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Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough: A True New World Terroir
By Michael Apstein
Oct 25, 2005
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The French speak passionately about terroir, a concept maintaining that the character of a wine comes from the unique climate and soil where the grapes are grown.  They claim grapes are mere vehicles for transmitting the flavor of the earth into the wine from which they are crafted.  Hence, the French usually name their wines after the places where the grapes are grown rather than after the grape varieties from which the wines are made. 

For me, the most compelling evidence for this concept comes from Bordeaux.  The blend for Chateau Lagrange, a consistently delicious wine from St. Julien, is different each year depending on how each variety ripens.  Marcel Ducasse, the proprietor, uses more or less Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend depending on the vintage.  In 2000, the finished wine was comprised of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon and 24% Merlot (with no Petit Verdot).  Compare that to the 2002 vintage, when Ducasse used 54% Cabernet, 33% Merlot, and 13% Petit Verdot.  Despite the dramatic differences in varietal composition, both wines are easily identifiable as Chateau Lagrange.  But the French do not have a monopoly on terroir.  Sauvignon Blanc grown in the Marlborough region of New Zealand imparts a "sense of place" as stongly as any wine in the world.

The advantage for consumers of wines that have a sense of place is predictability.  Just as you know what to expect in terms of basic character from Chateau Lagrange year after year, you know what to expect from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  Even when a winemaker incorporates a little Semillon in the blend or ages a portion of the wine in oak barrels, the inherently "place-specific" character of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc--a piercing citric quality and electrifying edge--still shines.

New Zealand is probably the only country in the world where vineyards contain more Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay.  And in Marlborough, located at the northeastern tip of the South Island (and New Zealand's most acclaimed area for Sauvignon Blanc), there is five times the acreage devoted to Sauvignon Blanc as to Chardonnay.  

Sauvignon Blanc thrives in Marlborough and produces distinctive wine primarily because of the place's climate--lots of sunshine, but not a lot of heat.  Blenheim, a town in the middle of Marlborough, usually has more sunny hours than any other place in New Zealand, according to Michael Cooper, a leading authority on New Zealand wine.  Marlborough's climate is cool, especially at night, and is comparable to vineyards on Germany's Rhine River.  The combination of sun without excessive heat means that the grapes ripen slowly, developing deep flavors while maintaining good acidity.  Cool temperatures at night prevent the degradation of malic acid in the grapes, and the resulting wines are flavor-filled and lively.

It is staggering to realize how Marlborough has established itself as one of the world's great areas for Sauvignon Blanc in such a short time.  No grapes were planted there until 1973, and the first Sauvignon Blanc vines went in a couple of years later.  In about three decades, Marlborough has gone from producing no wine at all to crafting world class Sauvignon Blanc.  It is illuminating to compare that time span to the history of the Loire Valley towns of Sancerre, Quincy and Pouilly-sur-Loire (home to Pouilly Fumé), which have been growing Sauvignon Blanc for centuries.  Similarly, in Bordeaux where Sauvignon Blanc is a mainstay of that region's white wine, the grape has been planted for hundreds of years.

Although New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs take top honors every year at the International Wine for Oysters Competition at Washington D.C.'s Old Ebbitt Grill, they are equally well suited to other types of seafood.  Their bracing acidity and overall edginess also makes them a good choice for pairing with spicy Asian fare.

These are wines to drink young--upon release. The appealing piercing quality that is their hallmark is lost with age.  Kiwi winemakers use every technique they can to capture and preserve that character, which explains why most of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are bottled with screwcaps.

I have been a fan of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for years and have tasted a wide range of them from every recent vintage.  The 2004 vintage stands out as a year when it seems that almost every producer made exciting wine.  It's hard to go wrong even if you close your eyes and point randomly at any bottle on a store shelf.  But for those who would like some specific advice, here are 20 that I found particularly appealing:

The Crossings, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc Reserve "Catherine's Run" 2002 ($27, W. J. Deutsch & Sons):  An exception to the "drink 'em young" rule, the Crossings 2002 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc is a gorgeous, classy wine.  Fermentation and aging for a brief time in three year-old French oak barrels added complexity without imparting oakiness.  There's no doubt regarding the originating location behind this wine--the signature cutting edge of Marlborough has not been lost--but there is much more going on in the glass than usual.  An eye-opening treat.  95.

Babich, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc "Winemakers Reserve" 2004 ($20, Select Fine Wines):  This rich expression of Sauvignon Blanc is less angular than most, but still retains attractive zing and acidity.  It delivers enticing complexity without losing its focus.  92

Cloudy Bay, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($30 Moët Hennessy USA):  Cloudy Bay's Sauvignon Blanc is credited with introducing American consumers to the category--and perhaps to New Zealand wines in general.  The 2004 continues Cloudy Bay's winning streak of combining an attractive, slightly smoky, almost gunflint quality (which adds considerable complexity) with a vibrant, citric zing.  92

Gravitas, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc St. Arnaud's Vineyard 2004 ($ distributor):  I predict that we will see more single vineyard bottlings as winemakers and viticulturists gain experience with Marlborough's microclimates and diverse soils.  Gravitas has produced a stylish, delicious wine etched with smoke, minerals, and a racy lime finish.  92

Nautilus, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($18, Negociants USA):  A lively wine, this has good weight and plenty of fruit and minerality to balance its citric acidity.  A stellar example of what Marlborough has to offer.  92

Tohu, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($16, Davies & Co):  One of the few wines of this vintage still sporting a cork closure, this has alluring herbaceous notes intertwined with minerality.  Its broad range of flavors is balanced by its zingy citric edge.  92

Brancott Vineyards, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2004 ($21, Allied Domecq):  Brancott--known as Montana everywhere else in the world--was the leading company to invest in and develop Marlborough in the 1970s.  The company has extensive vineyards from which to select fruit for its Reserve bottling.  It's no surprise that their 2004 Reserve combines great depth and length with the quintessential grapefruit tang of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  91 

Mount Riley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($16, Quintessential):  Mount Riley is riding a string of successful vintages of Sauvignon Blanc.  Their 2004 has an appealing pungency and an almost electrifying zip to it.  90

Spy Valley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($23, Broadbent Selections):  Although the name of the winery comes from a nearby electronic surveillance station, there is nothing clandestine about this Sauvignon Blanc.  It delivers appealing gooseberry flavors and that signature Marlborough grapefruit-like edginess.  90

Huia, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($23, Via Pacifica):  I've always liked Huia's Sauvignon Blancs, and their 2004 is no exception.  The lemon-lime flavors are clear, but do not dominate this well-balanced wine.  89

Matua Valley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($13, Beringer Blass Wine Estates):  Matua Valley produced New Zealand's first Sauvignon Blanc in 1974 near Auckland on the North Island. Their 2004 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, vibrant and long, is a super buy.  89

Wither Hill Vineyards, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($20, Paterno Wines International): A plethora of flavors, buttressed by refreshing and penetrating acidity makes Wither Hill's 2004 an easy wine to recommend.  89

Coopers Creek, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($16, various importers; refer to Coopers Creek website for importer in your area): Hints of smoke and minerals add intrigue to the lime-infused flavors in this wine.  It's a balanced beauty.  88

Glazebrook, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($17, Frederick Wildman):  Even with a slightly less citric signature than most of its counterparts, Marlborough character still shines through in this wine, which culminates in a grapefruit-like finish.  88

Twin Islands, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($11): Lemony and lively, this is an easy-to-recommend example of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  A great value.  88

Redcliffe, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($12, Palm Bay Imports):  Redcliffe's rendition, a more straightforward offering than most, retains the quintessential Marlborough zip and is another great value.  88

Postscript:  Marlborough Doesn't Have a Monopoly on New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Outstanding Sauvignon Blanc also originates from other locales in New Zealand.  Martinborough, located at the southern end of the North Island, is a stone's throw away (across Cook Strait) from Marlborough.  Looking at a map, it not hard to imagine that these two areas were attached before being separated by some hiccup during the earth's formation.  Well known for some of New Zealand's most prized Pinot Noir, Martinborough also makes noteworthy Sauvignon Blanc.

Craggy Range Winery, Martinborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc, Te Muna Road Vineyard 2004 ($23, Kobrand):  Slightly less piercing than its counterparts from across Cook strait, Craggy Range's version has a captivating minerality and depth that results in an outstanding wine.  92

Palliser Estate, Martinborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($19, Negociants USA):  Also a little less edgy than the ones from Marlborough, Palliser's 2004 Sauvignon Blanc has an extra dimension of minerality.  91

Pencarrow, Martinborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($13, Negociants USA):  Pencarrow, the second label of Palliser Estate, offers solid wine at an excellent price.  Their 2004 Sauvignon Blanc is flinty with good substance and an attractive bite.  88

Mount Difficulty, Central Otago (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($19, American Estates Wines):  Located in Central Otago (a tiny area in the southern part of the South Island known best for its Pinot Noir), Mount Difficulty made a dynamite 2004 Sauvignon Blanc.  Its name notwithstanding, subtle earthy flavors balanced by cleansing citric zing and a long finish make it easy to enjoy.  92