My first taste of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was in 1993 at the World Vinifera Conference in Seattle and I was hooked. A quiet young man named Kevin Judd poured his Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc loaded with aromatics and flavors that all but jumped out of my glass: Pungent tropical passion fruit, zesty mouth-watering lime juice and crisp zingy acidity. This was a wine to wow the senses!
A lot of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has come and gone over the past 19 years. Some fans of the style, like good friends who enjoy a Marlborough “Sauvy” as their house white, are not looking for a new white wine fave. Critics, though, moan that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is too in-your-face and rarely passes the simple wine test: “This is so good that I want a second glass.” Whatever, the demand stays strong enough for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that some Kiwi winemakers, like Kevin Judd, are still stepping up to meet the demand.
No longer with Cloudy Bay, Judd has opted, as so many other successful veteran winemakers are doing, to scale back and concentrate on smaller production of just a few wines that match the local terroir and that they personally like. For Judd that means Greywacke, his new brand named for the rounded river stones, composed of compacted layers of grey sandstone and mudstone that are commonly found throughout Marlborough and all of New Zealand. So valued is Greywacke soil for growing grapes that some people are calling greywacke (grey-wacky) New Zealand’s “national rock.”
But do grapes grown in greywacke impart any specific qualities that are easily detectable in a wine? “I am not sure that you could specifically attribute certain tastes in wine to the fact that they (the grapes) were grown in soils containing Greywacke,” admits Judd. “However, as with any soils containing rocks there is a considerable contribution to the free-draining aspects of the soils.” Judd gets his grapes for Greywacke wines from the central Wairau Plains and Marlborough’s Southern Valleys. “They are all mature vineyards, most of which range from 10 to 20 years old, all are certified sustainable and most are farmed organically.”
As an industry, New Zealand wineries have shown impressive solidarity about issues that relate to conservation and “green” viticulture practices. When the threat of cork taint caused winemakers around the world to pull out their hair, New Zealand wineries banded together to adopt an almost industry-wide use of the screw cap. Now, they have embraced certified sustainable grape growing, which Judd says is now almost universal in New Zealand. “In fact, NZ Winegrowers do not allow any non-certified wines to be shown at any events internationally.” When asked about organics and biodynamics, Judd replied, “Organics are still not commonplace, but on the increase for sure. A number of companies in Marlborough are adopting organic farming practices to one degree or another and while biodynamics is becoming more common it is still very much a minority.”
Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are the headliners in the Greywacke line, but Judd also makes smaller quantities of Pinot Gris and Riesling, all bottled under screw caps. He is, however, reluctant to draw any comparisons between the Pinots and Sauvignons he made at Cloudy Bay with his present Greywacke wines. “I have huge respect for Cloudy Bay and do not want to be seen to suggest that what I do now is in any way better.”
Judd likes to use indigenous yeasts (IY) for many of his Greywacke wines, some 100%, some 50% and in the case of the Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc, 10%. And he prefers to use IY fermentations in oak barrels and does not control the fermentations in any way; the Greywacke Chardonnay is IY fermented 100% in French oak, with 25% new oak. “The wines fermented this way with indigenous yeasts have a slightly fuller mouthfeel. Perhaps most importantly, though, the wines have more individuality and complexity; they do not rely on character alone, but instead exhibit a multitude of flavors derived from the indigenous elements.”
In Judd’s mind, indigenous yeast fermentations for his wines are compatible with the use of oak, in a complicated formula of old and new, depending on the type of wine. The least oak and IY influence is in the Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc, fermented mainly in stainless steel, with only 10% IY ferment in old oak. He takes a different approach with Pinot Noir, fermenting 100% with indigenous yeasts in stainless steel, then 100% aging in French oak, 45% new. While at Cloudy Bay, Judd was among the first New Zealand winemakers to make an oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc, called Te Koko. His Greywacke alternative oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc is called Wild Sauvignon, 100% indigenous yeast fermented in French oak.
In some wine circles, there is the feeling that Americans appear to be tiring of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc style as being “too aggressive.” This is Judd’s take on the changing styles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: “I think there is far more diversity of style than there ever was. And there seems to be a number of winemakers aspiring to making extremely intense, pungent wines which certainly have a following, but are not to everyone’s taste.”
Pinot Gris and Riesling, the Greywacke aromatic whites, also see some oak and indigenous yeast, a technique not universally embraced for these wines by other New World winemakers. Judd says that his Greywacke Pinot Gris is stylistically more “Gris” than “Grigio.” “Definitely towards the Gris end of the spectrum…I am aiming for a very ripe textural style.”
Anyone familiar with Kevin Judd’s talents as a winemaker no doubt knows of his alter ego talent with a camera. Judd’s images of vineyards in New Zealand and the world are almost as coveted as his wines. But looking after Greywacke wines as well as the changing world of photography, from film to digital, has meant that Judd doesn’t pick up his camera as often as he would like. Until his book on the Marlborough region comes out, we’ll have to make do with Greywacke wines...but they will suffice very nicely for the moment.