New Zealand Sauvignon blanc

Happy May to everyone! I hope you all enjoyed a lovely May Day and that you are moving into Spring in good spirits. I hope also that you all were able to find some lovely Beaujolais to tempt your palates! It has been a busy month here, thus I will be combining April and May into one compendium. I’m certain that most of you won’t notice or mind missing one. It may even ease the space in your deleted emails box to only have one every other month…

I’m sure several of you thought I was lost to the mighty Green River when no April edition came forth, but have no fear the river was vanquished with minimal difficulty. In John Wesley Powell style we elected to only eat spoiled bacon and moldy bread for the trip, however still managed to have quite a bit of enjoyment. It was definitely nice to get back into the desert of the Southwest where I have spent many great week or weekend in my long past youth… We arrived at the river with high expectations and we were not disappointed. The Green was flowing high and muddy due to snowmelt pouring in from the undammed Yampa just above our put in. Flows in fact were at about the 95th percentile for this time of year. We were undaunted by the big waters and fast current and as we prepped for launch anticipation was peaking! As we packed we were required to undergo review from the sites ranger. He inspected our river toilet (yes it is as luxurious as it sounds), our repair kits and SOS beacons given the remoteness we were about to descend into, however one thing caught his eye as he worked through our gear… in one of our dry boxes lay a fleet of steel bottles with tape labels. Interest piqued, he inquired what in the hell all the bottles were for. I patiently explained that just because we were about to be hundreds of miles from any civilization with no support we could not be expected to lower the expectation of our general food and wine consumption. Thus sommelier Newman had paired and prepped 15 bottles of wine in steel containers with appropriate labels to be paired with each nights repast. The ranger was blown away and I believe his exact words were, “wow I haven’t seen that in all my years doing this”. Yes folks we are innovators… what can we say. Needless to say he stamped our permit immediately and we finished preparations and were off. I won’t get into too many details, but suffice to say the trip was flawless; from the expert running of numerous rapids (sure they were only class III, but those can still dump you) in our raft and kayak, to perfectly prepared deluxe dinners and wine pairings (elk fajitas, crab cakes, lamb stew just to give you a few examples). Yes we were the envy of the river… no doubt about it. A beautiful 7 day chance to enjoy nature, unplug entirely from the world at large, and simply to be present. I’m already planning my next river adventure. Space is limited so sign up soon!

dry box of wine
The line up of vino for the river

Now that the river expedition is over I have shifted my full focus (well at least ½ focus) to bringing the legs into form in time for an upcoming road race. A few list members and myself will be taking on the peloton in a brutal circuit of Bear Lake in less than 2 weeks. I haven’t quite found my full power yet, but I’m optimistic.   If I could stop drinking wine for a few weeks I have no doubt my form would be incredible. But we all know that’s not likely to happen so I’ll have to make due with Burgundy sodden quads…

Well I suspect you’ve all read enough about my life of leisure and intrigue for now, so lets move on to what we are here for. I imagine since I introduced you to a value region last month many of you will have difficulty convincing your bank accounts and potentially your financial managers to move back into the pricier regions. And to help prove that I am not an elitist or a wine snob (maybe I am, I’m not sure yet) I have opted to bring in another value play which should be a welcome addition to your cellar as warm months approach. In fact, this is even more of a value region than Beaujolais and markedly easier to find in the market. I’m certain most of you will have tried at least one or two of these, but a review is always good. Any guesses as to the subject?

A crisp, delicious white with lovely citrus and tropical fruit, hints of bell pepper with a whiff of iodine and salinity, perfect for spring and summer evenings. Yes of course I am talking about New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc!! We have in the past taken a brief visit to Sancerre (in the Loire Valley of France if you don’t recall) which many (including myself) consider the “spiritual home” of Sauvignon Blanc. However, the Kiwi’s have certainly developed things very nicely and the wines are a nice comparator to the differences in terroir. Not to mention the NZ bottling’s are generally ½ the price and there is markedly more production.

When I say New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I generally mean Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. That is not to say that there are not good (even great) wines made outside of Marlborough because there definitely are, but this is the region that put the New Zealand wine industry on the map and still by far the most prevalent and popular. Therefore we will focus our energies there.

For those of you not familiar with New Zealand geography, Marlborough is on the very northern tip of the South Island. It is a beautiful region with the Marlborough sounds providing a stunning backdrop to enjoy wine against. I have been fortunate to have a chance to visit the area and I seem to recall drinking 14 bottles between 6 people one evening during one of our tasting days… which was great fun until the next morning.

NZ Map of Marlborough

Marlborough is very young in the scheme of wine regions. The first vines were planted in 1973 and the first commercial release of wine was not until 1979. I would dare to say that several of our list members are older than this region! The producer that put the area on the map originally is Cloudy Bay. This winery was started in 1985 and initially was synonymous with Marlborough wines. They were one of the first wineries to export a significant proportion of wine and really took the international wine scene by storm, which subsequently led to significant investment and marked increases in the number of wineries and the amount of wine produced. Today Marlborough is far and away the biggest production region in New Zealand and accounts for about 60% of all the wine produced in the country.

As you can see from the shot of the map above, the ocean clearly plays a large role in the climate here. All of the vines are within 50-60 miles of the ocean and this proximity provides nice diurnal variation. Warm and sunny days give way to cool and foggy nights, which allows for excellent flavor development while maintaining a nice crisp acidity. Most of the vines are planted within 2 river valleys, the Wairau and the Awatere. These river valleys have developed soil that is sandy on the surface and overlies rocky slate deposits. The Awatere valley is a little cooler and drier than the Wairau and this provides a slightly longer growing season. The grapes from Awatere vineyards are generally a bit more herbaceous compared to the more mineral and tropical flavors found in the Wairau valley.

The flavors of the sauvignon blancs from Marlborough tend a bit more toward the citrus and tropical than the typical French sauvignon. Red grapefruit, ripe lemon, and lime zest alongside passionfruit and papaya. There are also lots of more typical flavors including bell pepper, tomato leaf, gooseberry, and hints of asparagus. Occasionally you will also get the classic pyrazine driven smell of cat urine. You also generally have some mineral and saline inflected notes in the background. With the combination of these green and mineral flavors and the ripe tropical and citrus notes, the wines are intriguing to smell and purely delicious. These are not wines for the cellar in general, although I’m sure that they would be fine after 3-7 years, most people (myself included) tend to enjoy these wines younger for the freshness of the fruit and tension provided by the acidity.

From a food pairing perspective these are similar to other aromatic and high acid whites. They are fabulous with seafood and light fish dishes, great with cheese plates, and can stand up to lighter meat and fowl if needed depending on the flavors. For example a roast chicken with herbed butter and citrus as the flavor background would be delightful with a crisp white like this. One of my favorite ways to enjoy these is by themselves while firing up the grill and standing in the yard. Sipping cool, aromatic, and crisp sauvignon blanc while whipping up a feast of grilled meat is simply one of my favorite things about summer…

A couple of other notes and then we will move toward the finish. From a price point perspective, the quality and enjoyment factor of these wines places them at or near the top of the list in my mind. There are several delicious wines available in the $10-12 range. So with that in mind, buy them by the case and you can have an affordable and enjoyable summer ahead sipping these delights. Also, the vast majority of these wines are bottled under screwcap. This provides 2 positives: for those of you not as skilled and competent with a corkscrew as you’d like to be, this eliminates the need for one and allows enjoyment to be unleashed with a simple flick of the wrist; and it nearly eliminates the concern for having your wine tainted by a flawed cork! Given that I have personally had 4 bottles in the last month that were ruined by cork taint (2,4,6 tricholoroanisole is the compound that ruins the wine for those of you wondering) and subsequently poured more than $100 down the drain, this is more than just a minor positive. For those of you with more interest we can explore cork taint in more detail in the future. For now I fear that many of you would throw your computers or phones angrily onto the ground if I were to delve into this complex topic…

So with those additional endorsements, I don’t see how any of your could not go out and grab a few bottles of this delightful tonic! I will provide you with some specific labels to be on the lookout for.

I have already mentioned Cloudy Bay above as being one of the landmark producers for the area. While it certainly was, it was purchased by the luxury goods company LVMH several years ago and while the wine is still good, I do not think it warrants the price which is generally double that of most of its brethren. If you want to give it a go for historical purposes, by all means please do, but don’t expect a mind-blowing wine.

One of my favorites is Dog Point. They make several different sauvignon blancs and all are delicious. They also tend to be a touch higher in price than the others often at around $19-22.

I also thoroughly enjoy the wines of Clos Henri. The Henry Bourgeois family of Sancerre owns this and they make lovely wines.

The list after this gets pretty long as really there aren’t many bad examples of this wine to be had: Matua, Oyster Bay, Clifford Bay, Nobilo, Whitehaven, Mohua, Tohu, Wairau River, Brancott, Villa Maria, Forrest, Nautilus, Drylands, Greywacke (made by the former winemaker from Cloudy Bay), Walnut Block, and Spy Valley all make very enjoyable wines. Basically, if you see a Marlborough sauvignon blanc and it is reasonably priced, my advice would be to give it a try as it is very likely to be quite good and at worst still drinkable.

I will leave you with this list and hopefully a month of pleasures with summer on the way and crisp, flavorful whites in your glasses.

Until next month

 

J .“Gooseberry” Newman, CSW