The importance of Sauvignon Blanc

By Cameron Douglas, MS

Sauvignon Blanc is a wine wine with unmistakable herbal flavors and acidity. It’s popularity across the globe is driven, in part, by its consistency at all price points, recognisable aroma and flavour profiles and availability.

A perfect place to plant

Sauvignon Blanc is the most prominent and important grape variety planted in New Zealand, occupying 63% of the total plantings and generating significant sales locally, and a sizable chunk of the export earnings from the wine sector.

New Zealand’s southerly location, strong maritime influences and narrow shape gives rise to a climate that is classified as cool producing naturally higher acid levels, yet warm enough and with abundant sunlight to fully ripen the variety across the whole country.

In the winery

Stainless steel tank ferments are still the preferred vessel for fermentation however Füder barrels, older Burgundy barrels, concrete tanks and concrete eggs are proving a worthwhile investment, and not just for Sauvignon Blanc. Changes in vineyard management, and Organic and Bio-dynamic philosophies are affecting this variety in incredibly positive ways – building complexities, textures and flavour profiles showcasing vineyard expression and regional profile.

The hard rocker of the wine world

When a glass of Sauvignon Blanc is swirled and the bouquet is released it is immediately recognisable for its aromas, flavours and textures. Well-made Sauvignon Blanc releases many striking scents from pungent fresh herb and tropical fruit to peach, citrus, apple, gooseberry and grass/hay.
If Sauvignon Blanc was music, a song, then it would probably sound like the opening few bars of a heavy metal track, ‘I was made for loving you’ by Kiss (1979) is what’s playing in my mind right now. Not only does Sauvignon Blanc have a distinctive and very recognisable beat and rhythm, a loud bouquet, it often hits the palate with a core of energy and style that makes it, well, a bit like a heavy metal song.

Marlborough – home of Sauv Blanc

1873 marks the earliest records of plantings of grapes in Marlborough, yet it wasn’t until 1973, one hundred years later, when the real potential for the region was beginning to be realised. Today Marlborough thrives on its wine industry with many support enterprises from boutique cheese makers, agriculture, events, hospitality and wine tourism.

If you’re new to the New Zealand Wine Navigator blog or new to enjoyment of wine, Marlborough is located at the top North-Eastern reaches of the South Island and is essentially a collection of valleys nestled between the Richmond Ranges to the East and Wither Hills to the West. The Southern Alps form immediately south of the region funneling cool southerly winds into Marlborough. Both the Richmond Ranges and Wither Hills provide a rain shadow keeping the valley floor very dry, but with very high sunshine hours it is easy to fully ripen Sauvignon Blanc. The mostly free-draining stony, river wash and alluvial soils mean irrigation is common practice.

Sub-regional characteristics are beginning to show through most regions of New Zealand with some varieties such as Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc revealing specific taste profiles.

Regional variations

While some Sauvignon Blanc can be made in a generic style, and these wines sell well, there are regional differences to be discovered as well. For example, Hawkes Bay examples often show a riper more intense yellow peach and sweeter tropical fruit character with less herbaceous drive, while a Marlborough version can often taste of pink grapefruit, basil, thyme, passionfruit and be very herbaceous (these are just some of the descriptors). Central Otago expressions often have a mineral core, dried thyme and white peach character.

And even within Marlborough, a Wairau expression is quite different from a Southern Valleys or Awatere Valley one. You have tropical passion-fruit and fresh herb expressions of the Wairau Valley versus the savoury, mineral style of the Awatere.

The same can be said within other regions such as Nelson, Canterbury, Auckland and Hawkes Bay.

Food and wine pairings

Regardless of origin and individual expression Sauvignon Blanc is a great match with foods that are lightweight, high energy and with a noticeable freshness or higher acid content such as salads with radishes and apple, pickled vegetables or oysters and mussels with fresh lemon juice.

The future for New Zealand Sauv Blanc

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a globally recognised benchmark, but it has become more than what the brand and style of the early 1980s was. It is still a classic and there are certain expectations when it comes to taste, texture and ultimately enjoyment. New Zealand will always provide for classic Sauvignon Blanc. I have to use the word classic loosely though because it all depends on what style you are referring to as regionality is now easily recognised.

It is fair to suggest that New Zealand winemakers know Sauvignon Blanc well; how growing conditions, vintage and soil influence style and flavour. They also like to explore and push the boundaries of style when they can and this is perhaps why we are encountering some wines with extended time in old oak barrel, more lees contact time, less preservative and less fining so the pure voice of this variety can show in a different way. So long as the wine can tick the boxes of varietal recognition, crisp clean aromatics, high acidity and a degree of herbaceousness, citrus and tropical fruit markers, consumers may enjoy these new expressions. That said, I have friends who will only drink a ‘Classic’ Marlborough version of Sauvignon Blanc.

The future of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is not set. The future, I believe, lies in how we tell our story of wine, how we showcase and promote new styles next to old, and how we introduce Sauvignon Blanc to those who are yet to discover this bold, sassy style of wine.