Tasting Panel – Sauvignon Blanc

, from Issue #50. November 14, 2013
Tasting Panel – Sauvignon Blanc

The Dish Tasting Panel assesses Sauvignon Blancs


Varietal/Style: Sauvignon Blanc

Tasting date: September 2013

Entries: 180

Judges: Cameron Douglas (senior lecturer at AUT and Master Sommelier); Jane Boyle (wine consultant); Jo Burzynska (wine writer); James Rowan (winemaker, Westbrook Winery); Simon Fell (winemaker, Thornbury Wines). Panel led by Dish wine editor Yvonne Lorkin. 

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

Notes from Yvonne: Last August was the 40th anniversary of the very first grape vines to be planted in Marlborough’s Brancott Valley. A smorgasbord of different varieties were planted (over 1100 hectares, by hand and by the sight of a rifle to ensure straight rows) including Riesling Sylvaner, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and one that no-one had ever really heard of before: Sauvignon Blanc. 

At the time, many locals thought growing grapes was madness, but four decades on our annual wine exports are valued at $1.21 billion; we have over 34,000 hectares planted in vines; and sauvignon blanc? Well, we grow four times more of it than any other variety, no other country makes it like we do, and it’s now our global calling card in the world of wine. If we were looking for a liquid national treasure it would be the gum-tingling, lip-smackingly crisp, grassy, herbaceous, passion fruit-laden beverage we know as Marlborough sauvignon blanc. However, other regions such as Waipara, Nelson, Central Otago and Martinborough are also cementing their own sauvignon signatures, as the top wines chosen by our panel from 180 entries will show. 

“There’s a widening range of expressions stemming from regional influences and winemaking exploration,” remarked judge Cameron Douglas MS. “Wines that showed a layer of complexity from a wild ferment, or a gentle nudge of older barrel use which underpinned expressive fruit characters and crisp palate appeal really caught my attention.” 

“The wines that popped out at the top were definitely designed for the job,” agreed judge James Rowan. “They followed a path of good thiol* expression and crunchy greens on the finish.” With a bumper 2013 harvest out of Marlborough (210,000 tonnes of Sauvignon Blanc alone) it was a balancing act to ensure grapes reached their full ripeness and that everything was harvested before the season closed, according to judge Simon Fell. “One challenge many winemakers faced was keeping the intensity of flavour and vibrancy from a big harvest. Lower acids definitely played a big part in the overall style of the season.”  

Jane Boyle agreed: “This was apparent in many of the wines where the textbook sauvignon blanc zing and crunch were replaced by a softer finish. While this might not appeal to many purists, I’m sure there’ll still be many wine lovers out there who’ll relish this possibly more accessible expression of the variety.”

Bottling of some 2013 sauvignon blancs began back in May, others were bottled just prior to our tasting, and there were many we didn’t see because they’re yet to be finished. So there are doubtless wines which didn’t show as well due to bottle shock* that will probably look amazing come summer; however, a fair few of the 2012s which tasted crisp, crunchy, fruity and fresh at Christmas time last year are already “succumbing to tinned peas,” according to James Rowan. “It was great to see some of our top wines were from 2012,” added Simon, “screw caps are clearly playing a big part in retaining that freshness and longevity.”

So, despite the vagaries of the last couple of vintages there are definitely superstars out there. “History tells us we can’t afford to be complacent and rest on our laurels,” warns Jane Boyle. “But if this tasting is anything to go by, our winemakers are rising to that challenge and actively looking to push the boundaries with wines that show more complexity and interest than many of the savs of old.”

Top Wines of the Tasting

1. Stoneleigh Rapaura Series Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $30.99 ★★★★★

This is an exciting wine and “…a boxwood bomb,” according to James Rowan, “with upfront complex layers of tomato leaf, blackcurrant bud and a great explosion of a drowsy summer garden.” Drowsy gardens aside, this wine was the clear favourite as it showed a power-packed nose and palate alongside punchy, mouth-filling crunchy nettles, basil, passion fruit and lush lemon. “It’s a big wine, but all that muscle will soften slightly over the coming months and it’ll only get better,” added Cameron Douglas. It has exciting personality, zingy freshness and superb length of flavour.

2. Stoneleigh Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $25.99 ★★★★★

“The first sauvignon blanc I ever tasted was the 1993 Stoneleigh Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” said Yvonne Lorkin. “I was waitressing and it changed my life. Twenty years later their style still wows me.” Pungent and herbaceous, grassy and fruity. “A real crowd-pleaser and I really like it,” said Cameron Douglas. The wine is multi-dimensional with a blackcurrant leaf and flint addition on the nose and is succulent, juicy and very appealing. 

3. Triplebank Awatere Valley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $26.99 ★★★★★

People who adore that classic old-style spectrum of “out there and proud” sauvignon that oozes unabashedly tropical sweaty flavours – get ready! “Definitely one for those who love sav in its overt style,” commented Jane Boyle, while Simon Fell added that it is  “…quite lively, fresh with vibrant aromatics, nice palate and persistence of flavour.” Dried herb and lime notes really shine through in this wine, which Jo Burzynska remarked is “More concentrated than most.”  

4. Blackenbrook Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $21 ★★★★★

New Zealand’s sunshine capital has produced something sensational here, a wine bursting with sweet passion fruit and floral aromatics, crunchy-crisp acidity and complex “herb garden, curry leaf, basil and mint” notes, according to James Rowan. Cameron Douglas agreed, adding it is also “a more refined and elegant sauvignon blanc, with warm texture and generosity.” 

5. Edwin Fox Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 $18.99 ★★★★★

“Stonefruit, tropical, lifted melon, aromatic, fresh and lively, concentrated, understated elegance,” noted Jane Boyle straight off the bat. That melon character, freshness and elegance impressed Jo Burzynska too, who also noted delicate blackcurrant leaf aromas. Simon Fell was impressed with the wine’s ripe passion fruit notes, balanced sweetness and good persistence and length of flavour.  

6.Waipara Springs Waipara Sauvignon Blanc 2012 $19 ★★★★★

It’s fantastic to see examples like this sourced from North Canterbury, a region proving incredibly versatile, particularly when it comes to aromatic whites. The judges all noted the precision and balance of this wine, as well as its fantastic varietal definition and intensity of flavour. “Lots of succulent passion fruit and punchy herbs,” noted Jo Burzynska, “with attractive minerality, a good weighty mouthfeel and powerful length.” Jane Boyle commented on its “lovely floral nose, orange blossom, citrus and ginger.” 

7. Mudhouse Estate ‘The Woolshed Vineyard’ Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 $28-35 ★★★★★

Fans of a softer, more approachable, lively, easy-drinking style will love this example. Jane Boyle enjoyed the tomato leaf and fresh aromatic notes, while Jo Burzynska was impressed with the dusty spice, flint and capsicum nose and mineral-focused intensity in the mouth. 

8. Thornbury Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $20.99 ★★★★★

An easy drinking sauvignon that you can find in pretty much any supermarket across the country, this wine boasts an attractive flinty nose, with hints of grapefruit, a fantastic mouth-filling herbal edge “and good length” noted Jo Burzynska. “Vibrant acidity” and “nicely balanced sweetness” were the common descriptors from all judges. Lovely stuff. 

9. Dashwood Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 $17.99 ★★★★½

“I love the classic lawn clipping, lime and tomato leaf aromas,” remarked Yvonne Lorkin. “Nice texture in the mouth and a long, lingering finish.” James Rowan and Cameron Douglas also noted the phenolics* were upfront here, “…but overall that presents a specific expression that I like,” said Cameron, whereas James felt the limey acidity, chalkiness and freshness all added up to a very well made wine with a solid fruit core.  

10. Grove Mill Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 $18.50 ★★★★½

The judges were taken with the complex herbaceous aromas and tangy burst of passion fruit and lemon in the mid-palate of this wine. “Boxwood and mango,” said James Rowan, “with a nice lick of acid and grainy phenolics.” It’s a deliciously inviting wine with juicy tropical and apple flavours “and a hint of jalapeno” added Cameron Douglas, “very well made indeed.”

11. Saint Clair Family Estate
Vicar’s Choice Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $19.50

“Bursting with classic green herbs, tomato leaf, passion fruit and capsicum characters, this wine is nicely structured with excellent persistence of flavour,” noted Yvonne Lorkin. The structure impressed the other judges too, who also noted its floral, delicacy, balanced sweetness and lemon notes. “Crowd pleasing,”  added Cameron Douglas.

12. Ara Wines Single Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 $21.95 ★★★★½

This brand is definitely one to watch as it produces another great example of what the 2012 vintage could achieve. “Nice crisp focus and poise, good concentration and definition,” remarked James Rowan. “A really good example of 2012 with nice acidity, alcohol and phenolics.” It’s a big, fruity wine with quenching citrus, tropical and sweet herb flavours, while being nicely balanced and well made.  

13. Milcrest Estate Wines Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2013 $19.30 ★★★★½

Nelson does it again! Jane Boyle was immediately taken with this entry: “Grassy tomato leaf notes and clear varietal character. Nice, punchy concentration and very expressive.” The judges also noted flavours such as pear and white stonefruits, which appear to be an interesting regional trait.