Tasting Panel – Sauvignon Blanc

From issue #74.September 25, 2017
Tasting Panel – Sauvignon Blanc

There’s no doubting that sauvignon blanc is New Zealand’s biggest vinous drawcard. With so many on the market, the Dish Tasting Panel picks out the very best of the best.

Last August was the 45th anniversary of the very first grapevines to be planted in Marlborough’s Brancott Valley.

At the time, many thought growing grapes was madness, but today, our annual wine exports are valued at $1.63 billion, wine is now New Zealand’s fifth largest export good by value and we have over 37,100 hectares planted in vines. And sauvignon blanc? It comprises 59 per cent of our total vineyard area, we grow seven times more of it than any other white variety, no other country makes it like we do, and it’s absolutely our global calling card in the world of wine.

If we were looking for a liquid national treasure, it would be the crisp, gum-tingling, grassy, passionfruit-laden, herbaceous beverage we know as Marlborough sauvignon blanc. However, it was great to see Waipara and Central Otago earning gold medals in our tasting of 125 entries. “This tasting impressed me with its overall high quality,” said judge Jane Boyle. “Our winemakers take their role very seriously and it’s gratifying to see they’re not resting on their laurels where quality and innovation are concerned.”

Our judges were also very impressed to see the number of wines that were entered in the oak-influenced category. In fact, six of our top 10 wines underwent full or partial fermentation in oak, which is a huge indicator of how our preferences for sauvignon are changing. We’re looking for interesting, groovy, complex sauvignons that linger long on the tastebuds and provide the perfect partner for all manner of meals.

“In the past, these wines have sometimes been over-oaked and overworked to the point where the fruit characters were completely overwhelmed,” added Jane. “Our top-scoring wines showed not only purity of fruit but also skilful winemaking and oak usage which was both considered and discrete.” With oak, there’s a fine balance between success and failure.

“The best of these wines showed far greater complexity than their stainless steel fermented brothers,” commented winemaker Patrick Newton. “These wines will be great with food and will age gracefully.”

So how about 2017? “It’s no secret that with terrible weather during harvest in Marlborough, 2017 was always going to be a challenging vintage,” commented judge and wine consultant Colin Ford. “The conundrum presented itself,” added Patrick, “pick early before rain and have more of the herbaceous aromas with racy acidity, or risk rot and dilution by leaving it through the rain to gain more tropical notes. Overall the 2017s were a mixed bag with many being on the lighter end of the flavour spectrum.”

“What’s surprising is how well many of the wines we tasted from 2017 did stack up,” said Colin. “The best were clean and fresh, with flavours more towards the lime and mineral end of the spectrum than the passionfruity flavours of riper vintages.”

“The 2016s were more concentrated with greater length and weight –  showcasing the excellent growing season and extra time in the bottle,” added Patrick. “However, there were signs of age popping into some of the wines, with canned asparagus/pea notes. These are best drunk in the next year.”

For The French Café sommelier and new Dish judge Stephanie Guth, this tasting was an education. “Marlborough sauvignon was the fastest growing wine style/segment in the market I worked in previously (Ontario). But the shelves are full of big brand names that all make a pretty uniform expression and style of the grape. It took coming to New Zealand to see that sauvignon is grown all over the country and comes in many different styles; barrel-aged, wild yeasts, lees contact, skin-contact, whole bunches, blending … there’s definitely a style to suit all palates.”

Style/varietal: Sauvignon Blanc
Tasting date: Sunday, August 13th, 2017
Entries: 125

Yvonne Lorkin (Dish drinks writer)
Jane Boyle (Wine consultant)
Stephanie Guth (sommelier at The French Cafe)
Cameron Douglas MS (Senior Lecturer AUT and Master Sommelier)
Patrick Newton (Winemaker at Mudbrick Vineyard)
Colin Ford (Director of Winework Solutions)

Rating System
Gold ★★★★★ – ​Superb. Strongly recommended.
Silver ★★★★ – A cut above the rest in quality.
Bronze ★★★ – A good quality crowd-pleaser.
Best buy
– Wines which retail for $20 or less and earned 5 star and Gold medal status.

(NB: All wines are judged blind and the scores of judges for their own wines cannot exceed those of other judges.)


1. TE PĀ
Oke Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($25)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

Our top wine of the tasting is way more like a “crazy, complex, smoky, roasty, toasty white wine” than your standard sauvignon blanc. Aromas of pine pollen, marzipan and smoked passionfruit are followed by lemongrass, lime leaf and tropical tastiness. Colin enjoyed the mandarin and vanilla bean characters, while “great texture” and “delicious complexity” came from Cameron and Stephanie. Essentially, it’s sauvignon blanc for chardonnay lovers, produced by a family that can trace their roots back to the first Maori landing at the Wairau Bar 800 years ago. Simply outstanding.

2. TE PĀ
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($19)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

“Wow! This wine is sex on a stick,” announced Jane. “Whoever made this wine knows what they’re doing.” Well, it turns out, te Pā’s winemakers Liam McElhinney and Sam Bennett, owner Haysley MacDonald, and the hardworking vineyard team, have really poured all their talent into creating an incredibly concentrated, ultra-flavoursome sauvignon from a challenging vintage.
“Racy and intense,” added Patrick. “It’s a stonefruit, passionfruit taste explosion and I love the flintiness on the palate.” Combine classic capsicum, crushed herbs, citrus and tomato leaf loveliness and you’ve got gold medal material right here.

Waipara Sauvignon Semillon 2015 ($31)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

An absolute classic, none of our judges were surprised to see this wine appear in the top 10. Mat Donaldson and his winemaking team have really set the bar for this exotic and exciting style over the decades. Thirty-year-old vines produced a wine boasting creamy, peachy characters alongside fine acidity, elegance and length, according to Cameron, while Colin felt it was a firm and classy example of a rare blend here in New Zealand. The oak component was beautifully handled and extended lees aging adds softness, complexity and length. Gorgeous stuff.

Equinox Waipara Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($34.90)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

“This is a very pretty wine” noted Stephanie, while Cameron and Colin were both wowed by its lifted mandarin, kaffir lime, apple and peachy layers. Named after the equinox winds that roar across the Canterbury plains, and grown in Glasnevin loam soils over deep gravel, the vines have produced a multi-layered, highly textural sauvignon blanc indeed. Hundred per cent of the wine was fermented in French oak (15 per cent of which were new barrels) then matured for six months to add complexity. Winemaker Andrew Brown comes from a farming family, but we’re beyond thrilled he chose the wine life instead.

Gold River Central Otago Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($27)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

Just 10 per cent of this wine underwent barrel ferment, yet it’s added a truckload of finesse to this southern stunner. “A lovely, sophisticated, elegantly minerally sauvignon that’s very, very drinkable,” noted Jane, while Yvonne was completely seduced by its powerful passionfruit, lemon and lime layers, floral notes and incredibly juicy, succulent mouthfeel. Patrick loved the refreshing length of flavour and it was easy to see how winemaker Christopher Keys scooped gold here. Never tried Central Otago sauvignon? Here’s a great place to start.

Woolshed Vineyard Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($22.99)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

The Woolshed Vineyard is Mud House’s spiritual sauvignon blanc home, so it’s fantastic to see it appearing in our top picks. Yvonne loved the pungency of its classic capsicum and powerful passionfruit flavours, while Patrick added gooseberry and citrus to his list of loves. “Brisk, very bright and lovely lifted aromatics of alpine herbs,” commented Jane and while a small proportion underwent barrel fermentation, this was very much a classic, crunchy, signature Marlborough style.

Marlborough Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($25)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

Lawson’s are one of the aristocrats of sauvignon blanc, and with wines like this, it’s easy to see how they maintain that status. With punchy nettles, passionfruit, lemongrass and a hint of flint and gunsmoke, our judges all found this a very attractive wine indeed. Yvonne loved the line of white pepper and fresh-picked puha on the nose and felt it had excellent complexity and length. Intense in every respect, it’s a wine the Lawson’s team can be seriously proud of.

Limited Release Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($20)

★★★★★ Gold Medal
Matt Murphy is another winemaker with a farming background and it’s his affinity with the produce of the land that keeps Mount Riley in the wine spotlight we’re sure. Brand new and boasting a deliciously dry texture and lush, terrifically tropical textures and flavours, this is a sauvignon that’ll have your lips smacking and your cheeks slapping in no time. Juicy lemon, sweet basil, classic gooseberry and sugar snap pea notes all wash across the palate.

Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 $21.95
★★★★★ Gold Medal

Extremely fresh and packed with varietal “punch” according to Jane, this was an instant hit with our judges. “Limes, melon, juicy citrus and beautiful balance,” is what won Patrick over and everyone else agreed. “It’s highly aromatic, with dried herbs and hay-like complexity with impressive generosity and texture,” added Yvonne. Winemaker Tim Adams has crafted something really special here, it’s a wine that will definitely win friends and influence people.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($21.99)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

If you prefer your sauvignon bursting with herbaceous intensity, buckets of citrus and lovely, mineral-driven layers of flavour, then you’ve come to the right cul-de-sac. “Loads of green, grassy notes and tropical fruit,” noted Stephanie, while Cameron was impressed with its beautiful balance and length. The Huntaway Reserve has been scooping medals since its first release in 1996, and it shows no sign of stopping any time soon. It’s an extremely well-made wine for certain.