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TUESDAY TRIBUTES
05/02/2017
There’s More Than Sauvignon Blanc In Marlborough

Tuesday, May 2, 2017 -->

By Charles Olken

Let’s face it. Sauvignon Blanc is the face of New Zealand wine, and the Marlborough region is the dominant face of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Over half, and perhaps as much as two-thirds of New Zealand’s grape acreage is found in this region, and 80% of that is Sauvignon Blanc. Add it up anyway you want, and not only is the grape dominant in image but also in acreage.

But there is a second truth. While Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is thought to be grassy, pungent, grapefruity, somewhat piney stuff, that character mainly comes from certain limited parts of Marlborough where the soils are thin, stony, cool, riverbed-oriented. And that section of Marlborough is found in the northeast part of the area just inland of the ocean following the Wairau river westward. Everything else in Marlborough, regardless of how successful the wines can be, are variations on that basic theme.

Our recent tasting of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, almost all of which came from Marlborough, because that is what is available here, revealed a range of styles, all of which had plenty of acidity but many of which strayed toward the melony end of the varietal spectrum and away from what is perceived as the “New Zealand” style. Many were, in fact, quite good, and our highest rated, the Giesen The Fuder Matthews Lane 2012, intentionally left the pungent side of the grape behind and instead looked for a richer, deeper character and succeeded handsomely.

At this point, there is no way one can look at a label and know the precise origin of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Much of it comes from the so-called sweet spot, but much of it also comes from valleys that are further inland or to the south of the Wairau Valley, and even those from the Wairau can be sourced from fruit that is grown on heavier soils to the middle and south side of the valley.

The vintners are, of course, wise to the differences, and some, like Astrolabe do label their wines by source if the source is not the Wairau Valley. If you see the name Atawere Valley, it is still in Marlborough the way that the Sonoma Valley is still in northern California, but Atawere is not Wairau any more than the Sonoma Valley is Napa despite just lying across one set of hills.

Still, my point is not to diss Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc so much as to point out that I now understand a little more why so many wines in our tastings lacked the pungent kiss expected of Marlborough. It is not winemaking (most of the time) or even the lesser grapes that come from areas near the river. It is that the terroir of Marlborough is widely varied and cannot be thought of as monolithic with expectations of consistent results from all or even most parts of Marlborough.

Into this confusion now steps two very interesting initiatives to deal with those differences and distinctions. The first is a growing movement to subdivide the very large Marlborough area in more meaningful pieces. And the second is something not so new. Many vintners have long known and have honored those distinctions by planting grapes other than Sauvignon Blanc. Those efforts have not been rewarded with the same recognition that Sauvignon Blanc enjoys, but they are worthy of knowing.

Marlborough, regardless of soil type, is a cool growing area. Pinot Gris is turning out to be a very popular second variety from Marlborough, and it would not be a surprise to find very good examples of crisp, acid-lifted versions of that variety finding their ways here over time. One already finds that in retail shops on New Zealand.

And then there is the Pinot Noir potential. Over on the low slopes on the southern side of the Wairau Valley, many vintners have planted Pinot Noir to very good effect. At some point, those southern hill vineyards will begin to enjoy their own appellation and then it will be possible to pick out wines from folks like Nautilus whose best vineyard sites are already making fine versions of the grape.

And we also tasted a deep Syrah made by Giesen from vines at the very top of the southern hills. Sparse soils and the extra sunlight of elevation ripen the grapes, and if Syrah plantings in the world were not running ahead of demand for the grape, then these grapes, already making expensive wine, would be planted in sites that are perhaps not ideal for Pinot Noir.

Admittedly, not much of this affects us here in the U. S. at this point. But, if you are like me, then you will welcome better geographic information on Marlborough wines and will find them more encouraging to try for their uniquely enjoyable characteristics.


 

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Comments

Kiwi Wines
by Hiram K. Evans
Posted on:5/2/2017 6:08:02 PM

Having been to New Zealand some three times, I'm glad to hear you mtake on some of the 'lesser' varietals, lesser at least in exposure in the US.

One NZ vintner I talked with (Martinborough PN, primarily) said he simply could not make enough wine to break into the US market; he said he could import to the US or the rest of the world, but not both, so the only way to get his wine was basically to go to NZ.  A pleasant, if expensive, sojourn, but worth it.

Hope you get to central So. Island to sample the Pinots there.

 

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