Grassy, citrusy and refreshingly crisp, sauvignon blanc is New Zealand's top export wine for good reason. Our judges select the best of the best.
Despite the fashions of the time being crafted from itchy fabrics of dubious flammability, a lot of excellent stuff actually happened in 1974. Yours truly was born (shout out to Waipukurau Maternity), we all watched M*A*S*H*, the great game of Connect Four was released, everybody was "Kung Fu Fighting" and we ate at Cobb & Co. And just quietly, Bill Spence from Matua Valley released New Zealand’s first sauvignon blanc. In 1976, when Montana planted it in major scale in Marlborough (of all places!), the industry scratched its head. What even was this grape? But by the late 1980s the world was well and truly taking notice. English wine critic Oz Clark describes his first New Zealand sauvignon blanc experience as follows: “My world of wine would never be the same again. There had never before been a wine that crackled and spit its flavours at you from the glass. A wine that took the whole concept of green – and expanded it, stretched it and pummelled it and gloriously re-interpreted it in a riot of gooseberry and lime zest, green apples, green pepper sliced through with an ice cold knife of steel, piles of green grass, the leaves from a blackcurrant bush, and, just in case this was all too much to take – a friendly dash of honey and the chaste kiss of a peach.” Oz’s first Kiwi sauv experience was the 1983 Montana Marlborough sauvignon blanc at a wine event in London, whereas mine was a glass of 1992 Stoneleigh Marlborough sauvignon blanc at the end of my waitressing shift at Bardellis in Christchurch in 1993. But like Oz, its eruption of cut grass, citrus, capsicum and tomato leaf loveliness had my eyes squinting and my world would never be the same either.
Today 86 percent of our total wine exports are sauvignon blanc, meaning the world’s thirst for New Zealand sauvignon blanc is still unslakeable. It’s grown in every local wine region and is the country's most widely planted variety, with over 26,000 hectares under vine, meaning it produces three-quarters of New Zealand’s total wine output. Seventy-five percent of all sauvignon blanc is planted in Marlborough.
With wines from 2022 appearing on the market, it was time to assess the State of the Sauvignon! So we locked in a team of expert judges who sipped their way through a sea of citrusy, grassy goodness to find the best examples from across the motu.
“Sauvignon blanc is a straightforward wine style,” says Barry Riwai. “What you smell is what you taste, and the intensity of flavour is what I enjoy.” Matt Kirby felt the biggest differences he saw between the recent vintages were more classic flavours in the 2021s with the 2022s showing a little more work in the winery and a real intent to achieve balance. “I think the best way to win gold is to pack as much flavour and aroma in as you possibly can,” says Barry. “This of course starts in the vineyard with crop yield (keep it low) but also needs careful handling in the winery to achieve the best results.”
Except for sparkling styles, we received entries that spanned the classic, barrel-fermented and blended sides of the spectrum, which shows our winemakers are stretching sauvignon to every potential style.
While much of the sauvignon blanc in New Zealand might be consumed over a bowl of salt and vinegar chips, Barry suggests a combo of prosciutto and rockmelon or ripe nectarine. Matt suggests going for seafood or salt and pepper quail, or cheeseboards for barrel-fermented styles.
One thing’s for certain, the global thirst for New Zealand’s signature variety is becoming more demanding – so we need to get amongst the good stuff while we can!
Top of the Tasting
1. Wairau River Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($20) - Gold Medal
Our judges' jaws dropped with every sip of this searingly dry, incredibly concentrated style bursting with crystalline complexity. Yvonne found its jalapeño, smoked grapefruit and capsicum notes elevated it to epic heights, while Matt and Barry both commented on its generosity and ‘flow’. It’s a truly stunning example from a challenging vintage. wairauriverwines.com
2. Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($33.90)Gold Medal
Devastatingly delicious lemon and lime and river stone minerality made this wine stand out for Matt, while Barry was seduced by its passionfruit, guava and green melon notes, alongside its drive and weight. With ultra-herbaceous layers saturated with classic citrus and cut grass, “it’s a true classic and an exceptional example,” said Yvonne. saintclair.co.nz
3. Vavasour Papa Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($30) Gold Medal
Vavasour are absolute aristocrats when it comes to crafting great sauvignon blanc and the ‘Papa’ is no exception. Its powerful, smoky jalapeño and citrus assertiveness impressed our judges immediately. Barry was wowed by its gorgeous green pepper, tropical and yellow tamarillo layers and Matt applauded its salinity and mineral complexity. vavasour.com
4. Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($26) Gold Medal
“A big, ripe, juicy, generously tropical style,” said Matt, while Barry noted dill, mango and powerful complexity on the palate. “It’s feisty, fragrant and fanging with flavour,” added Yvonne. yealands.co.nz
5. Delta Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($19.99) Gold Medal
“Complex, slightly smoky, white pepper and acres of herbaceousness,” Yvonne said, while Barry noted nettles, passionfruit and mango and all judges enjoyed how bold yet balanced this wine was. deltawines.co.nz
6. Grove Mill Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($19) Gold Medal
Bursting with pineapple, lemon zest and tropical sweetness balanced by racy acidity, all the judges felt this was a powerfully built wine. “Elderflower and citrus complexity lead to finely tuned textures and a long, lingering finish,” said Yvonne. grovemill.co.nz
7. Montana Winemakers Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($12.99) Gold Medal
This crunchy-fresh classic erupts with citrus and capsicum characters. Matt loved its lychee and passionfruit punchiness while Barry noted its thyme and nettle-laced mid-palate. Juicy and delicious. Widely available in supermarkets.
8. Yealands Babydoll Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($18.99)Gold Medal
Hugely fresh and floral, this wine had our judges writing phrases like "laser-like acidity", "pear and guava generosity" and, "herbal complexity". It’s a very satisfying, succulent sip indeed. yealands.co.nz
9. Lake Chalice Falcon Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($19.99) Gold Medal
Ultra-bright and bursting with lime and green apple goodness, this sauvignon is sure to please. Matt enjoyed its peachy generosity while Barry added “fennel, gardenia and sweet florals” to the mix. lakechalice.com
10. Ara Single Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($18.99)Gold Medal
If peppermint tea, blackcurrant buds and lemon are your thing, then this is for you! Beautifully balanced and roaring with lemongrass and capsicum characters, a glass of this grassy goodness will soothe any situation. arawines.co.nz
11. Man O’ War Waiheke Island Gravestone 2019 ($29.90) Silver Medal
Deeply complex, this softly smoky, mineral-driven wine from Waiheke is fabulously fleshy and immediately impressed our judges. ”It’s showing purposeful acidity alongside melon and pineapple notes,” added Barry, while Matt loved its long, flinty finish. manowar.co.nz
12. Mount Riley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2022 ($15) Silver Medal
Heaving with lime zest, green apples and herbaceousness, our judges all felt this wine had excellent potential. “Very attractive and edgy, the floral layers are lovely,” said Yvonne and Matt enjoyed its weighty, rich finish. A great young wine. mountriley.co.nz
A Race to be First!
This year, the Nikau Point New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc 2022 was released on 4 April. The grapes were harvested in February 2022, processed into wine, bottled and labelled in late March, and ready to go by the first week of April. That’s just four weeks from berry to bottle!
Enter the dish tasting panel:
Bring on the Big Reds
Our next dish Tasting Panel will focus on New Zealand Reds . Results to be published in issue 115 of dish, on-sale 13 May 2024. Entries close on Wednesday 20th March. We'd love to see your wines so please enter here!