Article By: Sandy Block, MW
. . . the point is that the Marlborough style . . . now appears
to set the standard by which the market measures virtually
all Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc’s reversal of fortune from shunned outcast to darling of the American dinner table owes everything to a style that emerged full blown in Marlborough New Zealand during the early 199Os. Before that period the predominant California expression of the grape often tasted mean, green, herbaceous, and overly alcoholic, not palate sensations guaranteed to generate widespread drinking pleasure. Variously described as Fume Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc depending on the winery’s marketing decision, many of the wines were rounded off with liberal doses of milder-textured Semillon and sometimes toned down further by extended lees aging in small oak barrels. The problem was that sales kept shrinking.
Then along came Marlborough. If Sauvignon by genetic make up is a natural over-cropper with a tendency towards hard-edged aggressive flavor profiles, how could it possibly succeed in a cool marginal climate with fertile vigor-enhancing soils? Figuring out how to grow the notoriously vigorous vine in a manner that curtails some of its energy, while allowing abundant sun exposure to the grape bunches, proved the first challenge; the omnipresent ripeness-enhancing luminosity Marlborough vineyards enjoy, along with novel vine training techniques that combat excessive yields, effectively solved this problem. Fermenting unblended juice at cool temperatures without oak exposure constituted the other key element of a winning formula.
This is a set of grape growing and wine making practices that for the last decade has been repeated wherever else ripening conditions approximate the Marlborough environment, particularly in Coastal South Africa, and in those Chilean valleys that have direct exposure to Pacific maritime breezes. It’s also been adopted elsewhere with somewhat less favorable results, but the point is that the Marlborough style – ripe but well-structured with uncompromising pure acidity but not a trace of oak – now appears to set the standard by which the market measures virtually all Sauvignon Blanc. And, it appears, each year we’re craving more and more of its signature tart citric flavors.
One of the reasons for Sauvignon’s recent fashionability is the extent to which it harmonizes with larger culinary trends. If we’re eating more fish and vegetables and more highly seasoned Asian and Latin dishes, Sauvignon Blanc is a natural choice. Its fresh acidity also balances salty flavored fare, such as charcuterie, as well as fish or poultry in a rich, creamy sauce. You can dress it up or dress it down, depending on the occasion, and it’s just as comfortable with lobster as it is with a hot dog.
Five years ago I was still reporting that virtually any Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the market was well worth drinking. That is no longer the case. Success in the wine business attracts investment and tends to breed over-production, a tendency to rush products to the market and an attempt to appeal to an even broader market to insure greater success. It rarely works out; witness California Merlot and Australian Shiraz. In the case of Marlborough, and of those other regions that have modeled their Sauvignon Blanc production after it, the recent trends have been dilution of quality, sweetening of flavor and a creeping artificiality in the flavor profile. Fermentation aromas of melon and pear are not varietal indicators, and the overtly tropical mango and guava juice undertones do not flatter authentic Sauvignon Blanc, at least not in my opinion.
These blind tasting winners are delicious while staying true to the core of the grape’s varietal identity. They are bracingly dry, appetizing and manage to taste layered and smooth in texture at the same time. Each also constitutes a real bargain. They were tasted against five times as many entries, from New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and California, many of which showed a lackluster and in some cases totally dull personality. That may perhaps be an excusable sin with other grape varieties, but Sauvignon Blanc should make a statement. The wines are listed in ascending order of quality and all are worth recommending to people who want to experience what this most assertive of grapes is capable of when planted in the right place and handled appropriately.
CONO SUR “BICYCLE”
San Antonio Valley, Chile 2OO8
If it’s straightforward refreshment you’re after, this uncomplicated but balanced wine from one of Chile’s exciting newly planted cool climate zones is an outstanding choice. Cono Sur is a winery that practices biodynamic grape growing techniques and everything they produce appears to be a winner. With moderate scents of lemon and apple, it’s light in body but bone dry and quite tart. This is a wine for spring chilling. Enjoy it with cold shrimp. $9.99
Casablanca Valley, Chile 2OO8
Made by Vina Casablanca, one of the original producers in this coastal valley that is home to many of Chile’s best white wines, Nimbus exudes an aroma of fresh squeezed lemon. Vibrant and fresh on the palate, it’s medium bodied and juicy but dry in flavor, with mineral notes that punctuate the tart fruit. The slightly bitter finish provides balance and will leave your palate refreshed. Enjoy this with fried clams. $11.99
HUNTER’S “JANE HUNTER”
Marlborough, New Zealand 2OO7
This wine is highly perfumed with green pepper, dill, tomato, and grapefruit scents that give way to lively acids on the palate. Intense, but with a round texture, this is a tangy Sauvignon Blanc that provides an explosive burst of grapefruit flavor and a finish redolent with spice. Enjoy this stylistically pure Marlborough Sauvignon alongside a salad of bitter greens and goat cheese. $14.99
SANTA RITA “RESERVA”
Casablanca Valley, Chile 2OO8
This wine from one of Chile’s most venerable producers is quite a bargain and quite a surprise to taste as well. The aromas are low key and subtle, with suggestions of citrus, chive and sweet herbs, and the palate initially seems understated as well, but after a few moments powerful sensations of grapefruit rind and mineral salt emerge. The wine is back loaded with flavor in a way that would make it a perfect foil for grilled herb-rubbed Arctic char. $12.99
Marlborough, New Zealand 2OO7
Goldwater is one of the pioneering names of the modern New Zealand quality wine industry and has been producing Sauvignon Blanc there longer than virtually anyone else, since the late 197Os. The wines have always displayed character, with distinctively pure flavors and a mellow mouth feel. This 2OO7 keeps the trend intact, featuring classy aromas of green herb, yeast, bacon, and lemongrass. It’s delicate and reserved at first sip, but with a long grapefruit rind vegetal spice finish. The texture is round and a bit oily. This would be lovely with a pasta primavera. $17.99
Marlborough, New Zealand 2OO8
Momo’s got it all: a terrific aroma, lush silky texture, pinpoint acid, and an appealing finish that lingers long after you’ve swallowed it. Made at the artisan Seresin Estate from Wairau Valley, it offers up snap pea, dill, grapefruit and slightly vegetal spice accents. On the palate think lemon chive butter. The subtle citrus sensations and smooth mellow fruit characters are held together in beautiful tension. This is a Sauvignon Blanc that melts in your mouth. True to itself but capable of mass appeal because it’s so delicious, enjoy this with anything from raw oysters to soft shell crabs. $16.99