It's time to get back to Sav...
Feel like you had your fill of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at some point in the 2000s? We’d suggest it’s definitely time for a revisit, and we’ve got four good reasons why. But first, a quick delve into how this grape variety became so important to Aotearoa’s wine industry.
It took the world by storm. The first significant plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough were made by Montana in the 1970s. In the mid ‘80s, David Lange’s Labour government sponsored a vine pull of inferior grape varieties like Muller Thurgau. This paved the way for the planting of premium French varieties. At the same time our first Sauvignon Blancs (from Montana, Cloudy Bay and Hunters) were receiving accolades from the influential UK wine press. The boom of an industry began, a wine produced with a recipe for success. Sauvignon Blanc is a vigorous variety that can be cropped at high levels, and handles machine harvesting well. Fermented in stainless steel tanks, avoiding the expense of oak barrels, it benefited from modern winemaking techniques for clean and quick production. The variety’s distinctive aromatics and fresh acidity, preserved by Marlborough’s maritime climate, could be bottled and on the market within 6 months.
Celebrated for its unique vibrancy and boldness, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc became like a brand in itself, bolstered by the success of other bold styles like Aussie Shiraz. The ‘new world’ of wine was on the up and Kiwi Sav was like a bottling of our ‘clean, green’ landscape for the world. Plantings grew to meet demand, with international markets expanding. Once on the map as a premium wine producing country, other wine regions and varieties could come to the fore. Would Central Otago Pinot Noir have had the same success if Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc hadn’t made so much noise? We’d suggest not.
Today Sauvignon Blanc makes up 85% of our wine exports, and 70% of land under vine. It’s the workhorse of our entire wine industry. With successful expansion into the US market, the demand is still there. But we have noticed, both here and abroad, some anti-Sav sentiment, similar to that of the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) crowd of a decade or two ago. Within the wine trade, buyers and sommeliers turned their attention to newer, more exciting things, leaving a Sauvignon listing as just a box to be ticked. We were left wondering if Marlborough Sauvignon had become a victim of its own success and too ubiquitous. We have to admit to having had this mindset, but that quickly changed after trying just a couple of glasses when we moved back to NZ early in 2020.
So why should you be drinking Marlborough Sav again?
One of those glasses of wine was from organic producer Deep Down, and is the first of our reasons why you should be drinking Sauvignon Blanc again. Rather than being overt and pungent, this wine exhibits understated, ripe aromatics. Instead of searing acidity, it has classic proportions, with a little texture and quenching freshness. It proves how complementary the variety is next to food, elevating flavour rather than overtaking. It proves Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t have to be an attack on your senses.
Our second reason to revisit Sauvignon is the alternative styles that are well worth exploring, and Dog Point Section 94 is the best example we can think of. Wild yeast fermentation and ageing in old French oak for 18 months brings new facets to this distinctive variety. This shows both in terms of the depth of flavours beyond primary fruit, and in its texture, showing creamy richness. It’s alluring and unique, produced by two pioneering Marlborough wine families. If you don’t like Sauvignon as you know it, try a different style.
With the maturing of a wine industry comes space for the production of super premium wines. This is our third reason for a revisit, the creation of benchmarks. The Bourgeois family treat Sauvignon as the noble variety it is, planting it at a vine density similar to that of Grand Cru Burgundy. Having seen so much potential for greatness in Marlborough, they chose it above all other regions around the world for their first foray outside of the Loire Valley. They’re all about terroir, and the ‘Clay’ Sauvignon Blanc is an expression of this particular soil type at their Wairau Valley vineyard. This wine is driven and taut, and pristine in purity and balance. It proves that kiwi wines belong up there with the best.
Our final reason for a Sav revisit looks to the future. With new generations entering the wine industry, how will they interpret Sauvignon Blanc? What does youthful energy and enthusiasm bring to an established wine style? We see some answers in Marathon Downs Racecourse Block Sauvignon Blanc. The young couple behind this wine have the benefit of knowing what kind of Sav they don’t want to produce. The results from an Awatere Valley vineyard show proper ripeness with lovely, generous texture. It’s a true example of a wine style evolving for the better. Something we’re confident we’ll continue to see, and we’ll certainly continue to champion.