The first New Zealand International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in February this year revealed more styles of our most widely produced wine than anyone could have guessed…
One of the highlights of the celebration in Marlborough this year was Alexandre Schmitt’s session on sensation versus perception – “Sensation is just a physiological process whereas perception is triggered from stimulation – your brain wants to know what you are smelling, so that all the parts of your brain start to work,” said Schmitt from Wine & Flavors (sic).
“Perception leads your brain to ask if you know the smell, how you would describe it and how to compare it to memories you have,” Schmitt told a room full of winemakers, marketers, writers and grape growers.
His philosophy is that each individual’s perception of flavour varies widely because each of us has had a different upbringing, different formative life experiences and different understandings of flavour based on both.
Perhaps this accounts for why oak influenced Sauvignon Blancs appealed to people at varying levels at this year’s conference. There were those who enjoyed oak-fermented Sauvignon Blancs while others prefered more subtle wines.
Strangely, though, our different upbringings and conditioning didn’t account for why everyone at the conference seemed unanimous about falling for certain wines, such as the Chilean Lo Abarca Sauvignon Blanc.
Anyone who thought that Sauvignon Blanc cannot age well in the bottle had their notions roundly shattered when they tasted that wine’s big sister – the 2009 Casa Marin Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, which was a big bodied, barrel fermented white with high natural acidity balancing its creamy flavours. Then again, the 2015 Amisfield Central Otago Sauvignon Blanc showed how promising the world’s southernmost wine region is for full bodied whites with high acidity adding zesty freshness. Like its Chilean sister Sauvignon Blanc, this wine spent time in oak barrels – four months, which accentuates the wine’s texture in the mouth; its body and its lingering flavours.
Wines such as these are the tip of the fascinating iceberg of new wave Sauvignon Blancs today – wines with oak influence. They are sometimes labeled as ‘fume blanc’ (as in, those big oak numbers of the 1980s) but they taste more refined by far. Still, I’ll confess to being a fume fan back in the day – and I am again in love with the complexity that lees, oak and long maturation time can bring to Sauvignon Blanc.
This can mean that wines have been fully or partially fermented in 225 litre oak barriques or in 228 litre Burgundian barrels (also known as a piece) or in even larger oak vessels. It can also mean that wine has been been aged in oak after fermentation in stainless steel.
In the case of high volume oak influenced Sauvignon Blancs, the description of oak-influenced generally means the wine has spent time with a toasted oak stave in a stainless steel tank or with oak chips. Both of these budget conscious winemaking techniques can create surprisingly complex, harmonious wines with great flavour integration.
The number of Sauvignon Blancs that were included in the conference’s Wild Bunch tastings on the final day was staggering. Dog Point Section 94 is often considered the pinnacle of alternative New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but it is far from alone in pioneering a fresh new take on the theme.
The 2015 Seresin Osip Sauvignon Blanc blew my tastebuds out of the water. It contains no sulphur, so it may or may not travel well or last for long, but it tasted so fresh, fruity and clean that it begged the age-old sulphur question once more. The 2007 Sacred Hill Hawke’s Bay Sauvage was another outstanding creamy, full bodied dry white.
While most New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is made by fermenting freshly picked grapes at cool temperatures in stainless steel to preserve fruit flavours, there are many other takes on Sauvignon Blanc today – and New Zealand wine is all the better for it.
This post was originally published in Drinksbiz magazine, April/May 2016 in New Zealand.