So why is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc soo darn good?
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has gained worldwide recognition for its unique and delicious flavors. The wine is known for its intense and complex aromas, including tropical fruit, citrus, and herbal notes. The country’s cool and maritime climate, combined with its diverse soil types and winemaking techniques, contribute to the distinctiveness of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. In this article, we will explore the wine regions, climate, and winemaking practices that make New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc so exceptional.
The taste of Sauvingnon Blanc...
First, there is the grape. Sauvignon Blanc [pronounced sew-veen-yahn blonk] produces white wine that has strong aromas that leap out from the glass. Aromas and flavours range from lime, gooseberry, white nectarine and even tropical passionfruit along with freshly cut grass.
If it it’s grown in climates that are not warm enough, or where it is cropped at yields which are too high, Sauvignon Blanc can smell quite vegetal.
In fact, this is one wine that’s at it’s best when it is young! Considered ‘pungent’, green aromas and flavours of green peppers, jalapeño leap out of the glass. With just 2 years of bottle age, the flavours become asparagus, cabbage and cat’s pee aromas (nicely referred to as boxwood!).
But, Sauvingnon Blanc is one of the few grape varieties that smells and tastes similar everywhere it is grown. In fact, it’s one of the first grape varieties that new sommeliers will blind taste correctly.
Furthermore, it always has that refreshing finish to it that makes your mouth water from its natural high acidity.
So why is New Zealand Sauvingnon Blanc so darn good?
Then there are the Kiwi-specific influences which makes New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc so darn good.
In 1980, the New Zealand (NZ) government hired now infamous Australian ‘flying vine doctor’, Dr. Richard Smart as the Government Viticultural Scientist.
It was during this time that Dr. Smart published ‘Sunlight into Wine: A Handbook for Wine Grape Canopy Management’. Considered THE benchmark viticultural guidebook for vineyardists, New Zealand is now considered the ‘cradle of knowledge’ for vine canopy techniques.
Furthermore, New Zealanders invented their own leaf plucking machine, the Gallagher leaf plucker, as well as other pruning machinery specifically for addressing the needs of this grape.
Sauvignon Blanc is a vigorous grape variety and the Gallagher leaf plucker helps to control vine vigour while simultaneously maintaining low costs. Maintaining lower vigour with Sauvignon Blanc vines helps to create pretty, riper fruit characteristics and lessens the vegetal asparagus notes.
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The art of blending...
Perhaps even more important than this, New Zealand producers utilize a technique they alone discovered and mastered for making exquisite Sauvignon Blanc.
What is their secret?
They pick the plots separately, vinify them individually and then blend the finished wine together. It is this simple winemaking trick that ensures Suavignon Blanc’s broad range of fruit flavours, from tart green fruit and herbaceous notes all the way to tropical passionfruit and quava.
As Aristotle put it so elequently, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Why the whole world knows New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc...
Yet making refreshing wines that have a beautiful mixture of pronounced green fruit (lime) and gooseberry, nectarine and grass wouldn’t matter if no one knew about them.
Sauvignon Blanc has been grown for centuries in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux in France. Yet not as many people are familiar with these wines.
It’s New Zealand that brought Sauvignon Blanc to world center stage.
This all happened in the 1980’s when New Zealand producers collectively entered Sauvignon Blanc into the United Kingdom.
The UK market is considered to be the benchmark for wine products. If your wine succeeds here, it will pervade the world!
The producers came with a single clear message: New Zealand produces aromatic, crisp and thirst-quenching wines and ALL are produced with sustainable practices.
Therefore, most of us are likely familiar with these wines and their intense gooseberry, passionfruit and fresh cut grass aromas.
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Sheep, for example, are NZ’s vineyard workers as they munch on the leaves that grow in the vine canopy. In fact, many consider them better leaf pluckers than machinery as they will pluck the leaves internally and provide space for proper aeration of the grapes thus preventing fungal diseases.
Does this eliminate the need for human vineyard workers? Not in the least. Sheep must be monitored closely since if they are left for too long, they will demolish the entire plant!
But sheep will happily work overtime!
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Cool climate and mixed soil types...
New Zealand has some natural advantages too. It’s cool climate is well suited to making Sauvignon Blanc taste so darn good.
Moreover, New Zealand’s two islands are located in the southern hemisphere where a thinner ozone layer moves up from the antarctic during the summer months. Cloudless, unpolluted skies mean that New Zealand receives 30-40% more UV than in the northern hemisphere at similar latitudes. Most of this UV is felt in the summer, but higher levels are present in the fall as well.
That higher UV specifically produces the tropical fruit notes of passionfruit and guava.
Furthermore, there is a high temperature variation between daytime and nighttime temperatures. This is called a high diurnal temperature range and its known for aiding the slow development of aromas and flavours in grapes thereby adding complexity. Additionally, since the grapes cool down each night, the natural acidity in them is maintained as they ripen. Since annual rainfall is quite low, the grapes are able to stay on the vines long into the fall.
Remember how winemakers vinify grapes from different plots of land separately?
These plots are based on specific soil types (alluvial or gravel) or on the various ripeness levels the grapes can achieve. Hence, tart lime zest and underripe gooseberry notes are tasted along with riper citrus tones of grapefruit and even tropical fruits.
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Here's a quick look at Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand...
New Zealand Climate Quick Facts
that produce Sauvignon Blanc
NZ’s most famous region for Sauvignon Blanc is Marlborough and within this region are many broadly defined subregions (7). I say ‘broadly’ because each subregion has many valleys and can have many different aspects, mesoclimates and soil types.
Wineries often have vineyards in multiple subregions and pick the sites at separate times, then blend them together to make a wine that is ‘greater than the sum of its parts’.
On the other hand, coastal breezes can suck all the moisture out of the soil so drought is a hazard here.
Marlborough's 3 subregions
Producers: from inexpensive brands such as Kim Crawford and Oyster Bay; to mid-priced fantastic deals from Seven Terraces and Spy Valley; to premium, complex Greywacke Wild Sauvignon
Soils are heavier and have more clay therefore it's not the best site for Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir and other white aromatic varieties do well here
Wairau Valley [pronounced 'why-rau' ]
an old, gravelly riverbed which broadly covers both the drier, cooler inland sites that produce earlier ripening grapes as well as sea-breeze moderated coastal sites. These are flat sites and both make that hallmark fruit intensity and body of good Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
Awatere Valley [pronounced 'ah-wha-tier-ee']
south of Wairau. These are cooler, drier, windier and often higher elevation sites on hillsides. Producers here tend to pick at lower yeilds (which along with the well-draining soils of this favourable site equates to higher quality wines).
‘Kei puta te Wairau’ means ‘the place with a hole in the cloud’
*wairau is the driest and sunniest place in NZ!
But Marlborough isn't the only New Zealand region that produces great Sauvignon Blanc...!
58 km north of Christchurch and 300 km south of Marlborough lies Waipara Valley
Waipara Valley’s vineyards, like that of Marlborough are mostly flat sites with mountains in the background.
at the southernmost tip of the north island. It's most important subregion for quality wines is Martinborough. Martinborough is one hour from the country's capital of Wellington in the North Island.
Wairarapa contains only 3% of the countries vines, yet hosts 9% of the winemakers. Here you will find quality oriented lifestyle wineries and iconic producers such as Ata Rangi and Craggy Range.
The region’s flagship wine is in fact Pinot Noir which takes up 50% of plantings in the area.
Winemakers mostly use a hands-off approach in the winery and deliberately avoid using new oak barrels that would add toasty or vanilla flavours. Instead, most (99.9% of) wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks to preserve their gooseberry, nectarine and grassy characteristics.
As stated above, vintners here can be considered master blenders as they vinify separate plots (different soil types, different sub-regions) of Sauvignon Blanc all separately and then taste them and choose how to blend them together. This in addition to the cool climate, and their mastery of trimming the vigorous vine canopy makes New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc taste so darn good.
In conclusion, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc owes its unique and delicious taste to a combination of factors. The cool climate of the wine regions, along with the diverse soil types and winemaking practices, create the perfect conditions for the grapes to thrive. Contributions by Dr. Richard Smart on canopy management and New Zealanders’ invention of the Gallagher Leaf Plucker greatly increased the quality of Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Furthermore, they made a then-crazy decision to separately vinify different plots of the same grape to gain a breadth of complexity in a single varietal wine. The result is a wine with intense and complex aromas, including tropical fruit, citrus, and herbal notes. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has rightly earned its place among the world’s best wines and continues to captivate wine enthusiasts with its exceptional quality and flavors.
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