tangy and quite concentrated sauvignon blanc with passion-fruit, lime, gooseberry and lemongrass flavours supported by lovely fruity acidity. A benchmark example of a classic Marlborough style.
Stockist: The Good Wine Co, Auckland, $18.99
2021 Rapaura Springs Rohe – Blind River, Marlborough, $24.90
Taut, pure sauvignon blanc with citrus/grapefruit, passion-fruit, guava and red capsicum flavours together with a suggestion of struck flint/fireworks. Textural wine with a fine phenolic backbone.
Stockist: First Glass Wines & Spirits, Auckland, $19.99
2021 Villa Maria Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, Wairau Valley, Marlborough, $24.99
Stylish sauvignon with blackcurrant leaf, apple and nectarine flavours. Punchy, refreshing wine with a backbone of mouth-watering acidity.
Stockists: Vitis Cellars, Auckland, $19.90; The Good Wine Co, Auckland, $19.99
Read more from Bob at therealreview