New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: The Next Generation

New Zealand Vineyards

The classic, exuberantly fruity style of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, epitomised by our Society label, continues to win friends and influence. But as English wine writer Rebecca Gibb reports, some of the foremost exponents of the style are pushing boundaries further to make wines of even greater complexity and depth. Here she gives us a glimpse of the future.

It is the summer of 2001: John Prescott punches an egg-throwing protestor in Rhyl, Jeffrey Archer is sentenced to four years in prison, Bridget Jones's Diaryhits the big screen and I fall in love with Kiwi sauvignon blanc. Its Um-Bongo-like tropical-fruit flavours capture hearts and mouths worldwide but fast forward 13 years and times are a-changing.

The grape that launched a thousand bottles

The sauvignon boom has taken New Zealand wine to the world. However, an industry based on one extroverted grape variety has inevitably led to some predicting a fall from grace, à la Australian chardonnay, but sauvignon has defied the sceptics and continues to make tills ring.

Kiwis aren't burying their heads in the sand: they realise that customers may grow tired of the idiosyncratic style they fell in love with a decade ago. There is also a yearning to be taken more seriously by those who take wine seriously.

Fans of the signature Marlborough sauvignon style shouldn't panic – this style is here to stay, but for those looking for added complexity from sauvignon and who are prepared to pay more than a tenner for a bottle of wine, there are some interesting developments afoot...

Adding complexity

Kiwi producers have been experimenting with different techniques to create more interesting sauvignon blanc. The recipe has long been: machine harvest the grapes, put them in a stainless-steel tank, clarify the juice, add commerical yeast and keep the fermentation temperature cool. Hey presto, you have a fresh, bright and aromatic Kiwi sauvignon blanc.

A move to indigenous yeasts is just one of many winemaker trials, as practised at Dog Point and Greywacke. The involvement of many different naturally occurring yeasts is said to add texture, finesse, and interesting aromatics, and some argue that indigenous fermentations create wines that better reflect their place.

What's more, these 'natural' fermentations are often occurring in new and older French barrels – or larger format oak such as foudres and cuves – to give this angular varietal rounded edges and create an added layer of complexity. The best producers are using oak sensitively; others are learning the hard way: producing fruit bombs that taste like they have had a rather uncomfortable liaison with a plank of wood.

Time on lees, the dead yeast cells, is also increasingly common – even in the country's most commercially driven wineries. Leaving the wines in contact with the lees after fermentation adds weight and texture to the wine. The added benefit of time spent on lees is that it prevents oxidation of the wine. But that also brings its own dangers: this can lead to reductive characters, which can smell of struck matches in good cases and rotten eggs on a bad day.

While it's still early days, there is an increasingly food-friendly style of New Zealand sauvignon blanc that could see you fall in love with the wines all over again; not that there is any reason to fall out of love when the 2013 vintage is so exciting.

Rebecca Gibb

Rebecca Gibb is an English wine writer and Master of Wine student living in New Zealand. She was Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2010, is editor of Wine-Searcher.com and has her own website at rebeccagibb.com


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