Sauvignon Blanc is going all smoky, creamy and toasty on us

This column was first published in Your Weekend magazine in The Dominion Post, The Christchurch Press and The Waikato Times on Saturday 16 August 2014.

With every second wine drinker lamenting the loss of big buttery chardonnay from shop shelves, it seems only fitting that a new wave of sauvignon blancs should fill chardonnay’s full bodied shoes.
These wines were known as fumé blanc in the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s and then disappeared, along with big hair, leg warmers (sob sob) and leather trench coats. They are coming around again and there’s never been a better time to restyle sauvignon because this year there was more of it than ever; 75% of the total 2014 New Zealand grape harvest was sauvignon blanc.
Bring on the fumé. The more, the merrier. We need variety and this one works a treat.
Fumé is French for smokey and is the name that Loire Valley winemakers traditionally gave sauvignon blanc. When the late US winemaker Robert Mondavi had difficulty selling sauvignon blanc in the 1970s, he turned the French term, blanc fumé round the ‘wrong’ way. It took off. So much so that New Zealand winemakers followed suit, adding a little oak to their wines so that they lived up to the smoky moniker. And the rest is a little like fashion in the 1980s; a little became a lot and eventually fell from favour, in deference to the Miles Davis’ music philosophy; the fewer notes he played, the more he said with his music.
Now fumé blanc is back. It is smoky, toasty and creamy, but less oaky than it was. Thankfully. Now it caters to what chardonnay lovers first fell for in those big, buttery wines; their feel. That creamy thing that we call taste is really the wine equivalent of olive oil on fresh pasta; silkiness. It makes the mouth feel good. In fumé blanc, the feel good factor comes from the interaction of wine with air. Oak barrels allow air in. This softens acidity, which can taste challenging in young wine.
If we could compare today’s new wave fumes with yesterday’s over oaked ones, I believe that about 99% of wine drinkers would far prefer the outstanding local wines we have now.

Wines of the week

Bring on the fumes

2013 Rockburn Fume Blanc $39.99
Wines from New Zealand’s deep south mostly come from the pinot noir basket, which accounts for about 80% of Central Otago’s grapes and wine production. The whites are rare but are often even more impressive than the best reds, as this southern sauvignon shows with its deep lemon colour, fresh green apple and creamy flavours. It leaves the distinct impression that Central Otago has more up its wine sleeve than we usually see.
Buy from: Glengarry’s stores in the North Island and Vino Fino, Christchurch. www.rockburn.co.nz

2012 Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Semillon $28 to $29
There’s a decadent quality to this wine, whose makers were among the first to forge a South Island path for full bodied sauvignon blanc by blending it with semillon in 1998. They have remained faithful to the formula, allowing semillon to flirt with oak, which softens the wine and enhances its creamy, oak-derived richness. A must try.
Buy from Regional Wines, Wellington; Vino Fino, Christchurch, Cambridge Wine Company, Hamilton.

2013 Fairbourne Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc $32 to $33
Smooth and subtle, showing that a little oak goes a long way in a full bodied sauvignon blanc from a sundrenched north facing vineyard in the  Wairau Valley, Marlborough
From Moore Wilson’s, Wellington; Ballantynes, Christchurch, Farro Fresh. fairbourne.co.nz

Embrace the eccentrics

2013 Spade Oak Vigneron Petit Manseng $32 (375ml bottle)
Little known wines are all the rage right now, so meet petit manseng, which originally comes from Jurancon in the south of France and suits New Zealand’s cool climate well, if this one and and Churton’s in Marlborough are anything to go by. This is liquid deliciousness; medium bodied, off dry and refreshingly grapefruit-like.
From: Regional Wines, Wellington; Primo Vino, Hamilton; Super Liquor in Papanui, Christchurch or buy online at www.spadeoak.co.nz

Shoestring sensation

2014 Seifried Nelson Sauvignon Blanc $13
If you find this at $18, the winemakers will be doing well; most of the time it is a gutsy, flavoursome and vibrant white which puts the capital ‘b’ in bargain buy at $13. (Not a fumé style.)