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The Evolution of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
By Linda Murphy
Aug 4, 2015
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Full disclosure, right from the outset: I recently became the U.S.  wine ambassador for Air New Zealand, which flies to North America, Europe, Asia and South America.  My consulting role includes providing insight on the U.S.  market and its wine tastes, and to work with New Zealand-based consultants Jim Harre and John Belsham, and ANZ’s China ambassador, Fongyee Walker, on the selection of wines for the airline’s various seating classes and destinations.

None of what follows has anything to do with my Air New Zealand affiliation, and stems solely from what I’ve tasted and learned over the years.  Since my first visit to New Zealand in 1999 (I’d pined to go there since I was a kid, after watching a TV fishing program where the Kiwi accent and monster trout mesmerized me), I’ve been hooked on New Zealand and its wines.  Many are world-class.

“EnZed” is known--first and foremost--for its pungent, boldly fruity Sauvignon Blancs, with theirdistinctive gooseberry, kiwi fruit, passionfruit and grassy, herbal characteristics.  Only a cool-climate, marine-influenced region can produce these aromas and flavors, and U.S.  consumers have lapped up the wines since such producers as Cloudy Bay and Kim Crawford first made major market headway in the 1990s.

Marlborough, on the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island, is the epicenter for assertive Sauvignon Blanc.  The wines from Hawke’s Bay on the warmer North Island have similar racy acidity, though usually with more generous, juicy fruit (think Sonoma County, a near-mirror region to Hawke’s Bay in wine style).  South Island regions Nelson and Central Otago produce exceptional Sauvignon Blancs as well, though in such low volumes as to not have much impact in the States.  Central Otago, in particular, has achieved such fame for its Pinot Noirs and Rieslings that the region’s Sauvignon Blanc is usually an afterthought in the minds of U.S.  consumers.  And that’s a shame, because there are excellent ones from this chilly region.

The U.S. market is flooded with assertive New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, and the collective American thirst demands even more.  In fact, the U.S. is soon to surpass Australia as New Zealand’s No. 1 export market, largely on the strength of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc.  E. & J. Gallo’s “Starborough” Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is seemingly on the shelves of every chain grocer, and it wins awards in U.S. wine competitions.  No fluke, this.  Nobilo, Kim Crawford, Brancott and Villa Maria, among others, also command premium shelf space in U.S. stores, with their energetic, obviously-not-from-California Sauvignon Blancs that are sold at reasonable prices.

Yet the most serious of Kiwi winemakers are pushing the Sauvignon Blanc envelope, introducing native yeasts (“wild ferments”), lees contact and oak influence to their grapes, to create more complex, layered wines (Cloudy Bay’s “Te Koko” and Dog Point’s “Section 94” are prime examples).  Not content to ferment Sauvignon Blanc in stainless steel tanks and bottle the wine in its youth, they incorporate Burgundian winemaking techniques to Sauvignon Blanc, giving it Chardonnay-like texture, yeasty creaminess and oak tones.  Yet the wines still display exuberant New Zealand fruit character.  These are aficionado wines and priced accordingly ($40 and up), yet they add dimension to the NZ SB scene.

For pure refreshment and service with goat cheese, shellfish, grilled fish and salads, go with a non-oaked, bracing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for $15 or less.  To drink with more complex savory dishes such as roast chicken or pork, try a full-bodied NZ SB, which will take you from appetizer through the main course--as long as it’s not beef or lamb.  That’s what New Zealand Pinot Noir, Syrah and Bordeaux blends are for.

Recently tasted, highly recommended New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs include:

Ara 2013 Select Blocks Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($20):  Moderately pungent and slightly sweet, it’s a seamless wine with gooseberry, English pea and lemon-lime character.  Tightly knit and with excellent structure, it finishes long and refreshing.  92
Craggy Range 2014 Te Muna Road Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc ($18):  A sophisticated wine from this Hawke’s Bay-based winery, this was fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and varying sizes of French oak cooperage.  This method lends a gentle, soft creaminess to the wine without obscuring its vibrant yellow stone fruit and grapefruit flavors, minerality and bracing acidity.  94

Greywacke 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($20):  Kevin Judd, formerly of Cloudy Bay, owns and crafts the Greywacke wines.  Scintillating and pure, this SB delivers more than the textbook, pungent grapefruit, gooseberry and passionfruit Marlborough character.  It’s bold yet well-mannered and balanced, with bright Meyer lemon, green-flesh melon and kiwi fruit aromas and flavors, kissed by gentle spice notes and with a pert, lingering finish.  94

Mud House 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($15): Classic Marlborough SB, with racy grapefruit, lemon-lime and kiwi fruit flavors, and a gentle hint of leafy herbs and jalapeno.  Firmly structured and succulent.  90

Waipara Hills 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($18): Very grapefruity plus lemon-lime, fennel and passionfruit notes.  Crisp and mouthwatering without being severe or overly pungent, it favors delicacy over bombast.  Delicious.  91