Joelle Thomson's online wine guide

Category: Sauvignon Blanc (page 1 of 5)

3 Top drops… adventurous Sauvignon Blancs

Oak and Sauvignon Blanc aren’t usually attached at the hip but when winemakers take the plunge (if you’ll excuse the pun) and marry the two together, the results can be surprisingly tasty, as Michael Glover’s Mammoth Rare White, Clos Henri Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Blanc Semillon all show.

These wines are ripples on the ocean of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand, but show how well the country’s dominant grape variety responds to bells and whistle winemaking that integrates controlled oxidative winemaking methods.

These wines command respect. Mana. Thoughtful drinking too. Why?

They break the usual style mould. Their makers have enabled these wines to develop a complex range of flavours, which express the grape, the climate in which it’s grown and also accentuate interesting winemaking techniques.

PS… Sauvignon is now 85% of New Zealand wine exports and 74% of the country’s white wine vineyard area (and white grapes make up 28,231 of the country’s total 36,192 hectares)… so it’s more important now than ever to see wines such as these trickle out of left field and into mainstream  retail stores, restaurants and bars. They’re out there for us to enjoy and to cellar them too – they will provide an interesting snapshot of the evolution in New Zealand white wine, in years to come. They are sealed with screw caps, which is another feather in their cap of age-ability in the medium to long term.

2015 Clos Henri Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc $33, 14% ABV

Clos Henri’s flagship white is a bone dry, full bodied different take on the Sauvignon Blanc theme, modelled after Sancerre in Loire Valley. The  Marlborough vineyard is planted at high density to restrain the high vigour of Sauvignon Blanc so the vines can put more energy into the grapes rather than the leaf canopy to concentrate the berries. Dry farming (no irrigation) also keeps vigour under control, forcing vine roots deep into the soil.

The wine is pale in colour but intense in taste with pronounced aromas of limes, lemons, green apple, grapefruit and even a hint of wild flowers, all supported by a creamy mouthfeel, balanced by high acidity and a long, zesty finish. It was fermented in 90% stainless steel and 10% old French oak barrels, then aged on  yeast lees for 8 months with lees stirring, both of which encourage a Sauvignon Blanc with body to burn. It works because of the concentration of fruit flavour in tandem with the winemaking.

2015 Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Blanc Semillon $31

You can taste this wine before the glass reaches your lips, thanks to the  intense aromas of elderflower, orange blossom and ripe tropical fruit, held in check by nutty dry flavours, thanks to 15% of the Sauvignon Blanc and all of the Semillon being fermented in French oak (new for the Sauvignon Blanc; old French oak for the Semillon). Both varieties were harvested from 30 year old vines, which means crop levels were relatively low, which provides concentration in this full bodied wine.

It’s dry, richly textural and modelled on the best Bordeaux white blends – putting North Canterbury’s finest freshest foot forward when it comes to white wines. Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Blanc Semillon is consistently one of the South Island’s most distinctive whites and is beginning to show a history of ageing superlatively well for up to 10 years, and it’s highly probable it can continue to evolve positively for even longer.

2015 Mammoth Rare White Nelson $50

The Waimea Plains in Nelson are home to a winemaker who eschews many of the winemaking methods he learnt at university, in favour of wines he’s on a crusade for. Meet Michael Glover. His wines are labelled Mahana Estate, with the exception of Mammoth Rare White. There are few words on this front label, which is a full frontal photo of a mammoth coming up the mountain, painted in Kapova Cave in the South Ural. This is Glover paying his respects to European history. It was while in Europe; Italy, to be precise, that he learnt there was more to winemaking life than safe methods and, when working in a winery in Campania (Naples is the capital of this Italian region), he saw white grapes being destemmed in old acacia wood puncheons (500 litre barrels) to be fermented on their skins – an old technique, which can add texture, weight and flavour (and hardness too, if not carefully managed).

Long story short, Mammoth Rare White is made from hand picked grapes grown on an organically certified vineyard with no irrigation. It began its transformation from juice into wine via a carbonic maceration (stems, skins and all, no air) for 14 days being being pressed into 200 litre French oak ‘cigars’ (to accentuate the lees – spent yeast cells – flavour in the wine). It spent 18 months there before being bottled as a bone dry, full bodied, full throttle, massively flavoursome white wine. Would you recognise it as a Sauvignon Blanc?
Yes, but with so much more besides beautiful bright fruit flavours, which remain intact here, alongside creamy, nutty, spicy, oatmeal-type flavours. A stunner from the top tip of the South Island – Nelson. Bravo.


Dialling up Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc…

The same wine in a different way… Matt Large on Marlborough savvy

Experimental wines may not make the accountants ecstatic, but they keep winemakers engaged and punters happy. Excuse the use of the word ‘punter’ but it fits, especially when used for the new Wither Hills cellar door and winery restaurant, which finally opened on 9 December last year to keep visitors to Marlborough well fed and watered.

The newly expanded cellar door and restaurant opened after  delays, due to earthquakes and complications, including a random event that nearly decimated this famous winery. But that’s another story. We’re here to talk about happy endings, which Wither Hills has plenty of these days.
Like most wineries in Marlborough, Wither Hills relies heavily on  Sauvignon Blanc. Approximately 75% of the winery’s production is made up of Sauvignon Blanc – a direct reflection of the region’s total vineyard area and production.

If this appears to be a heavy reliance on one thing, it is. But this is the story of New Zealand’s wine industry today and Marlborough’s nearest neighbours – Nelson and North Canterbury – are also now home to more Sauvignon Blanc than any other grape, with 39% of each region’s total vineyard area planted in this popular white  variety. While that makes sense, given the strong export demand for Kiwi savvy, it seems a great shame to me that Riesling and Chardonnay have both fallen from their prime spots, respectively, in these regions. Both are every bit as good in quality and have great aging potential in all South Island wine regions, in my view.
So, back to Marlborough, where it’s heartening to see and taste experimental wines at Wither Hills cellar door, thanks to winemakers Matt Large and Sally Williams, who are both big champions of their cellar release range. Wines available only at the cellar door include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay and a fortified Pinot Noir, among others. But since Sauvignon rules the roost here, I asked winemaker Matt Large what he would do, if he could make a wine from any grape, in any style.
His answer?
He would like to make the star attraction but in a different way.

“If I had an open slate to try anything at all, I’d like to do something with Sauvignon Blanc. Not so much a different style but a wine with a different intensity – what we do but on steroids. The intensity, the weight and the aromatic palate weight – all dialled up,” says Matt.

Every year, he and Sally make about 3000 cases (give or take a little, depending on vintage variation) of Rarangi Sauvignon Blanc, which is a single vineyard wine. This is comparatively miniscule compared to the 200,000 cases of Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc the pair produce, most of it destined for export.

Wine is now the seventh biggest export earner for New Zealand. Growth has been significant in the past couple of decades, particularly in the United Kingdom, but the focus is now on the United States, Australia, Asia and the domestic market rather than growing quantity.

Back to the future, Matt is quietly confident the winery has access to good quality Sauvignon Blanc grapes from which to make that intense Sauvignon Blanc he has in mind.

Wither Hills fact file…

  • Wither Hills was established in 1994
  • The winery was named after the southern landmark Wither Hills in the Wairau Valley, which is the source of all grapes in the winery’s production
  • It was begun by the Marris family and is now owned by Lion NZ
  • Significant vineyards include the Taylor River Vineyard at the start of the southern valleys and Rarangi, closer to the coast
  • 50-60% of grapes in Wither Hills wines comes from estate owned vineyards

A first for NZ… vin doux naturel from Canterbury

Its name is French for naturally sweet but there is plenty that is man made about vin doux naturel wines, which have their fermentation stopped by a process called mutage.

This is the interruption of the fermentation by adding alcohol to wine when it is only part-way through its transformation from juice and grape sugars to wine and alcohol. The result is an intensely aromatic fortified wine, in this case to 17.5% ABV.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first one ever to be produced in New Zealand and it is made by maverick North Cantabrian winemaker Guy Porter, whose whites push all sorts of tasty boundaries, including a flor yeast-influenced nutty dry white and, now, this sensation. He also makes a VDN from a blend of Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Riesling but this is my fave because I enjoy the balance of crisp acidity that Sauvignon Blanc offers in this wine:

2016 Bellbird Spring Mute L’Alouette North Canterbury

This is one bottle to stash, to enjoy, to marvel at – “wow” was my reaction when poured some at an impromptu tasting last week in Auckland. This fortified Sauvignon Blanc is modelled on southern French vin doux naturels and offers a beautiful new take on the Sauvignon Blanc theme from the thoughtful winemaking of Guy Porter at Bellbird Spring, one of the smallest wineries in New Zealand – and a name to beat a track to for anyone looking for delicious whites and tasty Pinot Noirs.

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