You'll rarely hear "subtle" and "Marlborough sauvignon blanc" in the same sentence.

The region's most famous white wine generally assaults your Nasal passages with pungent passionfruit and asparagus. Ferment it in French oak barrels and the variety can be transformed into something a little more modest, with aromas of vanilla, nuts and lemon, while retaining that mouth-watering sauvignon acidity.

White winemakers in Bordeaux have been making barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc blends for years but the style didn't make it to New Zealand shores until the 1990s. It has taken time to get the style right and many are yet to perfect it.

Tim Heath, winemaker at Cloudy Bay, which produces the barrel-fermented sav Te Koko, says: "Barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc styles are not as easy to make as you think and can easily become overblown. It becomes quite disjointed with oak and overpowers the fruit. It's a difficult balance to strike."

Yet, a handful of producers are striking that balance, making complex wines with a delicious creamy texture. Simply put, it's a halfway house between sauvignon blanc and chardonnay and is a great food wine.

Tony Bish, winemaker at Sacred Hill, believes the style "has the potential to go nuts".

So why hasn't it taken off? It's admittedly a little more expensive than tank-fermented savvy, as barrels imported from France aren't cheap, plus there aren't many producers making it. Bish adds: "It hasn't had a high profile. We would make more if people wanted it but it's not yet understood." Perhaps it's time we took that path to barrel-fermented sauvignon enlightenment.

2009 River Farm Saint Maur Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($29, Fine Wine Delivery Co, Point Wines, Bacchus Remuera)
Sauvignon is typically up front and brash but River Farm's is restrained and shows delicious delicacy. It's lost all that green herbaceous character and replaced it with subtle vanilla, nuts and lemon. A refreshing change.

2007 Vavasour Claudia's Vineyard, Marlborough ($32; six for $99 this month,
Nuts and vanilla combine with citrus on the nose. Savoury and textural with ripe apricot notes. Crisp acidity and lovely linearity on the finish.

2008 Sacred Hill Sauvage, Hawke's Bay ($34.99, Glengarry's, fine wine stores)
Barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc at its best. Zesty lemon, lime and hazelnut aromas. Attractive on the attack, medium-bodied and smooth on the mid palate. Finishes lean and clean. Plenty of life in this baby still.