Sheep are prolific vineyard workers in New Zealand

Why New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is so darn good!

Sauvignon Blanc [sew-veen-yahn blonk] is a white grape variety that has been grown for centuries in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux in France.

Yet, the we can thank New Zealand for bringing 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.

Most of us are likely familiar with these wines and their intense gooseberry, passionfruit and fresh cut grass aromas.

But perhaps not everyone is aware that New Zealand wineries are 100% sustainable and their grapes and wineries are required to be certified by independent agencies.


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 vine 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!

Yet sheep will happily work overtime!

Sheep are prolific vineyard workers in New Zealand
Sheep are prolific vineyard workers in New Zealand. They munch on the leaves surrounding Sauvignon Blanc grapes providing aeration.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

Mahatma Gandhi

non-violent Indian Activist

So why is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc soo darn good?

It’s the combination of several factors; some planned and others just happenstance.

In 1980, the New Zealand (NZ) government hired now infamous ‘flying vine doctor’ and native Australian, Dr. Richard Smart as the Government Viticultural Scientist.

It was Dr. Smart who published ‘Sunlight into Wine: A Handbook for Wine Grape Canopy Management’ along with colleague Mike Robinson.

‘Sunlight into Wine’ is considered THE benchmark viticultural guidebook for vineyardists and New Zealand is now considered the ‘cradle of knowledge’ for vine canopy techniques.

Further to their credit, New Zealanders invented their own leaf plucking machine, the Gallagher leaf plucker as well as other pruning machinery. Sauvignon Blanc is a vigorous grape variety and the Gallagher leaf plucker helps to control vine vigour while simultaneously maintaining low costs.

In addition to this, New Zealand producers utilize a vineyard technique they mastered 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.

They pick the plots separately, vinify them individually and then blend them together. Genius!

As Aristotle put it so elequently, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”


Photo: Jay Berkow 'Vineyard 2, Brightwater,NZ'


These plots are based on specific soil types (alluvial or gravel) or on the various ripeness levels. Hence, tart lime zest and underripe gooseberry notes are tasted along with riper citrus tones of grapefruit and even tropical fruits.

New Zealand has some natural advantages too.  It’s cool climate is well suited to Sauvignon Blanc.

These 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.

Furthermore, the high temperature variation between daytime and nighttime temperatures aids the slow development of aromas and flavours in the grapes (see diurnal temperature range). With higher UV and the slow development of the grapes you get the intense tropical passionfruit and quava aromas. Finally, as annual rainfall is quite low, the grapes are able to stay on the vines long into the fall.

Here's a quick look at Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand...



Quick Facts Sauvignon Blanc

  • Sauvignon Blanc is a white grape variety originally from France​
  • the vine is quite vigorous
  • if the vegetation isn't controlled (by pruning or by a low-vigour rootstock), the wines will taste grossly pungeant and smell like cat's pee
  • that's why using sheep to leaf pluck helps save costs!
  • New Zealand inventions such as the Gallagher Leaf Plucker machine help to save costs in the vineyard too
  • almost all New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the clone UCD1
  • it's susceptible to powdery mildew

New Zealand Quick Facts

  • New Zealand is made up up 2 islands; the North Island and the South Island, where Marlborough, it's most famous wine region lies.
  • it generally has a cool, maritime climate although many of the best Sauvignon Blanc vineyards are drier (see Wairau Valley)
  • located in the southern hemisphere, their seasons are opposite those of Canada and the US. They harvest grapes in May/ April instead of September/ October.
  • NZ's Growing Degree Days (GDD) range from a cool 900 to a warm 1600 GDD. Marlborough has 1165 GDD.
  • or, NZ's average temperatures are from 14℃ - 17.5C
    (58℉ - 63.5℉). Marlborough's is 11 - 13℃.
  • Marlborough's annual rainfall is 655mm/yr
  • the diunal temperature range and the long cool growing season are considered key components to the aroma and flavour in the grapes

New Zealand

New Zealand's


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’.

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

Southern Valley

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

old, gravelly riverbed 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

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’

Mauri saying

*wairau is the driest and sunniest place in NZ!

Photo: Sid Mosdell 'Wairau Valley'

But Marlborough isn't the only New Zealand region that produces great Sauvignon Blanc...!

Waipara Valley


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.

Wairapa. "Rolling Hills and Velvet Green' by Jocelyn Kinghorn license cc



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.

"Martinborough Hotel" by SdosRemedios is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


  1. If you want to geek out about how to use sheep in the vineyard, check out this pdf from the Hawks Bay Vineyard Association here.
  2. An older version of Dr. Richard’s book ‘Sunlight Into Wine’ can be downloaded here.

Recommended Posts

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *