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Marlborough Sauvignon at a Crossroads
By Linda Murphy
May 26, 2009
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Montana, New Zealand's largest wine producer, celebrated its 30th vintage of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in March, an occasion so significant that Prime Minister John Key was there to unveil a monument marking the spot where the first commercial vineyard in Marlborough was planted, in 1973, by Montana founder Frank Yukich.

At that time, Yukich declared, 'Wines from here will become world famous,' despite the fact that the region was previously known for its sheep ranches and fruit orchards rather than vineyards.  Yet Yukich, armed with advice from UC Davis viticulturists that chilly Marlborough could support early-ripening wine grapes, planted Montana's Brancott Vineyard in 1973, first to Muller Thurgau, then in 1975 to Sauvignon Blanc. 

Yukich's informed gamble paid off after Montana produced the first commercial Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, from the 1979 harvest.  Today, Marlborough Sauvignon is a national treasure, joining the kiwi, bungee jumping, All Blacks rugby and 'Lord of the Rings.'

The wines' typically fruity, zesty, mouthwateringly assertive flavors are beloved by wine drinkers throughout the world, and as New Zealand Winegrowers CEO Philip Gregan said at the March ceremony, Montana's Marlborough plantings 'forever changed New Zealand's place in the wine world.  The New Zealand wine industry would not be the same without it.'

A unique confluence of ocean and mountain influences, intense sun and myriad soil types in Marlborough create wines with various amounts of grass, grapefruit, lime, gooseberry, kiwi fruit, passionfruit, boxwood, jalapeno and mineral character.  Until 2008, demand exceeded supply for this flamboyant style of Sauvignon, yet a massive 2008 harvest, which created an oversupply of grapes, along with the global economic crisis, combined to make Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc sales a bit more difficult. 

At Montana's anniversary celebration, the 80-year-old Yukich spoke boldly again, cautioning Sauvignon makers to not be content with maintaining quality, but to improve upon it.  He said producers should not assume that 'sales will continue forever.'

'Many of our (Marlborough Sauvignon) wines don't age well,' he said.  'After 24 months, there can be an excessively pungent, canned pea character, not at all attractive.  To assure its future, the industry must address this issue.'

Indeed, most of the 'textbook' Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs are most interesting and refreshing within a year or two of bottling.  Cellaring has not been all that important in the past, but now, with the world's best wines expected to withstand the test of time, many New Zealand winemakers want to be in that category.

Another troubling development is that mediocre-quality grapes from growers who over-cropped in the bountiful 2008 vintage have been turned into Johnny-come-lately brands that take advantage of the surplus and the thirst for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, yet deliver under-fruited, sugar-boosted, bland wines.  They threaten to tarnish Marlborough's sterling reputation for Sauvignon, so foundation producers such as Montana, Villa Maria and Nobilo are not only guarding against consumer backlash, they're pro-active in improving Marlborough Sauvignon for the long term.

'Our question is, how do we build complexity and ageability into these wines?' asks Jeff Clarke, chief winemaker for Pernod Ricard New Zealand, Montana's parent.  'Our goal also is to achieve additional concentration and aromatics to our Sauvignon Blancs.'

To that end, Clarke and his Marlborough regional winemaker, Patrick Materman, brought in Bordeaux-based Denis Dubourdieu, owner of Chateau Doisy-Daene and other houses, and an expert in Sauvignon Blanc, to consult with them on how to improve Montana wines.  Dubourdieu's recommendations focus primarily in the vineyards, of which Montana owns nearly 5,000 Sauvignon acres in Marlborough, and controls another 2,500 acres in the region. 

With Dubourdieu's guidance, Montana is conducting trials in its best vineyard blocks, scattered throughout the Wairau River and Awatere valleys, Marlborough's prime sub-regions.  Experimentation with leaf-plucking to control the amount of sun the leaves and clusters get; limiting the number of bunches per shoot; dropping excess clusters to allow the vines to devote their energies to ripening the remaining clusters; hand-harvesting in New Zealand's predominantly mechanical-harvesting world; high-density plantings; and changing vine row orientations to increase concentration in the grapes, are among the techniques Clarke, Materman and Dubourdieu are using in Montana vineyards.  

Clarke also wants to identify and create a super-Sauvignon Blanc style for New Zealand, one that is a peer to the great Sauvignons of France's Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé and Bordeaux regions, yet resonates with Marlborough character.  Many NZ Sauvignon Blancs are outstanding, yet Clarke has thrown down the gauntlet for all producers to lift their games to an even higher level. 

He held a March tasting of top-flight Sauvignon Blancs from around the world, inviting his winemakers, viticulturalists, Dubourdieu, Australian wine expert James Halliday, and a very fortunate me.  We blind-tasted 26 wines, grouped in seven flights by country of origin and style, then we discussed how these styles fit - or don't fit -- in the Marlborough context. 

The first flight was comprised of four 2008 Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs that are vineyard-driven and popular at the premium end: Goldwater Boatshed Bay, St.  Clair Pioneer Block 7, Huntaway Reserve and Montana Brancott 'B' Letter Series.  As a group, I found them well-made and tasty, yet lacking aromatics and vibrancy.  My top wine was the Montana 'B,' shy on the nose yet with punchy ripe fruit, texture and mouthwatering acidity. 

Flight two represented four more Marlborough wines -- 2007 Clos Henri, 2006 Dog Point Section 94, 2005 Cloudy Bay Te Koko and 2007 Seresin Marama -- each of which had spent time in oak barrels and/or had significant lees contact, in an effort to add complexity to stainless-steel-fermented Sauvignons, as is the norm in Marlborough. 

As a group, wood aromas and flavors dominated the fruit in this second flight -- not my cup of tea.  The Dog Point Section 94, with its oak overlay and buttery character, was over the top -- delicious if it were Chardonnay, yet not my ideal for Sauvignon Blanc.  Cloudy Bay's Te Koko was full-bodied and somewhat soft in acid, yet with bright citrus fruit.  Caramelly oak and tropical flavors marked the Seresin Marama, and the Clos Henri (owned by the Loire Valley's Bourgeois family), had a matchsticky, reductive  aroma and a bitter finish, though in the middle were crisp grapefruit, gooseberry and mineral notes.

Flight three was devoted to South Africa, and the beautifully balanced 2008 Vergelegen Reserve Stellenbosch shined brightly -- crisp, focused, minerally and vibrant.  The 2007 Steenberg Reseve was all asparagus, green peas, fresh herbs and nervy acidity -- a severe style, to be sure, yet a contrast to the oaky wines of the previous flight.  Cape Point's Sauvignon was sweeter than I prefer, yet with a solid core of citrus fruit.

My comment on this flight was, 'Not all that vibrant.'  Another taster, who shall remain nameless, said, 'These wines don't speak.'  As in sense of place and individual personality are not present.

The California flight, represented by the 2007 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley, 2006 Robert Mondavi To Kalon Oakville Napa Valley, 2007 Peter Michael L' Apres Midi Sonoma County and 2007 Babcock Sta. Rita Hills, drew mostly yawns from my fellow tasters.  A published article by Halliday said the wines were 'trenchantly criticized for far too much oak and artefact.'

He did, however, say the Merry Edwards wine had a liveliness the others lacked.  I concurred, praising it for its floral, white peach and delicate white pepper aromas, lemon curd and pear flavors, and mouthfilling texture.  Mondavi's To Kalon, I thought, was too young and un-evolved at this stage to judge fairly, and the Peter Michael and Babcock Sauvignons showed too much wood and not enough lively fruit.

Make no mistake, these wines are in great demand, and their styles resonate with many American consumers.  Yet Montana sought a more global perspective.

So we then headed to France for the last three flights, including seven wines from France's Loire Valley -- ground zero for Sauvignon Blanc production. 

Not all the Loire wines were stellar.  The 2004 Didier Dagueneau Buisson Renard Pouilly Fume (made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes) smelled extraordinarily funky, like Barbie doll molded plastic and sauerkraut.  However, three Henri Bourgeois wines -- the 2007 La Cotes des Monts Damnes, 2005 La Demoisselle de Bourgeois and 2006 Sancerre d'Antan -- were gorgeous, balanced and complex -- with the d'Antan's beet-greens, dill and oak aromas not at all off-putting.

Two other Dagueneau wines, among the world's most sought-after and expensive --- the 2004 Silex and 2001 Pur Sang -- could have improved in the cellar another five years, yet they were opened for the purpose of discussion, revealing remarkable chalky minerality, laser-like acidity and finishes that went on forever. 

Four white Bordeaux wines closed out this highly instructive tasting - 2005 Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc, 2007 Doisy-Daene Sec, 2003 Chateau Brown Blanc and 2005 Haut Brion Blanc.

The superstar, to me, was Dubourdieu's 2007 Doisey-Daene -- flinty and with unobtrusive oak, savory herbs, citrus and white peach flavors, and a seamless integration of fruit, skin tannin and acidity.

The Smith Haut Laffite from Pessac-Leognan was also impressive, with gunsmoke, quince, ripe citrus and intriguing anise/herbal notes; it includes a small amount of Sauvignon Gris. 

Chateau Brown Blanc was a low point -- oxidized, with lots of wood spice and little fruit character.

Then there was the Haut Brion, the unorthodox white wine from this vaunted Bordeaux First Growth producer.  A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, it offers funky, woody aromas that don't bode well initially, then blossoms in the mouth with juicy citrus fruit, fig and spice.  It's a complex and curious wine, the sort that inspires conversation and debate … and isn't that wine's most charming trait?

With this tasting, and others held internally and abroad, Montana asked how can it produce electrifying Sauvignon Blancs that show terroir, depth and ageability, without sacrificing New Zealand personality.  It's a work in progress, yet after the March tasting, it seems to me that Sancerre offers the most relevant model for improved Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc -- as long as NZ's joyously vibrant fruit character is maintained.