An Ode to Sauvignon Blanc
Today is May 1st, 2020 – and lots of things are not as they should be at this time of year. From Manchester to Marlborough, the coronavirus pandemic has plunged us deep into total disruption of our normal ways of life. Lockdowns abound and the teams at Zoom, FaceTime and Houseparty have never been so busy. However, despite the chaos, the wine industry is doing a fabulous job of finding new and innovative ways to communicate about the most brilliant of beverages, and today is a particularly good day to keep an eye on your social media … for today, we celebrate the ever-popular, ever-controversial Sauvignon Blanc grape on International Sauvignon Blanc Day!
The Rise of Marlborough Savvy B
Sauvignon has a long history which begins in France, several hundred years ago. Both the Loire Valley and Bordeaux have a long heritage of Sauvignon Blanc viticulture – the Loire’s famous Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé wines are both made from Sauvignon, whilst classic white Bordeaux wines are blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Indeed, the name Sauvignon is said to be derived from the French sauvage, meaning wild, which refers to both the grape’s extremely vigorous growth and the shape of the leaves, which are similar to those of wild grapevines. However, I always think that this grape never really found its place in Europe in the same way as some other grapes. The most iconic, enduring pairings of wine and region are inextricably linked - for example, Nebbiolo and Piedmont, Pinot Noir and Burgundy, Tempranillo and Rioja - but Sauvignon Blanc hadn’t really found its spiritual home in quite the same way.
This all changed in the 1970s, in a quiet corner of the Southern Hemisphere on New Zealand’s South Island. The wine company Montana (now known today as Brancott Estate) had acquired a few choice cuttings of Sav B vines and planted the first commercial Sauvignon Blanc vineyard on the flatlands of Marlborough’s Wairau Valley, an area basking in the longest sunlight hours in all New Zealand and almost solely dedicated to sheep farming, … a sleepy community where not much else was happening. This turned out to be what we can confidently call a big move, and one that would shape the drinking habits of much of the rest of the world over the next 50 years. Sauvignon started to spread – first through Marlborough, then New Zealand, then across the rest of the world as a finished wine. Throughout the 1980s, wine critics exclaimed and gesticulated over what represented an alarming, exciting departure from any wine we’d seen before. This wine was bright, confident, unapologetic, unabridged, and thanks to some outstanding vintages from the now-legendary Cloudy Bay in the late 80s, became incredibly popular with drinkers and aficionados alike. Sauvignon Blanc had found its home, and its home was New Zealand.
However, like all celebrities, Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc can now tend to experience a certain level of bad press. Some who consider themselves wine aficionados can roll their eyes at their mate ordering a Marlborough Sav in the pub – in my opinion the vinous equivalent of laughing at people who like Westlife because they’re sooo, y’know … mainstream. Sometimes, choosing something that isn’t Savvy B is seen as an indicator that you know more about wine than the average person. Having spent some time working in hospitality, it’s striking how those ordering wine will often ask for Sauvignon in an apologetic tone of voice, like they’re committing a crime against wine. Sometimes, people even order Sancerre because they don’t like Sauvignon Blanc (but that’s another story entirely) But the thing is, Westlife have the most Number 1 singles in UK chart history (14, to be exact) and have sold about a gazillion records and I assume therefore are all very happy people and aren’t really fussed whether you like their music or not. And so it also goes with Sauvignon Blanc … scoff, if you will, but this wine is a megastar. And I own every album Westlife ever made.
The Westlife Effect
Why do we love Sauvignon so? I have a couple of theories … on a consumer level, this is a wine that is consistent and reliable. When we order it, we know what we’re getting – gooseberry and guava, passion fruit and cut grass, green pepper and jalapeño. The high acidity is a great pairing with lots of rich, fatty foods as well as Asian dishes, and it gives even those with the most minimal wine knowledge an element reassurance and confidence when ordering in a bar, pub or restaurant (oh lord, remember ordering in restaurants?) I think this is brilliant. In my book, anything that makes people feel more confident about wine in general can’t be bad. Especially if it gives you the confidence to then start trying things that are a little bit different (for those wanting to expand their Sauvignon horizons, I’d suggest my beloved Riesling, Grüner Veltiner, or a good-quality Chenin Blanc – Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin are in fact genetic cousins!)
On a wine student level, if you’ve ever experienced the pure joy of entering a blind tasting exam and being presented with a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, you will understand exactly what I mean when I say that this simply is a wine that cannot be mistaken for anything else than what it is. And when you are in a situation where a pass or fail depends on correctly identifying and describing what’s in your glass, a taste of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is nothing short of a glorious gift from Heaven itself.
On a personal level, my appreciation of this grape variety is inextricably linked with my never-ending passion for the country that grows most of it. Three visits to New Zealand have each ended with me leaving a bit more of my heart there each time, as well as a deeper understanding of what Sauvignon Blanc really is – because, make no mistake, this grape is more pliable than it gets credit for – and the people who make it. The Savs of Hawke’s Bay are not the Savs of Waiheke Island, any more than Marlborough wines are like those of Central Otago. New Zealand is a place of incredible regionality, where the simple matter of a few miles (and a couple of mountains and a river and perhaps the after-effects of an earthquake on the terrain) can make a profound difference to the finished wine. It’s also very receptive to different winemaking techniques, with wild fermentation (allowing wild yeasts to ferment the grape juice sugars to alcohol at its own pace, rather than adding it yourself) and time spent either fermenting or aging in oak creating a totally different profile. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is no one-trick pony, and love it or hate it, I don’t think it’s right to treat it as such. It must also be praised for turning the eyes of the world towards New Zealand winemaking in general, and if an appreciation for Marlborough Sav makes wine drinkers more open to trying a Hawke’s Bay Syrah, a Central Otago Pinot Noir or a gorgeous Riesling from just about anywhere, then great.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Savvy B really cares what we think of it, because it’s nailing life. It is the epitome of confidence, never apologetic about what it is. It’s a conversation starter and is embraced by millions of wine drinkers the world over because it never makes promises it can’t keep (actually, Sauvignon would probably be a pretty good boyfriend/girlfriend, if it came to it). I wish I had one tenth of the confidence that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has. This is a democratic grape which has almost singlehandedly transformed the face of casual wine drinking around the world, given those who find wine intimidating a hook to hang their hat on, and done it without even breaking a sweat. If that isn’t a grape worth celebrating, I don’t know what is!
If you’re looking to broaden your Savvy B horizons, here are a few of my favourites – either excellent examples of classic Sav at its best, or something a little different …
Rippon Sauvignon Blanc – Central Otago
Rippon are one of New Zealand’s foremost biodynamic wine producers, and each wine they produce is a masterclass in poise and sensitivity, produced in the most southerly winegrowing region on earth. This Sauvignon I find more herbaceous than some, which is right up my street – cut grass and fresh rainfall, green capsicum, a hint of jalapeño pepper. Rippon’s wines make my heart sing a bit, and I’d recommend them to anyone.
Elephant Hill, ‘Sea’ Series Sauvignon Blanc – Hawke’s Bay
I love the principle behind this wine. The vines for the Sea series are grown so close to the coast that the sea spray waters the vines and soil, creating a uniquely saline profile. You can quite literally lick salt crystals off the leaves if you walk through the vines. What this means for the vines, sadly, is that they don’t live for a particularly long time, as salt is corrosive and shortens their lifespan. However, what it creates is a startling, bracing, saline wine that tastes like sea breeze and citrus and is sublime with seafood. (There’s an equally good ‘Sea’ Viognier in the same vein that I’d also recommend)
Te Whare Ra Sauvignon Blanc 2019 – Marlborough I’m not entirely sure if this is a recommendation for this particular wine, or the winery in general, or both, but we’ll go with it. Anna Flowerday, owner and joint winemaker with her husband Jason, is a force of winemaking nature, and I challenge you to find two people more passionate about their environment. Their classic Sauvignon is just one in a long line up of outstanding wines, showcasing the enthusiasm that Anna and Justin bring to everything – bracing, racy acidity, buoyant tropical fruit and a bit of zippy jalapeño with bags of energy.
Dog Point ‘Section 94’ Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough
Dog Point are one of Marlborough’s most beloved exports, and only produce four wines – a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir (both delicious) and two styles of Sauvignon Blanc. The classic Sauvignon Blanc is great, but it’s the Section 94 that steals my heart every time. Single vineyard fruit spends 18 months in old oak barrels, creating mega texture and complexity. This is the first Sauvignon Blanc I ever drank where I really got what people meant when they talked about asparagus aromas (yes, really!) but this also has bucketloads of crisp ripe citrus and a little bit of almond from the oak that I just can’t get enough of.
Yealands Estate ‘State of Flux’ Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough
Last but not least, a great Sav from one of Marlborough’s biggest producers. Yealands have had a storming decade of award-winning awesomeness, going from strength to strength under the steady hand of head winemaker Natalie Christensen, and the State of Flux is a brilliant example of how to do Sav a bit differently. This wine spends 11 months in a concrete egg (the name State of Flux is a nod to the fact that wine stored in concrete eggs is in constant motion thanks to a naturally occurring convection current, hence in a state of flux) which gives an intriguing depth and minerality not standard for Sauvignon. A grown-up, elegant alternative to your average, boisterous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc
‘Wine Grapes’, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, José Vouillamoz, 2012
‘The Wines of New Zealand’, Rebecca Gibb MW, 2018