Sauvignon Blanc put New Zealand on the world wine map. But is it a one-trick pony or are there new discoveries and surprises when it comes to how, and where it’s made?
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Read the full transcript of “The Charms and Challenges of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc”:
Jameson Fink: Welcome to Wine Enthusiasts, What We’re Tasting podcast. I’m your host Jameson Fink. Join me as we discuss three fantastic wines and why each one belongs in your glass.
This episode I’m exploring New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with contributing editor, Christina Pickard, who covers and reviews wines from the region. What we’re tasting is sponsored by Vivino. Vivino is the world’s largest online wine marketplace, powered by a community of 30 million thirsty wine drinkers. Use the Vivino app to engage with 2 million wines, including loads of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, every single day.
Many countries have established themselves on the world wine stage through one grape that caught the imagination of everyone. I can think of, in recent times, Shiraz from Australia, Malbec from Argentina. Today, I’m most interested in, of course, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, and how it’s captured the world’s imagination, and taking a closer look at the grape.
Christina, thank you for being here. I’m gonna start a little philosophically with a question. What is the appeal, do you think, of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Why has it become such a worldwide phenomenon?
Christina Pickard: I think there was a critic, and I can’t even quote this critic specifically because I don’t know who it was, but one critic said, ” Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand was like having sex for the first time.” That might sum it up.
JF: Wow, I did not expect that answer.
CP: Another one described the experience of drinking it as being strapped naked to insert super model of your choice, while bungee jumping into a bottomless pit of fresh gooseberry leaves.
JF: I did not expect that either. That is not the direction I thought this would go. What would you say is the appeal of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?
CP: I mean, look, I think it is crisp. It’s zippy. It’s really, pretty aromatics. It’s just really likable, and in a fairly obvious way. In a super gluggable way. Right now, it’s 85 degrees and humid, as we’re recording this, and I’m thinking about a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I’m like, “Yeah. That would hit the spot right now.”
It’s great in the heat. It’s great for hot weather. In the summer, you can chill it down as much as you want. I think, it’s just that that combination of being incredibly outgoing as a style, and a grape variety. An incredibly likable. It’s a gateway drug, in a way, for a lot of wine lovers. I know for me it was. A lot of people tell me the same thing. “Oh yeah. I started my wine journey with Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc.”
JF: That’s funny, my mom is a red wine drinker, but she looks at New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as her lawnmower wine, like a lawnmower beer. Once a year when she … she doesn’t have a lawn anymore to mow, but when she did, that would be her wine of choice. It had that thirst slaking appeal.
CP: Totally. It’s also really grassy, that’s one of it’s main flavor profiles. I feel like mowing the lawn while drinking a really grassy wine is incredibly appropriate.
JF: Yeah. Maybe. Yeah. I don’t think she was doing it simultaneously, but definitely fresh cut grass is very New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Yeah, maybe that was part of it. She was overcome by fresh cut grass aromas, and the only thing-
CP: She just needed to run in the kitchen and grab a glass.
CP: I was picturing her, like one hand on the lawnmower, a glass in the other hand.
JF: We encourage two handed lawn mowing, and not wine drinking. Even on the riding mower, too. Keep both hands … keep both hands on the mower.
JF: Public service announcement. Speaking about the first wine I wanted to talk about is, I guess, a classic textbook example of what we’re talking about. It’s the Nautilus 2017 Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough Region, 90 points. I guess, you can’t talk about New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, without talking about Marlborough. Can you talk about that region’s place in the history of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?
CP: Absolutely. I mean, yeah, Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc, I think, are completely synonymous, as you said. It is, by far, the region that produces more Sauvignon Blanc than anywhere else in New Zealand, and actually produces more wine in general. Sauvignon Blanc makes up … I don’t want to quote exact stats, ’cause they’re changing all the time, but it’s something like 75 or 80% of their production is Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a huge, huge product for them, from an export perspective, you know, domestically as well.
At the heart of that is Marlborough. They are producing the wines here, by far, of this great variety and this style. Really, Sauvignon Blanc, as we know it from New Zealand, really started from this country, so, if you’re going to start anywhere with this grape variety, I would say this is the perfect place to start. It’s certainly the easiest to get a hold of from this region, as well.
JF: Geographically, Marlborough is the northern tip of the southern island.
CP: Exactly. The northeast tip. It’s really split into two valleys. The Awatere Valley, which is cooler, there’s more stonier soils, a little bit more maritime influence there. Stylistically, it’s not huge difference, but you do tend to see a little bit more of a herbaceous style. Maybe a little crisper. Maybe a little more detectably higher acids.
It’s often compared to Sancerre, a little bit in style. I think it’s like Sancerre on steroids. Kind of like, New World, a little bit more bold, brash flavors there. Definitely the more herbaceous, I think, of the two.
Then, you get the Wairau Valley, which is just really wide river valley following the Wairau River. That’s really split with … it’s separated between the Richmond Mountains, and that separates it from Nelson, which is another wine region that produces a lot of Sauvignon Blanc. That’s a bit sunnier, a little bit warmer climactically. Then the Wither Hills in the south, that protects it from those harsh weather systems coming out of the southeast, and off the ocean, as well.
JF: You call this wine, the Nautilus, a wine for oysters, if there ever was one. What else do you like food pairing wise, with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?
CP: I mean, everything. Every kind of seafood under the sun, basically. Any kind of fish. Smoked scallops. Salmon is great with it. Then, I also love asparagus. Again, this is a flavor that you actually see in the wine, as well.
Asparagus is often one of those flavor characteristics that comes up a lot in describing Kiwi Sauvignon. Asparagus, I like more of a buttery or a creamy sauce, ’cause all that acid from the Sauvignon Blanc seems to cut through that. Just salad, you know, summery salads with berries, or green beans. You could also do it with a little bit heavier food, too, like seafood risotto or paella or something. Watermelon gazpacho is one that seems to get paired with it a bunch. That sounds really good right now.
JF: I’m also glad you mentioned asparagus, because I feel like when I was learning about wine, and you still read this kind of stuff, like “Asparagus is impossible to pair with wine.” I actually had that written down. Asparagus in all caps, in bold. I think Sauvignon Blanc, and especially New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is wonderful with asparagus, and it’s not impossible to pair. Strike that from your wine rules.
CP: Yeah. Oh yeah. Totally. I mean, ’cause asparagus has got a pretty strong flavor, so I could understand it would overpower a lot of wines. I think that this, particularly Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is so, so brash and bold, in it’s flavors, that I think it holds up really well. Actually, a geeky side note, a lot of those asparagus and bell pepper flavors that are detectable in this style of wines, come from this methoxypyrazines. Pyrazines are these aroma compounds, and you find them in a lot of the Bordeaux family grapes, like Loire Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. When they’re done well, it’s all about canopy management and pruning.
Viticulturists can actually control how much of those flavors that are gonna end up in the final wine, hopefully, assuming the vintage is good, by pruning, and by controlling the leafy part of the vines to tweak those aromas. When they’re done well you get, like I say, the bell pepper, asparagus, the mint, and basil. When they’re done badly, you start to get this mushy, mushy asparagus, or overripe peppers, that’s not really that pleasant. I think it’s a quality in the line that I really like, personally.
JF: Yeah, I really … I’m pro-pyrazine. I’m a big fan of pyrazines. Not like an overload of them, I don’t know how I would measure that, but I like those kinds of flavors in my wine. I know they can be very outputting and polarizing for some people.
In fact, Sauvignon Blanc, it’s funny, there are a lot of people I talk to who are wine pros, work in the business, and they don’t like Sauvignon Blanc at all. It seems like it’s like the most polarizing white wine grape I can think of.
CP: I think because as a style, it’s fairly obvious. I don’t necessarily mean that to be a derogatory statement. I just think it’s … that’s why I call it a gateway wine, because it’s, for a lot of wine lovers, it’s a wine that you start with because of its obviousness. It’s because it’s so out there. It’s such an extroverted style, that in the beginning it’s really charming and it really draws you in.
Then, I think for people who really get geeky about wines, that style can start to just be a little zany, and a little boring. Then, of course, there’s just this added snobbery of, “Oh, I’ve moved on from that. You know, I like much more sort of toned down, restrained wines.” As we’re going to talk about one of the wines today, they’re not all like that, and they’re certainly not all cut from the some cloth.
I mean, I have the good fortune of tasting a lot of them, these days, and there certainly is a style that screams, “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc” and more specifically, “Marlborough.” Then, there are a lot these days that are working out, a lot producers working outside the box, and trying new things, and working with more leaf contact. Aging in oak, or picking at different times. Going less for the pyrazines, and maybe more for a riper style. I really think now, there’s a Sauvignon Blanc out there for everybody.
JF: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned outside the box, because if you go to winemag.com, you wrote a great article about exploring New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc outside the box. Go check that out.
On that note, I do want to talk about a wine that’s included in there, or a producer at least, the second wine, which is the Clos Henri 2017 Petit Clos Sauvignon Blanc, also from Marlborough. Now, this is an organic and biodynamic producer, correct?
CP: They are, yes. They are, Clos Henri is actually owned by the Henri Bourgeois family in the Wairau Valley. They have really … they started their New World Winery in Marlborough, and their, Damien Yvon is their general manager, and their winemaker. He is also from Wairau, so, this is very much French wine making, and French philosophy, transplanted into Marlborough. I think that a lot of what you think of as being really tradition, old school French winemaking, Terroir being the number one focus, really carries over into this winery, and therefore, into these wines.
The Petit Clos is what you, I guess, what they would call their entry level. It’s $18, which I think is an incredible bargain for how … they’re fairly small scale, they’re definitely small scale compared to some of the really big well-known names. I think that $18 for what is a really, really delicious wine, and is very Terroir expressive, and all of those things, and need. With very minimal intervention, and biodynamically grown fruit, I think is all … it’s a really great package for that price.
Actually touching on that, just a side note, I do think this style is one where if you put in a bit extra money, you really get rewarded. I think all the wines we’re talking about today are … the last one we’re going to talk about is a little bit pricier, but Nautilus is I think $17 or $18, this is $18, the Clos Henri. If you put in that … go into that $15 to $20 range, I think you get a much more … a huge step up in quality, and a much more interesting wine. This is a really great example of that.
The Petit Clos is a blend of three … they have three vineyards, with three vineyard sites with very distinctive soils. This is a blend of the Greywacke River Stone, and then they have these clay soils, Broadbridge, and with their clays. This is a blend of those three, and they use things like, a lot of leave stirring, where the leaves being the yeast. They leave the wine in contact with the leaves for a fair amount of time, to get some texture in there. With their top line of Clos Henri wine, which is a single vineyard, they use some oak aging in there, too.
It’s a much more subtle line. It’s a much more toned down line. I think for people who aren’t maybe as into as bold a flavor as some of the more well-known styles of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, this is a really great example of one that is more French in style, but with a little more sunshine, a little more of that New World vibe going on.
JF: You mentioned oak, which is something I think is interesting in Sauvignon Blanc. Is that something you come across a lot? Like New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs that use oak, and if they do, what kind of oak are they using? What kind of program and what does it add to the wine?
CP: You see some where they want the oak to be a contributing factor. With Sauvignon Blanc, it’s such a bold, crisp wine. It’s high acid. It’s considered to be a relatively easy summer drink. If they’re wanting … they don’t often want a lot of the oak to shine through, ’cause it just clashes with that crisp, summery style. It’s not Chardonnay, right? They’re not going for that wheatier texture, and they’re not trying to get the flavor, ’cause Chardonnay’s a relatively subtle grape, in terms of flavor profiles.
The oak would really shine through in a grape like Chardonnay, whereas, I feel like Sauvignon is so extroverted in it’s personality already, that to try to add a lot of oak in there, would just fight with the wine. Most people who are using oak, would just be using it more as a textural thing, and just trying to get a little bit more of that creamy mouth weight. Maybe make it more like medium bodied spectrum versus light bodied. It’s not typical, so most of the wines you find out there, you won’t really see oak at all. It would just be in stainless steel. It’d be just a young, crisp style of just fruit driven, and driven by those herbaceous notes, and not with any of that oak.
Actually the Nautilus, interestingly, going back to that, they use oak in a lot of their wines. I consider them to be pretty classic Marlborough producer. They’ve been around since 1985. They’ve been doing it for a long time. They use oak in a way that is, again, just adding texture, and contributing to that fruit concentration. I think that they are not afraid of those secondary, tertiary characters that add complexity. I think that’s why i generally, consistently, really like Nautilus, and have liked their wines for a long time. I tend to be a little drawn to wines with a little more weight texture.
JF: Yeah, when you talk about weight and texture and freshness, and things like that, I think of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as something you drink right away, super fresh. Is it? Is it a wine that can age, if you had aged examples of it, where you’re like, “Wow.” Like that … with three or plus years, or something like that. That it’s a wine that can development at a certain level?
CP: Yeah, for sure. Going back to Clos Henri, I mean, their top wine is one that, for sure, it’s just called the Clos, Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc, that is a really good example of one that could definitely age. I mean, you’re not going to age them as long as you would age a Cabernet, for example. I think seven to 10 years, some of them could go, the majority are not though. I would assume that they’re meant to be drink now wines.
Yeah, certainly some of them that have had a little bit of an oak regime, and again, maybe some leave stirring, trying to go for that texture and restraint. Maybe more of a mineral drive in there. They can age, for sure. They go a little more honeyed, and those really bright fruit flavors start to get a little bit more dried fruit, for example. Or some nutty characteristics in there, as well. Yeah.
JF: Cool. For the first two wines, they’re both from the Marlborough region. I want to move to the third one, which is, we’re gonna travel a little in New Zealand, it’s the Peregrine 2017 Sauvignon Blanc from the Central Otago. I think Central Otago is best known for Pinot Noir. If you could just start by telling me where is the Central Otago in relation to Marlborough, and is it unusual to see Sauvignon Blanc from there?
CP: Yes. First of all, Central Otago is southwest of Marlborough, so, we’re still on the South Island, here. New Zealand’s North Island, South Island. There is wine made on both islands, and unlike here, I know we’re conditioned as you go south it gets warmer, we’re in southern hemisphere, of course, so going north is where you see the warmer grape varieties, like Merlot, and Cab, you seem them a little bit more, Shiraz up in the Hawk’s Bay area, for example.
Down in Central Otago, we’re going cooler. You’re going south of Marlborough, so, you’re going into a little bit cooler climate. It’s sort of its own microclimate, and you’re right to say that Central Otago is more well-known for Pinot Noir, for sure. This wine is … most of the fruit is coming from Bendigo, which is sort of a subregion within a subregion. It’s one of the warmest, so you will get more of those[pineapple-y, passion fruit flavors from this area. Then a lot of that gunflint mineral, those mineral notes, the herbaceousness as well.
You’ll see it occasionally, but definitely Central Otago is more Pinot. This one is, I think, $29 a bottle. They’re going for a more premium style. They also farm organically. Yeah, this is a female winemaker, Nadine Cross, who is really talented. She’s worked in France, and California, and all over the place.
There’s a gram of residual sugar, if you wanted to know that. That’s something that you see in Sauvignon Blanc a bit, they’ll leave just a little bit of sweetness in there, because the acidity can be so high. Like they do with Riesling, and that gives the perception of more fruitiness, and maybe, softens the acidity a little bit.
JF: Huh. I didn’t … I’d never knew there was 1% RS in some of my New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. I guess, like you said, it’s such a racy grape that it can handle a little touch. We’re not talking about sweet.
CP: Yes, a tiny bit.
JF: We’re talking just mellow out the zippy acidity.
CP: Exactly. It’s tiny. Even I often will not detect it, and I might look at the technical notes and just go, “Oh, okay. There was a tiny bit in there. That’s probably what’s sort of contributing to, maybe a little bit of that feeling of wheatier fruit, or something.”
JF: Then, one last thing I wanted to mention about New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is, not necessarily about the wine, but the packaging, as far as screw caps, they wanted to know, New Zealand’s been such a pioneer and I think almost all the Sauvignon Blancs you’ll see are sealed under a screw cap, and I think their popularity certainly had a lot to do with people accepting screw caps. At least on wines that are more of a drink now, refreshing style of white wine.
CP: Yeah, absolutely. Australia, New Zealand, both have been really ahead of the game with screw caps. Now, I mean, I couldn’t give you a percentage, but the vast, vast majority are under a screw cap. I think, here in the States we still, a lot of people maybe still have that misconception. I think it’s changing a lot, but most of the wines here are still under cork. There’s still a little bit of that misconception that if it’s screw cap it must not be good quality-wise.
Now, keep in mind that if you’re drinking a wine from New Zealand, I could say the same for Australia, that that really doesn’t make a difference at all, as a quality. In fact, some of the top wines, even Penfold’s Grange now is doing a lot of their wines under screw caps. That really is not a sign of quality anymore. It’s just been a shift, a stylistic shift. I think it’s easier. From my perspective, I love it.
JF: Yeah, I like not even … you don’t need a specialized tool. I mean, corkscrews are great. Love ’em, but I love to use them, but it’s nice when you forget one, or don’t need one or are traveling and you can just, you know, unscrew it.
CP: Your mom could even do it one-handed with the lawnmower.
JF: She could. You gotta … My mom mowing the lawn. Thanks for listening to this episode of My Mom Mowing Her Lawn. I’ll be sure she listens to it, now.
CP: Actually, I’m not at all promoting drinking while using heavy machinery.
CP: We’re really that you could open a screw cap with one hand. Actually.
JF: Right. Right. We’re just trying to illustrate the ease of opening screw cap wines.
Christina, thanks for joining me, and talking about New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It’s nice to talk about it as more than single note, that people are doing interesting things with it, and not just in Marlborough. In other regions, too. It’s something you can drink now. It’s something you can hold on to, and there’s just … I think it’s a more diverse wine than a lot of people have been exposed to. So, thank you.
CP: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.
JF: And thank you for listening to the What We’re Tasting Podcast. What We’re Tasting is sponsored by Vivino. Buy the right wine.
The wines we talked about this episode were the Nautilus 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, the Clos Henri 2017 Petit Clos Sauvignon Blanc, and the Peregrine 2017 Sauvignon Blanc. Find What We’re Tasting on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find podcasts. If you’d like today’s episode, please give us a five star rating on iTunes. Leave a comment. And tell your friends.
What We’re Tasting is a Wine Enthusiast podcast. Check out Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com.