In 1973, Marlborough’s first Sauvignon blanc vines were planted. The variety quickly and emphatically established itself as the country’s flagship wine, cementingits reputation on a world stage. These days, Sauvignon blanc represents around 75% of plantings and 85% of New Zealand’s exports, most of which are made in the evocatively aromatic, pure-fruited Marlborough style – think vibrant passionfruit, red capsicum,grapefruit and freshly-cut grass. However, an increasing number of producers are exploring the subtleties of sub-regionality and/ or alternative winemaking styles incorporating wild ferments, lees and oak, and dedicated industry research into low-alcohol styles has yielded wines that moderate alcohol and calories whilst retaining classic varietal characteristics. Marlborough may dominate New Zealand’s hectarage and exports, but Sauvignon blanc is grown the length and breadth of the country, providing a diverse array of styles to explore.
NEW ZEALAND’S SUB-REGIONS
New Zealand comprises a long, slender mountainous pair of main islands spanning 13 latitudes, and as such has a surprisingly diverse array of wine regions fromthe sub-tropical climes of Northland, to the world’s most southerly vineyards in Central Otago. Sauvignon blanc is planted in all of New Zealand’s wine regions, though as expected, Marlborough dominates production by a significant margin. As a generalization, the more northerly regions produce styles rich in ripe stonefruit and melon flavours with an affffinity for oak-ageing,whilst the southerly regions’ cooler climates and longer growing seasons emphasise vibrantly
pure fruit profiles of passionfruit, tropical fruits, capsicum, gooseberry and grapefruit/lime, and crisp acidity.
1/ Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest region for Sauvignon blanc, blessed with high sunshine, low rainfall, and a long growing season with a significantdiurnal shift throughout. This intensifies the naturally vibrant varietal character of Sauvignon blanc whilst retaining characteristic high crisp acidity. The soils are mostly stony old riverbeds but towards the hills, deeper clay- based, wind-blown loess soils can produce richer, more textural wines. Most wines are blended from fruit across the main valleys but there is an increasing number of sub-regional wines onoffffer: the main Wairau Valley fruit tends to deliver a ripe, pungent wine style; the clay-based Southern Valleys soils can produce a stonefruit- rich, textural style; while a more herbaceous (tomato stalk, basil and jalapeno) and citrus/mineral fruit profile comes from the cooler Awatere Valley.
2/ Hawke’s Bay on the North Island’s eastern coast has a temperate maritime-influenced climate, which typically delivers a riper, rounder style of Sauvignon blanc with relatively lower acidity and rich tropical fruit flavours. There are a number of well- regarded oak-influenced styles from this region.
3/ Nelson is an hour or so drive west of Marlborough over a mountain range and vies with it for the title of New Zealand’s sunniest region. Nelson’s Sauvignon blancs are vividly aromatic with a rich medley of tropical fruit, citrus, lime, basil with generously-fruity palates.
4/ Canterbury & North Canterbury (home to the sub- region of Waipara) on the South Island’s central eastern coast produce elegant Sauvignon blanc with good intensity, bright minerality and clear varietal typicity.
5/ Wairarapa is likely better known for sub-region Martinborough’s world class Pinot noir, but it also produces small volumes of expressive Sauvignon blanc, displaying fine minerality and crunchy acidity.
5/ Gisborne, on North Island’s east coast (to the north of Hawke’s Bay), enjoys a mild sunny climate, which is reflected in its generously fruited, fuller- bodied, rounded tropical styles of Sauvignon.
6/ Central Otago is New Zealand’s most southerly region for winegrowing and best known for its arresting styles of Pinot noir but there is a small number of well-regarded Sauvignon blancs. Generally, these are made in a linear, lighter-bodied style, delicately aromatic with gooseberry, pineapple, capsicum and fresh herbs, and firm, citrussy acidity.
New Zealand has recently enacted Geographical Indication (GI) legislation protecting its wine regions and styles.
PREDOMINANT CLIMATE PATTERNS AND SOIL TYPES
Overall, New Zealand has a cool-temperate, maritime- influenced climate though due to its long thin mountainous topography, regions that are within a few hundred kilometres (at most) from one another canbe markedly different in terms of climate influences. Most regions have a moderating maritime influence and summer temperatures seldom rise above 30 degrees Celsius. Cooling sea-breezes and/or proximity to mountain ranges deliver long growing seasons and significant diurnal shifts are a feature of all but the most northerly regions. Central Otago has the closest conditions to a continental climate within New Zealand, and courtesy of the strong rain shadow effect of the Southern Alps to its west, also experiences the lowest rainfall in an NZ wine region, at around 400 mm a year.
New Zealand’s soils are diverse, reflecting its youth and volcanic, mountainous origin. Most wine regions are centred around old river plains and feature stony, free-draining soils based upon the predominant greywacke sandstone. However, there is a wide range of clay and windblown, loess-based soils found in vineyards as well as old glacier valleys of schist/granite in Central Otago. Limestone is relatively rare in New Zealand, though there are a few pockets in Central Hawke’s Bay, North Canterbury and North Otago. Typically, New Zealand Sauvignon vineyards are on flat or gently undulating land, but increasingly producers are exploring the hillsides, particularly in Marlborough’s Southern Valleys sub-region.
Emma Jenkins MW
Every month, a different producer country will be featured, from the classics such as France and New Zealand to more unexpected destinations such as Austria or Spain. For the next one, we go to Italy.