The Evolution Of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

  • By Jamie Drummond
  • 06 May 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
Made possible by
Blind River vineyards, Marlborough - Credit : Courtesy of New Zealand Wines

There is something very special about Sauvignon Blanc grown in Marlborough that simply cannot be replicated elsewhere, and today is truly a fascinating time for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. As Marlborough evolves we have seen a much greater diversity of winemaking techniques and utilization of the region’s sub-zones and unique terroirs.

Sauvignon Blanc is undeniably New Zealand’s signature grape variety, with most Sauvignon Blanc vines found there today being direct clonal descendants of those first cultivated by Bill and Ross Spence at Matua, Waimauku, Auckland in 1974.  These cuttings didn't make it down to Marlborough until later in the decade, and it is believed that the current plantings from those original cuttings have adapted to the distinctive climate and soils of Marlborough into their own unique Massale selections.

Today Sauvignon Blanc makes up some 73% of New Zealand’s wine production, and is responsible for 88% of all exports. Total plantings exceed 23,436 ha, with 20,880 ha of that being in Marlborough.

The Many Terroirs Of Marlborough 

Sauvignon Blanc is a wonderful vector for terroir, and many are unaware of just how many different terroirs there are in Marlborough; it is anything but the flat contiguous region that people think it to be.

The region can be broadly split into three subregions, but there are myriad combinations of climate, soil, topography, and surrounding plants that lead to a veritable patchwork of unique sites.

Winemakers will often harness fruit from varied terroirs to create vivid and pure blended Sauvignon Blanc wines, while others choose to craft single vineyard examples that speak to the individual sites; many producers do both. And why not?

The Northern Wairau 

Wairau comes from the Maori “kei puta te wairau”, meaning “hole in the clouds”, referring to the phenomenon of blue skies in the valley when it can be cloudy to the northwest, contributing to Marlborough’s disproportionately high sunshine hours relative to its cool climate.

This region is cool and dry, but is a little more protected from the Antarctic winds by the Wither Hills, leading to ripe and fragrant wines with lush passionfruit, citrus, tropical fruits, pink grapefruit, litterbox AKA cat pee, gooseberry, sweat, blackcurrant, guava, juicy acidity, and an almost creamy texture.

The mainly sea-level vineyards are on a river floodplain, so one will find varied well-drained soils, from stony river wash to fine deep sandy alluvial soils, the meandering Wairau river having left undulating waves of gravel and silt over the millenia. 45% of the region's plantings are here.

The Southern Valleys 

These consist of five eastward-facing valleys that are quite sheltered and a little warmer, but higher altitudes mean cooler night temperatures. The soils here were formed by glacial outwash, with older variable soils of stoney loam washed down from the Wither Hills with stoney gravels with higher levels of clay leading to loess covered hill slopes. Here one will find around 25% of the region’s plantings

These wines are often tropical in style, and occasionally almost Chardonnay-ish in weight and mouthfeel. There’s still that clean natural juicy acidity, but there’s a more mango/peach flavour profile present here.

Awatere  

The most diverse subregion happens to be the driest and coolest. Here on the river terraces and floodplains one will find seabed soil pushed up by seismic activity overlaid by erosion from the nearby mountains, with alluvial gravel, mineral-rich “papas” clay, silt loams, wind-blown loess, and even volcanic rock. Here one will find some 30% of the region’s plantings.

This very cool climate produces wines with distinctive aromatics of  jalapeño, lime, citrus, a defined racy acidity, and often a certain sense of salinity on the palate.

The Two Sides Of Marlborough Sauvignon (And Everything In Between) 

At one end of the spectrum we have the more commercial side of the industry, where their classic take on the grape is the profile that is known the world over: vibrant, fresh, and with an unmatched intensity of flavour.

Machine harvesting, ideally in the cool of the night, is thought to result in more flavour intensity. Machine harvesting doesn’t create the amount of skin contact that it once did, as new machines essentially spit “caviar” out of the back, i.e. beautiful destemmed, intact berries.

Fermentations are in stainless steel and quite cold, around 10C. Using specific cultured yeasts (such as Laffort X5) that piggyback themselves onto the precursors that are already present in the grapes, and then take them to the next level, exacerbating those classic, fresh thiol flavours and locking them in, championing that aromatic intensity (think blackcurrants, grapefruit, passionfruit, and guava).

These wines, usually bottled quickly after ferment, are the wines that have spread the gospel of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc around the globe, and are what most consumers expect when purchasing a wine labelled as such.

And then at the other end of the spectrum, one will find more artisanal winemakers using all sorts of different practices to make their small batch Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs stand out from the crowd.

In the middle of this spectrum, one will find many medium/large producers who make classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc but are beginning to dabble with (and sometimes embrace) many of the wide range of tools and techniques used by the more artisanal outliers.

Treating Sauvignon Blanc More Like Chardonnay 

Some producers go for a hand harvested, whole bunch-pressed style which produces a wine that is less aromatically overt but perhaps more texturally elegant, made into a bone-dry style, accompanied by lees ageing to build that texture.

A growing number of winemakers approach Sauvignon Blanc a little more like Chardonnay and try to build complexity through warmer fermentations and small neutral oak barrels, sometimes encouraging a little bit of malolactic fermentation. These wines have similarities to the winemaking techniques of Pessac-Leognan in Bordeaux, creating complex and long-lived  Sauvignon Blanc-based wines. Curiously enough, 20 - 30 years ago Sémillon was reasonably prevalent in the region, but the Bordelais practice of blending with Sauvignon Blanc never really took off.

Wild About Wild Yeast Ferments 

Wild yeasts bring much to the resultant wine: a sense of liveliness, a certain savoury aspect, a natural balance and completeness. Commercial yeasts complete their fermentations in two to three weeks, but with less control, and depending upon the year, natural ferments can last up to three months, bringing a completely different energy to the wine. Wild ferments are often used alongside lees contact and malolactic fermentation when a winemaker chooses to make a Sauvignon Blanc in more of a Chardonnay style.

It’s All About The Vessels 

Many winemakers have chosen to move away from the ubiquitous stainless steel tanks and have begun experimenting with different vessels for both fermentation and ageing. From 225 litre neutral oak barrels, through 500 litre clay amphora, to 1,600 litre concrete eggs, these can be seen as the antithesis of classic Sauvignon Blanc winemaking, with better interaction between the juice and the lees because of the higher ratio of lees to the juice, and hence building texture and that elusive mid-palate.

An Embrace Of Organic Viticulture 

The region is witnessing a growing interest in organic viticulture as more producers are investigating its potential and wish to be part of the movement, especially with Marlborough being seen as more industrial compared to other regions. This makes things harder for growers because of the lower yields (usually around 25% less) but they are paid more for their organic fruit to compensate for this. Even the bigger producers are looking to buy organic fruit, so sourcing it has become a trickier proposition in recent years. Wines produced from organic fruit tend to be denser, more textured, and nuanced, as well as being less overt than those produced from conventional fruit.

Need Some Skin Contact? 

When it comes to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and skin contact, finding that sweet spot is key; three hours will give you more flavour intensity, with a white tea leaf phenolic on the palate, nicely balanced by that juicy natural acidity and a touch of residual sugar (around 3g per litre).

The “tipping tank”, developed in Marlborough specifically for for Sauvignon Blanc, hydraulically lifts up the tank and tips it into the press, enabling precision control of the number of minutes/seconds that the juice is in contact with the skins, as with extended skin contact one runs the risk of getting excessive bitterness in the resultant wine. Saying this, some feel that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is not particularly suitable for skin contact as it already packs so much flavour, but perhaps works better in cooler regions such as North Canterbury.

But What If Someone Is Expecting A “Classic” Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc? 

The more interesting, smaller batch Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs are by their very nature more expensive, and won’t be the most widely distributed of wines; many of these bottlings require an  environment with an element of handselling, like a wine store or restaurant.

It’s much like Bordeaux or Burgundy, where the majority of wine is simple AOP Bordeaux or Bourgogne, but then there is a lot of diversity at the higher price points, and that is where the more engaged and/or educated consumers are experimenting and playing; much the same can be said for the evolution of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

As I said previously, this is truly a fascinating time for this grape in this region.

Blind River vineyards, Marlborough - Credit : Courtesy of New Zealand Wines