Rebecca's Blog: Next Level Sauvignon

April 16th, 2013

“Brightness of fruit and acidity is the signature of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” says Brancott Estate's winemaker Patrick Materman.

This signature style has put the New Zealand region on the world wine map, but its makers aren't stupid: They saw what happened to Australian Chardonnay, and it wasn't pretty.

While Materman admits that “99 percent” of Brancott's production will continue to be the exuberant thiol-driven style we are familiar with, Kiwi producers have been experimenting with different techniques in both the vineyard and winery in an effort to retain our interest in the longer term. 

“Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has been about clean fermentation, hands-off [winemaking], stainless steel, cultured yeast, with very little winemaker influence,” explains Materman. “The movement in the last few years has been, how do we add extra elements of interest, including palate weight, a textural element, complex sulphides?”

And how to do that? The use of oak has been on the increase since Sacred Hill launched Sauvage in 1992 and Cloudy Bay released its first Te Koko four years later. Producers started with small barrels – and many continue to do so – but larger formats including puncheons and older oak seem to be more compatible with this aromatic varietal.

Wild ferments are also considered to be an important contributor when it comes to adding extra layers of savoury complexity. Malolactic fermentation and lees work can also play a large role stylistically on the final wine. The malolactic leads to a fall in acidity and linearity while lees stirring adds palate weight and texture. These are stylistic decisions the winemaker must make: Do you want to produce a linear style or a more voluptuous Chardonnay look-alike?

There's also another factor involved in creating a more complex style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: money.

“Marlborough stands out in the world stage, but we have not commanded high prices for the wines.”

The question, Materman asks, is, “How do we command aspirational prices?”

Unfortunately for Sauvignon Blanc, it isn't a varietal that commands high prices – Didier Dagueneau and notable Pessac Leognan estates excepted. Sticking it in a barrel and doing a bit of lees stirring won't make drinkers part with their money more easily. Good luck to Brancott Estate, which is charging $80 for its new Sauvignon Blanc, Chosen Rows. Apparently it's a hand-sell but there will need to be some pretty intense arm-twisting to persuade customers to spend that sort of money on a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, no matter how good it is.


Rebecca Gibb is editor at Wine Searcher and lives in Auckland, a long way from her original home of northeast England. She recently passed the theory and practical parts of the Master of Wine exams and is now working on her dissertation.

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