The rise of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is one of the wine world’s great success stories. It entered the world stage in the mid-1990s, and from there had a meteoric rise, redefining this grape variety.
There’s something about the Marlborough region – which thanks to Sauvignon has grown to be New Zealand’s largest by far – which confers astonishing brightness and aromatic lift to Sauvignon Blanc. It’s as if the volume has been turned to 11.
But with this success, Sauvignon has come to be seen as a one-trick pony. It makes tremendously popular wines with brightness, fruit purity, and aromatic lift. Destined for early drinking, this style has defined the grape variety. It’s like a successful comic actor who finds that no one casts them for more serious roles.
It makes tremendously popular wines with brightness, fruit purity, and aromatic lift. It’s like a successful comic actor who finds that no one casts them for more serious roles.
And here’s the problem. Few take Sauvignon Blanc seriously as a grape variety. I’d assert, though, that Sauvignon can be serious, and it can make fine wines in a range of styles, that deliver complexity and interest, and which age well.
The science behind the styles
To make these contrasting styles, there has to be a different approach, both in the vineyard and the cellar. The popular style of Sauvignon relies on picking grapes right on the cusp of ripeness, with some actually under-ripe, to give this green streak that comes from a group of compounds called methoxypyrazines. And then pressing and fermentation must be carried out at low temperature without oxygen, avoiding certain chemical reactions , and emphasising the fruity aromatics and the tropical character that comes from another group of compounds called polyfunctional thiols.
To make more nuanced Sauvignon, farming has to change. The grapes need to be properly ripe, yet still have good acidity. Then, in the cellar, they are handled with less concern about oxygen, and are given time to age – perhaps involving barrels, or maybe even concrete or terracotta. Sauvignon also responds well to skin contact: allowing the juice to extract flavour compounds from the skins, and sometimes even fermenting the wine on the skins.
The classic expressions of Sauvignon come from a few regions. One of these is Bordeaux. Serious white Bordeaux might have a bit of Semillon in the blend, or even some Muscadelle, but Sauvignon is the key grape. Barrel-fermented, these wines age beautifully. Then there’s the centre Loire, where the neighbouring appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé have limestone-based soils. The best examples from here are very fine wines, with a leaner flintier profile than New Zealand Sauvignon, and can age really well. And then in the south of Austria, in Sudsteiermark, Sauvignon is also taken seriously, and some lovely citrus and smoky wines are being made with this variety.
While for most people, Sauvignon will always be about immediacy and fun, it’s a little harsh to dismiss this variety as one dimensional. Get the viticulture right on an interesting patch of land, and then give it the right treatment in the cellar, and the results can be amazing.