On Tuesday night I stumbled across a programme on FaceTV called the Wine Squad.
Five Australians sit around a table blindfolded. They have four wines in front of them and must dissect them and guess what they are and how they should be priced.
It's a bit of fun watching these guys saying things like "Oh thees is a preety noice chardonnay" when the wine is actually a pinot noir. But they get there in the end and their banter is hilarious.
It got me thinking about a fantastic wine tasting I was fortunate to luck into. It's not every day that you get to taste four top class and pricey French sauvignon blancs - Alphonse Mellot Generation 2010 (Sancere), Smith Haut Lafite 2010 (Bordeaux), Didier Dagueneau Silex 2010 (Pouilly Fum) and Henri Bourgeois Cuvee D'Anton 2010 (Sancere) - as well as two of New Zealand's top barrel-aged Marlborough examples, the Dog Point Section 94 and the Cloudy Bay Te Koko.
This tasting had one very exciting purpose: to reveal the result of years of experiments by the Brancott Estate winemaking team in creating a sauvignon blanc which would stretch the world's perception of what Marlborough sauvignon blanc can really do. This Icon Project has morphed over the past five years into a wine which represents the best they can achieve, says chief winemaker Patrick Materman, a 23-year-veteran of the company.
It was back in 1975 when Frank Yukich, founder of Montana Wines (as the company was known until recently) pioneered planting sauvignon blanc at Brancott Estate.
Those vines were to produce a style of wine the world had never seen before - herbaceous, punchy, passionfruit-driven and bursting with cut grass and cat's pee characters. It was a style which cemented New Zealand's place in the world of fine wine and we've never looked back. Then producers began taking some sauvignon blanc away from the stainless steel tanks and man-made yeasts and into more earthy territory through the use of barrel ferments, and indigenous yeasts to create some really interesting, food-friendly white wine styles that I just love.
Materman and his winemaking team had the singleminded goal of creating a style of Marlborough sauvignon blanc that would wow the wine world all over again. An ultra-premium wine that would sit comfortably in the company of those famous French examples I mentioned earlier. It's called Chosen Rows and it costs $80 a bottle.
So will an $80 Marlborough sauvignon blanc be a hard sell? I hope not because it is sublime.
So why are people prepared to pay huge prices for the "great wines of France" and not for ours? Master of wine Bob Campbell MW says: "They're not buying sauvignon blanc, they're buying Didier Dagueneau Pouilly Fum ($159) and here you're buying Marlborough sauvignon - there's heaps more of that available than the former."
Getting someone in Britain to pay 35 ($63) for a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc when they could have a premier cru example from France is the challenge, but Materman is confident the quality of the wine and the story of the wine will win them over. "Every aspect of how we'd grown and made sauvignon blanc in the past was challenged," he says. "We hand-selected and hand-picked fruit from specially chosen rows of vines within the Brancott vineyard, the original site of our sauvignon plantings in Marlborough.
"Only 3500 individually numbered bottles were produced - 1500 of those remain in New Zealand - and it's less about selling this wine than selling what we've learned in the process of making this wine" says Materman. "And it's a story which has a halo effect over the other wines we're making. It's us staking our claim in terms of hitting that peak that we've been working towards for so many years now.
"Even our Letter Series Sauvignon ($35) has changed dramatically in style over the past three years as a result of what we've learned during this process. We've tried to find a balance of both being style-driven and terroir-driven in terms of the fruit expression.
"The section of the Brancott vineyard which delivers the fruit for the Chosen Rows lends a rich, palate sweetness that we just couldn't find in any of our other 13 vineyard sites we've been trialling - hence why from 2010 we've focused on Brancott."
Some examples of barrel-fermented styles of New Zealand sauvignon blanc have a "funkiness" or "smokiness" which some people find off-putting, however the beauty of the Chosen Rows is that it has none of those things. It has delicacy and structure and people who know the Dog Point Section 94 and the Cloudy Bay Te Koko will find Chosen Rows sits somewhere in the middle of both. Those who know their French sauvignons will understand when aromatically I reckon the Chosen Rows sits perfectly in the middle of the Didier Dagueneau and the Henri Bourgeois and I love that, it's exciting.
"For us it's definitely about showing concentration, palate length and interest, I mean we still want varietal character but I'm also really enjoying what the wild ferment and oak influence can do to fine sauvignon blanc."