Coming up blanc

[poor fruit set at stony batter]A big tasting was put on by New Zealand Winegrowers, and the results are below. Part two is on pinot noir, part three covers riesling, and everything else is in part four. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety, due to the format, so read what follows with the necessary suspicion.

By way of disclosure, they loaded us up with Island Creek oysters, which would normally predispose me towards positivity. On the other hand, I only ate about two dozen, which isn’t even a running start for me.

Palliser Estate 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Martinborough) – Dense. Gooseberry with a significantly smoky component…or is it sulfur? Maybe a bit of both. Tropical fruit rinds and minerality (grey-toned), this wine is a little on the corpulent side. (3/09)

Monkey Bay 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Light green pepper, asparagus, sweet greenness continues on the finish. A diagonal wine. Ultimately insignificant. (3/09)

Matua Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Gooseberry, a little papaya, and a Styrofoam finish (which is, blessedly, short). (3/09)

Nobilo “Regional Collection” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Clean. Watery. Green and yellow citrus rinds, plus grapefruit. Underripe and dilute. (3/09)

Babich 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Sugared apple, pineapple. A goofy toy wine, not to be taken seriously. (3/09)

Allan Scott 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Papery. Qualitatively, somewhere between innocuous and awful. (3/09)

Oyster Bay 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Seashell, green apple. Intense. Short finish. Not bad. (3/09)

The Crossings 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Dry exposed rock. Grassy. Ungenerous. Very mineral-driven, with a long finish. An uncompromising style. (3/09)

Stoneleigh 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Vivid pineapple, ripe green apple, grass. Sour plum wine on the finish. Weird. (3/09)

Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Clean, linear. Papaya, but not sweetly tropical. Light- to medium-bodied. Good, but only just. (3/09)

Goldwater 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Wairau Valley (Marlborough) – Intense gooseberry with lacings of asparagus. Crystalline. Rich but with sufficient acid, and thus balanced. Finishes greener than it starts. Good. (3/09)

Nautilus 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Simple. A little sweet, a little green. Banana candy finish. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Electric green fuzz, clean green apple skin. Tight. Classic, but stretched thin. Not bad. (3/09)

Drylands 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Ripe red fruit, papaya, mango, and something that almost approaches lychee in its lurid stickiness. Way too sweet. (3/09)

Montana “Brancott” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc “Reserve” (Marlborough) – Cedar, ripe yellow plum. Soft, with a pinched midpalate, then expands. Very long, turning more expressive as it lingers, with a bitter edge emergent. This is a very polished style, perhaps too obviously so. (3/09)

Croney “Three Ton” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Mango sorbet. Juicy. Finishes weirdly bitter. (3/09)

Kennedy Point 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Green dust and paper. Flat. Dull. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Intense pea and green bean aromas. Vivid. Fattens on the finish. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Neon green aromas, ripe grapefruit, plum. A bit sweet. Nice enough, but meaningless. (3/09)

Vavasour 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Very solid with some quartz at the interior. Ripe, structured, and intense. Good. (3/09)

Kim Crawford 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Sweet mandarin orange, mango, plum. Extremely tropical. I don’t care for this style any more than the capsicum-infused alternative. (3/09)

Nobilo “Icon” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Sophisticated and suave. Crystallized minerality, leafy. Not green. Good weight. Finishes a little flat, though. Just OK. (3/09)

Matua Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc “Paretai” (Marlborough) – Green pea and black pepper do battle with ripe tropical fruit. There’s greenness, as well. The finish is weirdly sour, but until that point the wine’s good enough. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Pioneer Block 1 “Foundation” (Marlborough) – Vibrant, pure, and intense. Green mango, grapefruit, light orange. A slight bit of stick on the finish, but otherwise classic and very good. The class of the 2008s, for sure. (3/09)

Whitehaven 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Pea soup with artificial sweetener; here are all the old flaws, presented in a modernistic, sludgy package. And in what universe does this deserve a $23 suggested retail price? (3/09)

Woollaston 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Nelson) – Red fruit, black-hearted minerals. Incredible intensity. Very lightly sweet-seeming. Long. Huge. Impressive. One might even say tumescent. (3/09)

Dashwood 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Thin, papery, and innocuous. (3/09)

Wither Hills 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Greener than it has been in other vintages. Grass, leaves, and coal dust on the finish. Eh. (3/09)

Isabel 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Slate, cedar, and a fine particulate texture with laser-like intensity. Extremely impressive. (3/09)

Staete Landt 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Very mineral-dominated. grassy, with green apple skins. Long. Good. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Cellar Selection” 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Intense, long, and ripe, with purity and balance. Hints of black fruit. The wine glows. (3/09)

New Zealand’s enthusiastic bid for market dominance with sauvignon blanc is often remarked upon, but I think this has it backwards; it is sauvignon blanc that dominates New Zealand, and not in an entirely good way, either. Plantings have grown from just over 2000 hectares in the year 2000 to just under 12,000 in 2008, and exports have grown along similar lines: from 20 million liters in 2004 to almost 70 million liters in 2008.

It might be more useful to view those numbers in context. Over the 2004-2008 period, sauvignon blanc plantings roughly doubled (6 to 12 thousand hectares), while total plantings of all grapes only increased 66%. That’s a country losing its identity to a grape. Yes, there’s pinot noir to consider, but most of that discussion takes place in another price category, and thus I will save it for a later chapter.

But if New Zealand as a whole has to worry about this, Marlborough in particular has already lost its battle. A staggering 91% of all New Zealand sauvignon blanc comes from this one region. I think that, for many consumers, New Zealand = Marlborough = sauvignon blanc…which has a certain marketing appeal for producers who fit all three categories, but some ominous inertia for anyone looking to sell something else, especially from Marlborough.

This is not to say that Marlborough hasn’t shown an ability to produce appealing wines from this grape, though I think the picture is less clear than it was a decade ago. There are, in general, three styles that flow from the region. The first is the classic, green-dominated, somewhat abrasive style that made the region’s name, which at its best has an exciting tactility, and at its worst (underripe fruit overwhelmed with pyrazines) tastes exclusively of bell peppers and tinned vegetables. The second is the overcompensation for the first style: ripe, tropical fruit with residual sugar and an unwelcome loss of acidity. Of these two dominant styles, the first is better at getting attention, but the second is better at keeping it.

The third style is still a definite minority, and not where the big money is to be made, but where a slim hope for defining Marlborough sauvignon as something other than a commodity lies. Some producers are playing with techniques – native yeast ferments, oak regimes, lees stirring, sémillon blends – with very interesting results. Others are exploring sub-regional bottlings, though only a few are drilling down to the single-vineyard level as yet. Some are chasing minerality, which (on the evidence) is at least achievable from some sites. But in all cases, the goal is to make a sauvignon blanc of individual quality and character, in contrast to the practitioners of the two dominant styles, who are pursuing a predefined market in predetermined ways.

While the unfortunate dalliance with making sub-$10 sauvignon blanc seems to be over by international economic default (only one wine – the Dashwood – comes in below that price, and it’s one of the two worst wines of the tasting; I just don’t think it’s possible to make worthwhile Marlborough sauvignon blanc at that price point, and if it was, Villa Maria and Brancott would already be doing it), the problem is now at the other end.

The majority of these wines are over $15, though few of them perform at that level. Several are at or over $20, and while there are some successes, they aren’t as universal as they should be. Qualitatively, there’s a lot of middle-of-the-road wine here. I think an important caveat to that is that this lineup is decidedly shifted towards the mass-market, lower-end versions of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, and a more comprehensive survey would include many wines that exhibit the very character and class that I’m labeling the “third style” a few paragraphs upstream. Most of the wines are more-or-less drinkable, no more, and no less. They’re commodities. There’s nothing wrong with that – commodity wines are the bulk of the wine industry – but it’s a low foundation on which to build an identity as a wine-producing region. If Marlborough is to grow, it will need to expand that identity beyond large-production sauvignon blanc.

Part of this, too, may be the limitations of sauvignon blanc as a grape. I wouldn’t argue, as some would, that it’s not capable of greatness, but rather that the evidence suggests that such greatness is limited to very few sites and even fewer producers. Sauvignon blanc has a lot more inherent character than chardonnay, which makes it a better choice for commodity wines, but as a result requires a greater effort to elevate it above its station.

But let’s get back to quality. Looking at this list, a number of abject failures stand out, and more than a few of them are among the cheapest wines in the tasting: Matua Valley, Monkey Bay, Nobilo “Regional Collection”, Babich, Allan Scott, Nautilus, Drylands, Kennedy Point, Spy Valley, Dashwood, and Whitehaven. That last one earns special mention for carrying a $23 suggested price and still being awful. But what strikes me most about this list is the popularity of the wines on it; these are the labels one sees in every store and on every wine list. That’s unfortunate.

The successes? I’d put those in two categories. First, the mass-market and under$20 successes: Oyster Bay, Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice”, Goldwater, Villa Maria “Private Bin”, Vavasour, Staete Landt, and Brancott “Reserve” (the latter is a surprise, since it has underperformed for quite a few vintages previous to this one).

Then there are the “stars” of the tasting. From the top down: Villa Maria “Cellar Selection”, Isabel, Saint Clair Pioneer Block 1, and Woollaston. But, one may wonder, why is “stars” in scare quotes? Because while I’d happily buy and drink any of these wines, none is paradigm-defining or truly world-class. The days of excited whispers about Marlborough sauvignon blanc – “hey, have you tasted Cloudy Bay? – are long gone. What’s going to replace them? We’re still in the process of finding out.


5 Comments

  • Florida Jim

    April 4, 2009

    Very engaging comments.
    I have pretty much sworn off NZ sauvignon except at the odd restaurant where nothing else is available.
    And I too think the grape can be special from the right site and in the right hands.
    I hope the third style catches on; maybe it would make a difference. But E. Vatan and Cotat have nothing to fear at this point, even at their elevated pricing.
    Best, Jim

    Reply
  • thor iverson

    April 4, 2009

    No, indeed they don’t.

    Reply
  • Anonymous

    April 6, 2009

    “Oyster Bay 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Seashell, green apple. Intense. Short finish. Not bad. (3/09)”
    Believe it or not, this is Australia’s top-selling white wine. In fact, of the top-10 whites, either 4 or 5 (I forget which) are Marlborough ‘savvies.’
    I agree with your ‘3-types’ analysis also, and think that the 3rd option certainly offers the most interest. I believe that the very earliest SBs to make the splash back in the late 80s / early 90s – ie. Cloudy Bay – often had a little semillon blended in, but rarely mentioned on the label. Doubt that’s the case much any more – and that named style of Semillon-Sauvignon seems to have become the standard offering from Western Australia these days.

    I’ll still buy an NZ sauvignon over the equivalent pinot gris, I’d have to say (also thinking of your earlier comments). Not to mention that they’re generally cheaper as well.
    cheers,
    Graeme

    Reply
  • thor iverson

    April 7, 2009

    There are, as I noted, some sauvignon blanc/semillon blends, but a good portion of those are more rote than purposeful. But there are definitely a few of interest; the desire to play with semillon seems, at times, to go hand-in-hand with natural yeasts, lees stirring, and the like. In other words, the model is no longer the Loire, it’s Bordeaux.

    Of course, some of the latter overdo the oak, or the lees, and fail in new ways. But at least there’s some movement.

    Agreed on sauvignon blanc/pinot gris; the former at least has character in most of its guises. Pinot gris made without testing the limits (or not on a great terroir) is pretty innocuous. I suppose that’s why it’s so popular.

    Reply
  • Ron McFarland

    April 7, 2009

    Your commentary is a fair commentary on the current state of New Zealand wine. I do wonder about a couple of things.

    1. how challenging is it to taste that many high volume sauvignon blancs, with high acidity and grapefruit tones and not lose your sense of taste?

    Have you ever tried tasting pinot noir first? I had an interesting experience one day and we started tasting pinot first, blends second and then moving to to SB and finishing with sparkling. I now refer to it as a “Maui Tasting”

    2. These events have become somewhat generic in nature and generally show wines from the larger players, whose methods are geared to meeting price points rather than quality goals.

    You probably know the numbers that approximately 87% of New Zealand producers make less than 25K cases per year. Within this group, the number is probably less than 15K cases.

    Imagine an event featuring wines from California, Italy or France where the majority of the wine presented was high volume, price point wine.

    I truly believe the next chapter of the New Zealand wine story is just around the corner and will offer consumers tremendous diversity of styles, especially when the context is food and wine,as this is the focus and intent of these small handcraft producers.

    The challenge is these wines will be a treasure hunt to find.

    Ron McFarland
    http://www.NewZealandFoodWines.com

    Reply

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