Words of Wit, Wisdom and Wonder on Wine & Spirits

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Marlborough Country: In Praise of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Sip a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough and the wine will conjure unmistakably acidic flavors of lemon, white peach, ripe grapefruit, honeydew, passion fruit, gooseberries, wet stones and freshly cut grass.

As with no other wine I can think of, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is virtually unmistakable even when tasted blind, especially those from the Marlborough region, which is arguably where the best examples of this superb varietal are produced. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that New Zealand now produces the best Sauvignon Blanc on the planet, surpassing even those of France, better known as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume.

Given that the first commercial release of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand happened less than three decades ago (a nanosecond in wine industry time), one might understandably ask how these wines became the benchmark for the varietal, and, in many ways, redefined the genre. Michael Franz, wine writer for the Washington Post offered one of the more intuitive explanations a few years ago when he proposed that the best wines result from a synergy between a particular grape and a particular place and that these synergies can be neither contrived by art nor explained adequately by science.

“A synergy is an interaction of two or more things achieving an effect of which each is individually incapable,” Franz wrote. “That is exactly what we've got in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc: An absolutely extraordinary wine, derived from a grape that reaches comparable heights nowhere else, produced in a place that attains comparable greatness with no other grape.”

In truth, Marlborough also produces highly regarded Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. But there is no arguing that Sauvignon Blanc is the star varietal of the region and has single-handedly put New Zealand on the viniferous map as a producer of world class wines. To understand the terroir of Marlborough is to understand how and why the area so consistently produces such excellent Sauvignon Blanc. Situated in the scenic and verdant northeastern portion of New Zealand's southern island, Marlborough’s climate is consistently cool, sunlight is intense and abundant and rainfall is slight. While the facts of the area’s weather patterns are undisputable, it does little to uncloak the mysteries of the local varietals, since there are other regions in New Zealand equally as cool, sunny and dry, yet unable to compete in quality, flavor and complexity of their wines.

The crisp, citrusy varietal character in Marlborough SV is from a compound called methoxypyrazine

Marlborough is somewhat unique in that it boasts highly varied soils, a mineral-rich amalgam of sandy loam, gravel, large stones and clay, all perfectly irrigated by nearby streams and rivers descending from the surrounding mountains. Further, within the Marlborough region, exceptional drainage occurs in the Wairau and Awatere valleys where the most exceptional Sauvignon Blancs are often found.

The shallow, low fertility soils that drain rapidly help produce lusher, more aromatic and riper wines, since the conditions reduce the vines’ vigor. In areas of Marlborough where there is greater water retentive soils and moderate fertility, more herbaceous style Sauvignon Blancs are produced. But the real secret to Marlborough’s crisp, citrusy varietal character is a compound called methoxypyrazine, often found in tiny amounts in many white wines. Fortunately for us, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is brim full of it.

Marlborough SV in a glass: Flavors of lemon, white peach, ripe grapefruit, honeydew, passion fruit, gooseberries, wet stones and freshly cut grass.

There is little doubt that the courageous growers who began creating vineyards in the Marlborough region in the early 1970’s (some reports claim there is evidence that grapes were planted as early as 1870) had any idea of the levels of quality and popularity their fledgling wine industry would eventually attain, all on the coattails of a little known and under appreciated varietal otherwise known as Sauvignon Blanc.

Almost from the earliest releases, wine critics and collectors all over the world began taking note of the distinctive tropical fruit flavors, herbal aromas and zesty acidity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. As accolades from xenophiles and the press have continued to build over the years, so too have the number of winemakers in the region, which has forged a veritable boom in area winemaking and firmly established Marlborough and New Zealand as a major player upon the stage of world class winemaking.

Fun Facts ABout Marlborough

Located close to the heart of New Zealand, Marlborough is the country’s largest winemaking region, with close to 110 wineries and 450 grape growers accounting for nearly 62% of its total wine production, a number that has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years. The commercial hub is Blenheim, population 26,550. Marlborough is an idyllic travel destination, offering up pastoral sunken valleys that create a network of tranquil clear waterways amid regenerating and virgin native forests. The area is home to treasured bird and sea life, including terns, shags, herons, blue penguins, dolphins, seals, and native forest birds, all easily viewed by private boat or charter tour. Apart from gourmet dining in the many restaurants and eateries scattered throughout the region, visitors often work off glorious repasts by taking part in the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71km, three or four-day walk that curls around Marlborough’s valley coves and inlets and along skyline ridges between the breathtaking Kenepuru and Queen Charlotte Sounds.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs I Love:

Wairau River Valley: Jackson Estate, Cloudy Bay. Villa Maria (Cellar Selection), Huia, Wairau River, Lake Chalice

Awatere Valley: Dashwood, Vavasour, Goldwater, Saint Clair, The Crossings

Hawkes Bay:Villa Maria

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