Perusing our somewhat parochial wine shelves, New Zealanders could be forgiven for thinking that we're the only country that makes half decent sauvignon blanc. However, though we may have established a reputation for our benchmark style, a country like Chile is starting to demonstrate that it may have what it takes to topple Kiwi sauvignon from its current New World pole position.
Most years I've managed to attend the major Wines of Chile tasting held in London, where of late I've started to see sauvignons that should strike fear into the hearts of any New Zealand sauvignon-makers resting on their laurels.
One winery whose examples particularly impressed was Casa Marin, which I discovered were made by Felipe Marin, who'd honed his craft in our wine industry. He seemed the perfect candidate to quiz about what's behind the new heights being scaled by Chilean sauvignon, and how the countries compare.
"As sauvignon blanc is New Zealand's flagship, the Kiwis have to keep surfing the crest of a wave in order to hold that reputation," he told me. As the countries use similar winemaking practices, for Marin, the main difference between them lies in the individual expressions of the land on which the grapes are grown, while he felt Chile's examples currently showed greater stylistic diversity.
New Zealand hit the jackpot in the seventies when it planted sauvignon in Marlborough, which turned out to be a near-perfect place for it. In contrast, Chile's early plantings were in regions too warm for good varietal expression, leading to examples that lacked the zestiness and herbal punch that made our sauvignons so popular. But Chile is catching up fast.
"The latest plantings of sauvignon blanc are in areas where the climate suits the variety very well: where you find the coolness of the ocean breeze, which results in a fresher, crisper style of sauvignon," Marin observes. "Since I arrived in Chile 12 years ago there have been a bunch of completely new coastal valleys, such as San Antonio and Casablanca, which have been 'discovered' for wine production," says Grant Phelps, a Kiwi who's now making wine in Chile at Casas del Bosque. "It's from these newer regions that the really interesting sauvignon blanc is being produced."
"Chile has also done well to not paint itself into a corner with just one easily recognised style of sauvignon blanc," he observes. "While this has made it harder to earn a reputation internationally, the result has been a more diverse and gastronomically compatible style of wine: in the long-term Chile is going to do well with its style of sauvignon blanc."
Another New Zealand winemaker who's had a boot in both camps is Brian Bicknell of Marlborough's Mahi, who once worked as chief winemaker at major Chilean winery Errazuriz. He flags up the fact that Chile had a false start with the variety because much of what it initially thought was sauvignon blanc was actually the lesser grape, sauvignonasse. However, its new plantings are the real deal, providing "greater intensity and flavour" according to Bicknell.
"I believe that Chile can make sauvignons that are similar in quality to Marlborough in its own style," Bicknell maintains. "Chile has the climate to do it and is still discovering the sites and regions to make better wines."
LOCAL SAUVIGNON STARS
Mahi Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $19.95
Brian Bicknell's impressive Marlborough sauvignons tend to the textural, like this elegant example exhibiting ripe white peach fruit overlaid with herbs and supported by silken limey acidity. (From Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Liquor King, First Glass.)
Petit Clos by Clos Henri Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $19.90
From the Marlborough venture of Sancerre sauvignon supremo, Henri Bourgeois, this is another textural example, with a complex palate of fragrant passion fruit, green capsicum and zesty grapefruit with a flinty edge. (From Point Wines, Wine Vault, Bacchus Cellars.)
FIRST RATE WAIPARA
The Third Man Darnley Corner Waipara Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $24.90
It's not just Marlborough that's able to make stellar sauvignon on our shores, as illustrated by this weighty Waipara example with its notes of ripe passionfruit, green herbs, savoury undercurrent and attractive chalky texture. (From Glengarry, Wine Vault and Point Wines.)