The Best of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
There’s no mistaking the pungency and immediacy of Sauvignon Blanc. With its bold, direct flavors, generally unimpeded by oak, the variety—especially as expressed in New Zealand—has claimed legions of fans over the past 20 years.
Now, American sales of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are booming, up by double digits in each of the past three years, compared to modest single-digit growth in overall wine consumption. Powered by new releases from the highly regarded 2013 vintage, expect that trend to continue this year.
In Marlborough, where most of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc is grown, the summer of 2012–13 was ideal. Conditions were warm and dry leading up to the harvest period, which was punctuated by only three small rain events, none of which had any ill effects on the vintage.
In October, I took a first look at the young 2013 Sauvignon Blancs while serving as a judge at the Marlborough Wine Show, followed by visits to a number of wineries over three subsequent days. Many of the wines impressed for their generosity and varietal expression.
Back stateside, my tastings of the 2013s confirm that the vintage was excellent. Of the 74 wines reviewed for this report, 25 scored 90 points or more—a remarkable success rate. And thanks to the mild weather and technical acumen of Kiwi winemakers, very few of the wines scored poorly. In short, 2013 has produced a number of top Sauvignon Blancs, many of which are pleasantly affordable.
Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand dates back to only 1969, when the Spence brothers, founders of Matua, planted the first vines. Their first commercial wine release was in 1974.
The following year, Montana (now known as Brancott), planted Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough. International renown came in the 1980s, when Cloudy Bay’s commercial success helped bring these wines to the world’s attention.
Since then, basic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc winemaking hasn’t changed all that much—why tinker with success? After the grapes are mechanically harvested, they’re crushed and settled for up to three days, and then fermented at low temperatures in stainless-steel tanks with inoculated yeast.
This level of standardization means that consumers basically know what to expect from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The techniques yield the assertive fruit notes found in the wines, from tropical nuances like passion fruit and pineapple to gooseberry and grapefruit, and occasionally leaning toward stone fruit, fig or melon.
What sets Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs apart from the rest of the world’s wines is the combination of this intense, fruity character with equally powerful notes of cut grass, fresh herbs, nettles and even more vegetal elements. These can sometimes resemble celery or tobacco leaves, crushed tomato stalks, green beans or bell pepper.
When these conflicting tropical and green elements are in balance, they create the dynamism that makes Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc such an exciting wine style, capable of being served on its own, as an apéritif, or with a wide variety of summer-weight dishes.
That said, not many of these wines rise to true greatness. While well made, full of character and versatile at the table, too many taste too similar to one another, with only modest variation in flavor spectrum, length and intensity to distinguish them.
Those highlighted on this page are among the best of their style, but New Zealand’s winemakers have already started to explore different approaches.
92 Saint Clair 2013 Wairau Reserve (Marlborough). Big, bold and opulent, with waves of tropical fruit. Winesellers Ltd.
abv: 13% Price: $29
91 Clos Henri 2013 Petit Clos (Marlborough). Silky in texture, with an attractive dusting of gingery spice on the finish. Monsieur Touton Selection Ltd. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14.1% Price: $16
91 Eradus 2013 Awatere Valley. From a cooler subregion of Marlborough, this shows hints of tomato leaf, balanced by passion fruit. Fruit of the Vines, Inc. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13.5% Price: $18
91 Kim Crawford 2013 Spitfire Small Parcels (Marlborough). Pungently herbal, yet stone-fruit ripe at the same time. Constellation Brands, Inc.
abv: 12.5% Price: $26
91 Seifried 2013 Nelson. From Marlborough’s underappreciated neighbor, this wine artfully combines snow pea and passion-fruit notes. Pacific Prime Wines. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12.5% Price: $18
As early as the 1980s, New Zealand winemakers experimented with aging Sauvignon Blanc in oak barrels, some of which were highly awarded. But the commercial success and lower costs associated with unoaked wines led most wineries to adopt that style.
“Sauvignon Blanc’s become a bit of a slave to its own success,” says Fabian Yukich, executive director of Villa Maria. “People seem to really prefer the fresh passion fruit aspects of it.”
More recently, Marlborough producers have begun releasing oak-influenced Sauvignon Blancs again. These “alternative” Sauvignon Blancs, as they’ve become known—some don’t even mention the grape variety on the front label—show more variation in style than their unoaked brethren.
For starters, many of them use indigenous yeasts, which can lead to some funky aromas. Many are partially or entirely barrel-fermented and aged longer on the lees, picking up nutty notes and creamy mouthfeels.
Some producers are using large oak vessels or blending tank- and barrel-aged wines to limit the wood component. No matter the approach, the aim is to bottle more complexity and texture.
“We’ve learned more from this project than in the past 30 years of growing Sauvignon Blanc,” says Chief Winemaker Patrick Materman, of Brancott’s Chosen Rows release. “We’re looking for something that’s ageworthy, textural and very food-friendly.”
Because of the extended aging, these wines are released later than traditional Marlborough Sauvignon styles, which means you won’t find the 2013s on store shelves just yet. With these recommended wines, there’s no need to wait.
93 Brancott 2010 Chosen Rows (Marlborough). With roughly 50% of this wine fermented in mostly large oak vessels, this is richly textured and long on the finish. Pernod Ricard USA.
abv: 14% Price: $50
93 Cloudy Bay 2011 Te Koko (Marlborough). Richly textured and complex, this pioneering wine remains one of the best in class. Moët Hennessy USA. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13.5% Price: $50
92 Dog Point 2011 Section 94 (Marlborough). Weighty and rich, with toasted-nut overtones and a long, crisp finish. Vintus LLC. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14% Price: $36
92 Greywacke 2011 Wild (Marlborough). This is full-bodied and lushly textured, with lovely pink-grapefruit accents. Old Bridge Cellars.
abv: 14% Price: $NA
92 Jules Taylor 2012 OTQ (Marlborough). Ripe and velvety, with toasty, nutty notes but no obvious vanilla. Maritime Wine Trading Collective. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13.5% Price: $22
90 Mahi 2012 Ballot Block (Marlborough). This delivers honeyed nectarine, potent leafiness and pencilly oak wrapped in a silky texture. Riahi Selections.
abv: 13.5% Price: $30
- 1Staying the Course
- 2Top-rated 2013 Sauvignons
- 3Changing Tack
- 4Top-Rated Alternative Sauvignons
- 5Best Buy 2013 Sauvignon Blancs