Friday is International Sauvignon Blanc Day and to mark the occasion, BusinessDesk asked Villa Maria winemaker Kathrin Jankowiec what makes the wine so special, the trends to look for, and how this year’s vintage is shaping up.   

Marlborough is the "home" of sauvignon blanc in New Zealand. What are the characteristics that make it so popular, and has it evolved over the years? 

Marlborough wine shot to fame practically overnight for its unmistakable style of sauvignon blanc, with its passionfruit and zesty citrus aromas, and fresh acidity. No other white wine in the world has such a trademark expression. 

These days, many sauvignons focus on the expression of terroir with many single-vineyard wines available, and alternative winemaking styles have evolved. These might include some barrel-fermented wines or wines that were fermented with indigenous yeasts. 

Layered and complex wines have evolved with a depth that is not normally associated with Marlborough sauvignon. 

Villa Maria winemaker Kathrin Jankowiec. (Image: Supplied)

What other areas of NZ do sauvignon blanc well, and how do they differ from a Marlborough sauvignon blanc? 

The area that springs to mind is Hawke's Bay. Sauvignon from here is typically in the riper spectrum. These wines are often richer, with ripe stone fruit notes and a softer acidity due to the region's milder climate. 

Nelson also has some interesting examples of sauvignon. They can be lighter in style with a greener and more mineral palate. 

What are some of the trends coming through in sauvignon blanc? Is there anything you’re particularly excited about? 

Marlborough sauvignon is a very recent phenomenon; it was only about 40 years ago that the rapid rise of sauvignon blanc started with the first plantings. 

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When the first vines were established, no one predicted the success of the variety and the astonishing speed at which the wine industry accelerated. Now, Marlborough is maturing as a region. In 2018, Marlborough finally gained a protected geographical indication to safeguard the integrity of NZ's largest wine-growing region. 

In many ways, Marlborough had suffered from its success, as the overnight boom provided many challenges. One of them was to devise a legal definition for what can be called "Marlborough sauvignon blanc". 

Marlborough vignerons are now busy defining its sub-regions and showcasing the subtle and sometimes-not-so-subtle differences of what a Marlborough sauvignon can be. 

The definition of sub-regionality is probably the most exciting next step for me and will shape and form the history of NZ wine and Marlborough sauvignon blanc. 

Wairau Valley's Bankhouse Estate, owned by Villa Maria's parent company, Indevin, is the single largest vineyard in NZ. (Image: Supplied)

What is the biggest misconception about sauvignon blanc? 

The unique and fruit-forward style has wowed many critics. Yet, at the same time, the distinctive style, with its passionfruit and herbal aromas, has drawn criticism for being a "one-trick pony". 

Sauvignon blanc is actually very reflective of the terroir it is grown in. I believe it is one of the most expressive varieties that reflect a sense of place. 

I encourage everyone to seek out sub-regional and single-vineyard expressions of sauvignon and experience the spectrum of flavour and texture. 

For example, wines from the Awatere Valley are often in a pungent green spectrum. These are crisp, focused, and mineral wines with herbaceous flavours and a lip-smacking salinity. 

Wines from the Wairau Valley typically show citrus and passionfruit notes where more-tropical aromas leap from the glass. 

The sub-region of the Southern Valleys reflects the heavy clay soils and drier climate. Wines from here showcase gooseberry, cut grass and tropical stone fruits and most notably a very distinct texture. 

The 2023 vintage is just complete. How are this year’s sauvignon blancs looking? 

The summer of 2023 had us a little worried as the season had a very mild climate, with intermittent rainfall. However, the weather stabilised in autumn and to our surprise this has shaped up to be an exceptional vintage for Marlborough sauvignon. 

The grapes were in immaculate condition, with thick skins and crunchy acidity. We could pick our sauvignon without any pressure from adverse weather or declining fruit conditions. 

As always, the Wairau Valley fruit packs a punch and delivers vibrant and energetic wines. 

We see some lovely thiol and ripe citrus flavours shine through. 

The Awatere Valley sauvignon was harvested last. Classic Awatere flavours are abundant – intense minerality coupled with zesty lime, jalapeño and attractive herbaceousness. 

Very bright and expressive sauvignons are sitting in the tank right now that show great promise to deliver something outstanding. Villa Maria's winemakers are excited about the superior quality of wines across the range. 

What bottle will you be opening to celebrate International Sauvignon Blanc Day and where will you be? 

Ideally, I would be in the Marlborough Sounds opening a bottle of our single-vineyard Seaspray with a bowl of freshly steamed Marlborough green-lipped mussels. The best of Marlborough in one go! 

The briny, mineral and nearly salty sauvignon goes exceptionally well with seafood and the view of my favourite place. 

However, the reality is that I will be at the winery, looking after our last ferments and taking care of our freshly fermented and young sauvignons as we are just coming out of the harvest season. 

I will be surrounded by very promising and exciting wines that came out of this vintage, so this is a celebration in itself. 

What other foods are good to pair sauvignon blanc with?

Sauvignon’s fresh and bright flavours pair excellently with fresh foods. I really enjoy my sauvignon with seafood and salads. Asparagus and goat cheese pair wonderfully, too. 

Personally, I think sushi and sauvignon are a great combination. The vibrancy of sauvignon really enhances the delicate nature of these dishes. If you want to treat yourself to something special, try an oyster with sauvignon blanc. It doesn’t get better than that. 

Do we still pair white wines like sauvignon blanc with seafood and white meat, and red wines with red meat, or are those rules allowed to be broken now? 

Sauvignon goes best with fresh and delicate dishes, but rules are there to be broken. 

One of my most favourite food pairings would be pinot noir with pan-fried salmon. I think sometimes you have to branch out and try new things but generally try thinking about the texture and flavour of the dish. 

A fatty dish can benefit from a crisp acidic wine that cuts through the richness; alternatively, richer sauces may be accompanied by a textural wine with softer acid. 

If you enjoy the match, no one can tell you you are wrong! 

How important is sauvignon blanc to NZ winemakers? 

Sauvignon blanc is what brought NZ wine to the world. The majority of this country's wine is Marlborough sauvignon blanc, and it is widely recognised around the world for its exuberant style and expressive aromatics. 

Due to the success of Marlborough sauvignon, the world woke up to the existence of our little winemaking country in the Pacific, and other wine styles and grape varieties could develop. 

Marlborough sauvignon is our mainstay, but it is far from finished writing history. 

We're still learning the impact of terroir, climate, and new vineyard techniques and styles. 

Producing high-quality sauvignon blanc that showcases a sense of place has always been important to Villa Maria. We have long been producing single-vineyard wines to display the region’s diversity to change and challenge the perception of what a Marlborough sauvignon should taste like. 

A bright future for sauvignon blanc is ahead of us as we continue to explore, nurture and experiment.