Anna King Shahab celebrates Marlborough's finest drop with a cellar door tour
By pure coincidence, I woke up on International Sauvignon Blanc Day in Marlborough, the world's most dynamic place to enjoy it. Since the first commercial sauvignon blanc vines were planted in the mid-1970s in this part of the country, the region has staked its claim on the world wine map as the capital of New World sauvignon blanc. Or perhaps that's the world capital, it depends who's doing the talking.
Four cellar door or tasting room visits, complete with lovely chats with winemakers, sparked a renewed appreciation for this variety, which can differ greatly depending on which sub-region the grapes are grown in, the winemaking style, and even how long the wine has been cellared (spoiler alert: yes, you can age a good sav!)
Rather than a cellar door at the winery, Whitehaven's tasting room is handily located in the hospo and activities hub of Vines Village. Founded by husband and wife team Greg and Sue White in 1994, Whitehaven has parcels of land and sources from contact growers in landscapes spanning the gamut of the region. As a special treat, winemaker Peter Jackson brought along samples of four different sauvignon blancs from the 2022 vintage, yet to be filtered or bottled – a taste sensation and great reminder of the importance of good fruit in winemaking. Sue White shared a little of her business's story as we tasted our way through several wines, alongside delectable platters of local charcuterie and cheeses. Moody Cow's "Sandon" – a white rind, ash-coated cow's cheese from a small local producer – is an absolute knock-out with sav.
"We're not a small winery", says White, "But we hold small winery values". All the grapes are Marlborough-grown and processed. Through the 90s and beyond, the Whites toured endless expos and tastings to get their wine recognised overseas, particularly in the US, where, White says, "We used to take a map because no one knew where NZ was! In the mid-90s, sauvignon blanc didn't look like the future; it was a risk and we were starting from scratch…sauvignon blanc became a phenomenon in my time."
The Greg Sauvignon Blanc we tasted – made from grapes from a single block in the Awatere Valley, only in years "Where the fruit is good enough" – is a beautiful ode to White's late husband and co-founder, and an example of how multi-layered Marlborough sav can be. "It's not just out-and-out fruit here", says White, "But more complexity, texture, interest, and secondary notes".
If I'm travelling overseas in parts where wine isn't produced, I seek out Cloudy Bay sav on the wine list and often find it. To me it's a reassuring taste of home; it's no wonder, as Cloudy Bay is one of a handful of wineries that helped put Marlborough sauvignon blanc on the world map. The cellar door is hugely popular and with bold plans under way for an impressive renovation, things are set to get even more alluring.
Tanya at the cellar door served our tasting of three sauvignon blancs – the current 2021 release, the 2016, and the Te Koko, and was full of knowledge. The first two demonstrated degrees, subtly altered by ageing, of that irrefutable taste of home – a vibrant whack of fruit backed up by minerality. "We crop a bit lower, later on; we like to let the berries ripen as long as possible to get that really yellow fruit flavour spectrum", explains Cloudy Bay's guests' relations manager Nicky Hewett. That and "the greywacke stony soil" are at the heart of this classic Wairau Valley expression of the grape.
Te Koko is a sav to grab the attention of chardonnay lovers. "The vines are older, the roots go deeper into different minerals," explains Tanya. "It's only released in years when the fruit is good enough – the grapes handpicked, gently crushed, given a wild-yeast fermentation and then put into older French oak barrels as well as 1000-litre cuvees for 11 months before bottling".
It had been a few years since I'd last visited this cellar door on Marlborough's "golden mile", and in that time, the tasting room has evolved to offer something new to the region: a fully automated tasting experience. Lining the walls of the tasting room is a library of a few dozen bottles encased in enomatic machines – these keep the wine perfectly fresh and ready to pour. Guests pick whatever they'd like to taste and scan a card to trigger each pour (costing from $2).
As a fan of a good hazy beer, my eye was caught by the 2020 Hazy Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc. It's been fermented and aged in old oak barrels. It's pumped into a tank to let the particles settle at the bottom, but not filtered; the result is a lovely wine that's still clearly a sav, but softened and rounded, with some pleasant yeastiness remaining.
Lawson's Dry Hills
After an hour or so spent sitting down with winemaker Marcus Wright and cellar door manager Nigel Whittaker, the long table we were perched at was completely covered with bottles of sauvignon blanc spanning more than 20 years' worth of vintages – everything from the current 2021 estate standard to, would you believe it, a 2001 vintage. Talking of the former, it was refreshing to hear Wright state that the estate wine – the everybody's wine, with the lowest price tag – is one of his favourites. "It's the wine we make most of and I wouldn't want to be selling something I didn't love!"
Turns out Wright's a good one for myth-busting. Common perception is that sauvignon blanc should be drunk yesterday, as in super-fresh, but there's a growing respect for the idea of ageing it. Not only does Wright advocate stashing away a bottle or two of a current vintage, he's not that fussed about exacting cellaring conditions; he reckons so long as it's away from sunlight and heat sources, you're good.
The screw cap is vital here, says Wright. "If we were opening all these vintages on the cork, there would be huge variability, from a wine that's still excellent to one that's awful and everything in between. The screwcap preserves the fruit much longer and gives consistency."
While it was wonderful having Wright take me through this tasting, you're also in for a treat with Whittaker heading up the cellar door. He's worked in the wine industry since its infancy in Aotearoa, the days when the very first sauvignon blanc vines were being put in trial plantations, and revels in sharing his knowledge in a friendly, entirely non-pretentious way.
DETAILSFor more things to see and do in the region, go to marlboroughnz.com
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