New Zealand sauvignon blancs: Close, yet far apart in style

Columnist March 27

Much of the fun in wine exploration is drilling down into geographical distinctions, from country to region, then appellation and finally vineyard site. Think about using Google Earth: From a moon’s-eye view of North America, we can quickly close in on a major landmark or our own house, discerning details that are invisible in the larger picture. The same is true with wine.

Take New Zealand, for instance. When we think of that country’s wine, what comes to mind first is its sauvignon blanc: grassy, somewhat aggressive, with racy acidity. But look beyond that and you’ll find pinot noir, New Zealand’s second-most-important wine. And, of course, there are others.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

If you pay attention to labels, you’ve noticed the name Marlborough; it’s the country’s most important wine region, at the northern end of the South Island. It’s a good benchmark to compare with other regions. Martinborough, on the North Island, produces sauvignon blanc that tends to be riper. Even farther north, around Hawke’s Bay, cabernet sauvignon and syrah vines predominate. Central Otago, the mountainous land of hobbits and orcs on the South Island, turns out earthy and rugged pinot noir. From the initial wide-angle view of one dominant wine variety, we’ve discovered a diverse wine map with many styles and varieties.

Just west of Marlborough is a much smaller wine region around the city of Nelson. Although the two areas produce similar wines, there are subtle yet distinct differences between them. I was able to explore those expressions during a brief visit to New Zealand several months ago. I used Google Earth while planning my itinerary, but nothing beats personal experience.

Marlborough is a crowd-pleaser, producing vast quantities of wine, the cheap and serviceable as well as the intense, lush and full-bodied. Almost always the emphasis is on fruit, and the best wines taste simply joyful, with amazingly long finishes. Nelson’s wines are leaner, more minerally, even cerebral. As Todd Stevens, winemaker at Neudorf Vineyards, explained, Nelson has warmer days and cooler evenings than Marlborough, lending tighter acidity to the wines.

“We tend to be in the greener, tropical end of the flavor spectrum instead of the huge passion fruit,” Stevens says. There’s plenty of tropical fruit to go around: Neudorf’s sauvignon blanc, Riesling and especially its chardonnay are terrific, and its pinot noir is impeccable, with bing cherry flavors and firm acidity.

Nelson’s vineyards are in two areas: the Moutere Hills, where red clay soils favor fuller-bodied chardonnay and pinot noir, and gravelly plains closer to the shore, where alluvial soils favor crisp whites such as sauvignon blanc, Riesling, pinot gris and even grüner veltliner. That’s where the Seifried Estate Winery produces outstanding wines under the Seifried and Old Coach Road labels. The sauvignon blancs from the outstanding 2013 vintage are especially noteworthy.

Marlborough’s main vineyard lands stretch along the south bank of the Wairau River as it flows east toward Cloudy Bay near the small city of Blenheim. Tributary valleys stretch southward, offering steep slopes that are ideal for the region’s pinot noir. Farther south, another east-west valley called Awatere is producing thrilling savvies. It’s considered part of Marlborough, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Awatere Valley receive its own designation once more wineries exploit its potential.

Two of Marlborough’s pioneers are refining the region’s expression of sauvignon blanc. Ivan Sutherland and James Healy spent 18 years managing Cloudy Bay winery as that label exploded with growth and established New Zealand’s reputation for sauvignon blanc. Now that Marlborough has become commercialized, with big companies churning out tanker loads of wine, they keep raising the quality bar with their boutique bottlings from Dog Point Vineyard.

“Generic wine is fresh and lifted” — meaning fruity — “but we didn’t want the same old in-your-face aromatics and tutti-frutti flavors,” Sutherland says. Their answer was to reduce crop yields to 7.5 tons per hectare, compared with the regional average of 12, and to pick the grapes by hand instead of machine.

“A lot of people are mucking around with different ways of making sauvignon blanc,” Healy says. “Most try new oak and malolactic fermentation.

“We are not fans of new oak around Marlborough sauvignon,” Sutherland adds.

The duo does muck around a bit. Their Section 94 sauvignon blanc, named for the vineyard block where it’s grown, is fermented and aged for 18 months in old oak barrels on the grape solids, with no exposure to oxygen. Healy calls it “the stinky sauvignon.” It’s tarry, like a strong mineral water, and flinty. It probably won’t become a mainstream expression of Marlborough wine, but it will interest adventurous oenophiles.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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