Same thing that’s wrong with Napa Chardonnay. Nothing—except that it isn’t French.
I know, I know; Oz Clarke once said, “New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is arguably the best in the world.” But that merely underscores my point while highlighting the absurdity of anyone using the term ‘arguably’ while making their own point.
Because anything is arguable, right? I can say that, arguably, Jeb Bush is the most intellectually stimulating man ever to run for the presidency. I’d lose the argument quicker than my dignity at a Mensa convention, but I’m sure you’d all argue to the death my right to make it.
One Man’s Fish is Another Man’s Poisson
Arguably, the most arguable argument is not about whether or not New Zealand makes the world’s best Sauvignon blanc, it’s about what the word ‘best’ means. Of itself, that’s a suspicious word to use when describing a wine with as many stylistic interpretations as there are climates in which to grow it—and Oz’s world has many, many climates. He’s paid for his opinions, of course, and has a respectable résumé to shore up his qualifications to make them, but in which case, why use the word ‘arguably’? He either thinks New Zealand makes the best Sauvignon blanc in the world or he doesn’t; either way, Oz—why go looking for trouble?
Cuz, bro-hammer you done did found it.
First, maybe we can not argue over the idea that certain gustatory templates for Sauvignon blanc were established along with certain parameters of expectation long before Capt. Cook tripped over his first kiwi, before California met its first Jesus drunk missionary and at at time when the Mapuche were still running willy-nilly over Chile. Any decision that wine growers in these countries have made on which variety to plant must have been based, in part, on some vintner laying awake at night muttering, “Wonder if I could make some Haut Brion or Château de Goulaine even though I live in Wairarapa…”
And the answer, of course, was ‘no’, but the profundity—or lack thereof—of their subsequent disappointment may be relative; the lesson learned was that Sauvignon blanc produces noteably different wines in different terroirs, especially when subjected to process manipulations in the vineyard and in the cellar. Gravelly Pessac-Léognan produces mineral-laden, somewhat austere wines with a citrus-focused crispness—unless (as in nearby Sauternes) the grapes are allowed to succumb to pourriture noble, in which case, an entirely new category of wine emerges along with an exuberance of unique flavor layers. In the vineyards of Loire, a lusciousness may develop in the wine to encapsulate the flintiness—peach scents, pink grapefruit aromas and an appealing, uplifting verdancy, often described as ‘freshly mown grass’. This descriptor is genuine, too—the quality that develops in the grape, making it unmistakable in blind tastings, is the direct contribution of aldehydes formed when enzymes work their magic during fermentation, notably hexenal, which also exists in abundance—lo and behold—in freshly mown grass.
In certain terroirs, perhaps more prevalent in New Zealand than in Europe, volatile, sulphur-containing molecules may develop that are subsequently identified as ‘cat pee’—often from a need to impart shock value, especially among those wine writers who have read somebody else use the phrase and (like the Haut Brion wannabes) attempt to usurp another critic’s imagination as their own.
But that’s cool. You also see ‘gooseberry’ and ‘passion fruit’ in these same Sauvignon blanc tasting notes, many from people who couldn’t actually identify a gooseberry or a passion fruit if they had one of those 1984 rat-cages attached to their faces and were ordered to do so. The science of taste nuance may be fairly well understood, but the art of translating it into adjectives is still a lazy man’s game.
On the other hand, New Zealand’s Dr Robert Keyzers raises a red flag as to how well understood that science actually is, especially when trying to influence Sauvignon blanc grapes still on the vine. Understanding precisely how flavor chemicals are biosynthesized, and at what stages of the winemaking process, is the focus of Dr Keyzers’ work.
He says: “If we could analyze a grape really early on in the growth cycle, then tell the vineyard manager to ‘give that vine more water’, or ‘give that vine more phosphate’, for example, they could produce a grape with specific chemical composition that could produce a wine with a flavor and aroma profile to hit specific target markets.”
Which means, apparently, that if you want your Sauvignon blanc to smell more like poodle piddle than tabby tinkle, more like duckweed than gooseberry, more like crabgrass than Kentucky Blue, help may be around the corner.
Until that happens, we are judging the wine based on what nature throws at us and the lengths the vintner is willing to go through to influence final product. And like the entirely arguable hundred-point scale, each of us judges which final product we prefer based on our own criterion of what makes for an archetypal Sauvignon blanc.
And whereas I can state without self-argument that I have been amazed by the theatrical potency, the aggressiveness, the fruit-forward bombast of some Marlborough Sauvignon blancs—Giesen, Loveblock, Greywacke, and the the box office superstar, the Betty Grable poster girl, Cloudy Bay, which—like most pinups—may be big and blowsy, but occasionally out of balance. In any case, Cloudy Bay wine is always (to augment the scatology in tasting notes) built like a brick shithouse.
Now, your personal tastes may run to brick shithouses as opposed to Bauhausian form-over-function shithouses, and that’s fine. Mine don’t. You may find Christina Hendricks better schwing material than Keira Knightley. I don’t.
But when it comes to wine, such a saturation of flavor may win prizes at competitions, but in a practical, functionalist, Walter Gropius world where wine is meant to be a meal companion, it may prove overqualified for the rôle. In that delicate tête-à-tête, trying to food-pair mono-dimensional Sauvignon blanc—and I’ve had some that you’d swear were fermented grapefruit juice (Mudhouse, for example)— is generally counterproductive. At times, ripeness comes at the expense of acidity, and that also applies to some oak-heavy Napa Chardonnays that dominated the upper-end market for a while; like Cloudy Bay, they tend to out-perform their dinner dates. And that’s too bad, because in leaner incarnations, both Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc are arguably the best food whites around. Along with Pinot grigio, Muscadet, Albariño and Pinot blanc, Riesling, etc.
Is that a gauntlet tossed, or what?
But let’s leave out the chow for now, because wine should exist in an equally rarefied atmosphere where it is the alpha and the omega of sensory experience. Any wine should announce its presence, certainly, but even so, I can’t entirely cozy up to the ‘statement’ Sauvignon blancs of New Zealand in general and Marlborough in particular—wines that bellow, “Not only am I a Sauvignon blanc, but I am pugnaciously, bombastically, overbearingly a Sauvignon blanc.”
Sauvignon blanc just doesn’t strike me as the kind of grape to either request nor to benefit from this sort of operatic, bring-down-the-house-aria treatment. Neither does Chardonnay. And in France, do you know what these two wines have in common? Of course you do—nowhere on the Domaine Didier Dagueneau or the Les Preuses Grand Cru label is the name of the grape announced.
But guess what is splattered all over the (likewise French) Alsace label…? Pinot blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat. Varieties that show beautifully as big honking Teutonic broads with Brunhilde horns and a voice you can hear all the way to Nibelungen-ville.
Meanwhile, back in Sancerre, Sauvignon blanc is subtle and savory; Pouilly-Fumé is crisp and gently floral; Touraine Blanc is lightly herbaceous and smells of honeysuckle and pineapple.
None of these appellations find the particular need to pull a Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy and smash a grapefruit in your face, in what is arguably the funniest scene in cinematic history and a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with many New Zealand Sauvignon blancs.
In case anyone is looking for an argument, that is.