Everyone – who has anything to do with wine, at least – has a NZ Sauvignon Blanc story to tell, right? Love it or hate it, this grape from this country is a major part of many people’s wine drinking lives.
So it was great that yesterday, among the dizzy diary of September tastings in London, a masterclass was held on NZ and Oz wine, courtesy of those canny wine importers Negociants UK, chaired by the one and only Matthew Jukes.
While the whole masterclass was a 2-hour lesson in how NZ and Oz wines have never tasted more elegant, thoughtful and dare I say European (yep, there’s a can of worms opened, right there), it kicked off with a fantastic abridged version of what’s happened to Marlborough (NZ’s most famous/largest SB region) Sauvignon Blanc over the last 30 years.
The narrator cum winemaker of this Sauvignon Blanc journey – which ranged from geeky to anecdotal in its detail – was Aussie Jeff Clarke, Chief Winemaker at Ara Wines.
Here’s the gist of what he had to say:
• The first vineyards were planted in Marlborough in 1975 and the first vintage was in 1979
• As vintages progressed and winemakers strived to improve quality, changes were initially applied in the vineyard (viticulture) because during the early years Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc vines were very vigorous (so there were lots of leaves shading the grapes from the sun), the grapes were very high in acid and botrytis was prolific.
• In 1980-1990 viticulture was addressed bigtime. Canopy management was widespread as wineries tried to reduce the amount of disease in the vineyards, and leaf plucking was happening all over the place to expose the grapes to more sun, ultimately giving higher sugar in the grapes, higher alcohol in the wines and naturally, super ripe flavours too.
• While 1998 was regarded as a standout vintage for Marlborough, there was also some negative reaction to it in the industry because there was a sudden loss in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s trademark pungency, AKA sweatiness.
• The 2000 vintage also seemed to be a benchmark vintage. It was the time when wineries reined in on that ultra-ripe character and the alcohol levels too, in an effort to make the wines taste less of armpits and cat’s pee (delish…) and more of grapefruit and lemongrass (er, yes please).
• As this shift in flavour profile took place, and is still taking place, winemakers are out searching for new vineyards plots – looking for ones that give more natural concentration and weight to a wine without having to employ any natty winemaking techniques to bring out the extra character from the grapes.
• Geek alert on this one: There are two valleys in Marlborough – the Wairau and the Awatere . The soils in the Wairau valley don’t capture much water and brings about more tropical flavours in the wines but as you move south towards the Awatere, the deep clay soils bring about more texture and structure to the Sauvignon Blanc.
• While everyone’s on the lookout for these new and special plots for planting vines in Marlborough, there’s also been a move to working on the variation in the style of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and not just in flavour as mentioned above.
• Producers are now looking at two things – how to make Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc more food friendly (Jeff didn’t say this, but that all ties in with having wines that are less in-your-face pungent) and how to produce wines that are more “ageworthy”.
• [Again, he didn’t say this, but I think] by this he means they are looking to make Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs that have a longer shelf life than say, 18 months, which in the grand scheme of things is a pretty small drinking window. Instead the challenge is to make wines that have the ability to last 3-4 years.
So there you have it, 32 vintages of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc summed up in about 15 minutes, nice work Jeff!
PS – Phew. I was relieved for Jeff that his wine, which we tasted after that introduction, spoke of all the things he wished for in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The Ara Resolute Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 reeked of grapefruit, lemongrass and white pepper spice, while the palate was generous and broad, but it still had biting acidity and a lovely minerality on the finish.