These days, if you happen to be a Marlborough Man, you’d better sport a kiwi accent or risk falling afoul of the PC gestapo. No worries, mate. I suppose that once having referred to New Zealand’s national bird as the avian equivalent of a sewer rat hasn’t pushed me to the top of any PC flagpoles either.
Marlborough—the one with an ‘ugh’ on the end—straddles New Zealand’s South Island like a pole-sitter, and though it’s the country’s largest grape growing region, it doesn’t offer much to the nine or ten people on the planet who still smoke. But for a growing gang of sauvignon blanc addicts, it’s beginning to show signs of outranking King Bordeaux and Queen Loire. Marlborough is home to 60% of New Zealand’s entire wine output and claims bragging rights to having introduced the rest of the world to the glories a whole new Valhalla for complex, exciting, concentrated wines.
Especially sauvignon blanc.
This grape, whose name means ‘savage white,’ has origins in southwestern France, not far from the Spanish border. It’s a fairly forgiving varietal no matter where it is grown, but prospers best in a maritime climate. It loves sun but not much heat, and requires a long growing season with cool nights to sprout its astral, un-kiwi-like wings; cool nights are key to preserving malic acid, which adds counterpoint and complexity to fruit sugars. Herbaceous notes, which may remain masked when the grape is grown in depleted vineyards, bubble to surface in young, nitrogen-rich soils.
Marlborough has all the above; thus, the decision to concentrate on sauvignon blanc (and to a lesser extent, like-minded pinot noir and chardonnay), according to Marlborough-born rocket scientist William Pickering, “isn’t rocket science.”
Still, when any wine reaches beyond basic quality quotients and tiptoes into the realm of the sublime, there are nuances of flavor, weight and evolution that nearly—but not quite—defy description. In the case of Marlborough sauvignon blanc—nearly always identifiable in blind tastings—it’s a combination of electrifying citrus (inevitably grapefruit and often nectarine) and a subtle but unmistakable flintiness.
Thirty-five years ago, the reason that nobody spoke about Marlborough sauvignon blancs is that there weren’t any. First cultivated in 1975, the rapidity with which these vines have stolen center stage is astonishing; for the past few years, Marlborough sauvignon blanc has consistently taken home the door prize at the International Wine for Oysters Competition. Once start-up concerns, wineries like Hunters Wines, Cloudy Bay Vineyards, Saint Clair Estate Winery and Grove Mill are now household names; they have come of age by cutting edges, not corners—pioneering screw caps, for example, while exploiting centuries-old viticulture technique.
The result? They’ve taken the yawn out of sauvignon.
Running neck and neck, and at times even surpassing traditional centers for sauvignon blanc like Bordeaux, Sancerre, Quincy and Pouilly-sur-Loire, the leadership role being settled into by Marlborough in 2011 is (with apologies to Philip Morris) a lot more than smoke and mirrors.
Hunters Wines Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, 2011, around $15: Minimal handling and anaerobic processing of these Wairau grapes results in a crisp, gooseberry-laden mouthful with lots of sweet pineapple and ripe honeydew to balance the acidity.
Saint Clair Estate Winery Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, Marlborough, 2010, about $30: Big, dense and well-balanced, yet still nicely crisp with lemon, grapefruit and honeysuckle; a perfect wine for grilled veggies and shrimp.
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, 2010, about $40: Pretentious price, potent peach and passion fruit on the palate; a full-blown sauvignon with all the components in place. Mineral laden, herbaceous with fresh-cut grass and unmistakable kiwi—that, or the national bird/rodent wandered too close to the fermenting vat. WS gave it a 92, for what that’s worth.