New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Outside the Box | Wine Enthusiast
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New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Outside the Box

Perhaps no other wine style is as instantly recognizable as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. As previously discussed, it put New Zealand wine on the map in all its brash, aromatic and crisply-acidic glory. Today, it’s one of America’s most popular sippers, renowned for consistency and affordability.

But what makes New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc so renowned is the same thing that also rouses criticism: its predictability. The style can become boring to some wine aficionados.

“Sauvignon Blanc is a bit like an orphan,” says Damien Yvon, general manager/winemaker at boutique Marlborough winery Clos Henri. “It doesn’t get much love.”

There are, however, plenty of Sauvignon Blanc producers who ride their own wave. If you’re looking to drink more adventurously, you’re in luck. There’s never been a more exciting time in wine history for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Rows of vines at Saint Clair
Rows of vines at Saint Clair

If you’re a bubbles lover, several producers like Villa Maria, Hillersden, Brancott Estate and Saint Clair boast sunny sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. For a more serious, still expression of the grape, there’s Cloudy Bay’s Te Koko. Fermented on native yeast and aged in French oak barrels, it’s a richly textured, mineral-driven Sauvignon Blanc capable of cellaring 10 years or more.

But to really dive into alternative Kiwi waters, look toward smaller producers.

While the natural wine craze may not have gathered as much gusto in New Zealand as it has in Australia, there are plenty of producers taking unconventional approaches. They farm sensitively, and focus on texture and terroir through minimal manipulation in the winery.

Te Whare Ra boasts some of the oldest vines in Marlborough. They were planted in 1979 on phylloxera-tolerant rootstock, which was unusual for the time. Ever since Anna & Jason Flowerday purchased the property in 2003, they have strived to restore the health of the long-neglected vines through biodynamic and organic farming techniques.

Te Whare Ra’s focus has been to express complexity and terroir over maximization of crop levels and thiols, which are the aromatic compounds commonly removed from Sauvignon Blanc through certain vineyard practices.

Uncommon for the region, Te Whare Ra’s 2016 Sauvignon Blanc is fermented with its own yeasts. A small percentage of the juice is aged in old French oak demi-muids, and the wine spends time on its lees. The result is a Sauvignon Blanc focused on texture and place. The winery also puts out a 2015 Sauvignon Blanc grown on clay that’s even more terroir-expressive, showing strong mineral and stone notes.

Just down the road, the organic and biodynamic Clos Henri is owned by the Sancerre wine-growing family of Henri Bourgeois, and managed by fellow Frenchman Damien Yvon. Both the wines and the approach to growing grapes focus on capturing the nuances from each vineyard plot. The latest releases of the label’s three tiers of Sauvignon Blanc (2016 Petit Clos, 2015 Bel Echo and 2015 Clos Henri) are threaded together by exceptional purity of fruit and textural weight.

Close-up of vines at Cambridge Road.
Close-up of vines at Cambridge Road

At the bottom of the North Island, in the primarily Pinot Noir-producing region of Martinborough, you’ll find winemaker Lance Redgwell of Cambridge Road. Redgwell is part of a younger generation of winemakers that employ biodynamic vineyard practices and strive for minimal intervention in the winery.

While he makes a range of more conventionally styled wines, the 2016 Down the Rabbit Hole is a delicious deviation from the norm. It’s macerated on its own skins for 26 days, left in neutral oak for 11 months and bottled without sulfur or any other additions. It’s closer in style to the orange wines of Northeast Italy than to the other Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand.

You can’t deny the comfort of something recognizable. But sometimes it pays to enjoy something outside of box, even in territory as well-trodden as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Get the story behind the history of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand.

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