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A cooling splash of New Zealand

by Felicity Hughes

A bit like having a water pistol shot straight in the face, a cool glass of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand can slap you right out of your late-summer stupor.

Combining refreshing characteristics of tight acidity and zingy citrus fruit, the wine’s sharp flavors work brilliantly with a cold plate of maguro (tuna) sashimi, slicing through the succulent flesh and accentuating its meaty flavor.

Sauvignon Blanc is a masochist of grape variety and New Zealand winegrowers have found to their delight that the worse it is treated the better it thrives. The Kiwi Sauvignons that have become world famous are grown on poor stony soils, mainly in the Marlborough region, in the northeast of the South Island. After the grape is harvested, it’s bunged straight into stainless-steel tanks for fermentation and bottled as soon as possible.

Cheap to produce and in demand, big brands, such as Pernod Ricard, dominate the market and own great tracts of the Wairau Plains in Marlborough. But it’s worth considering just how far these giants can abuse the grape before it stops responding well: The plain is now packed to capacity with vines, so many have begun planting inland where it is tougher for grapes to ripen. Another naughty practice is growing too many grapes on the vine. Poor soils mean that the vine is “stressed”; perversely it’s just this stress that creates ideal conditions to get the best from the grape. However, if you’ve got too many grapes, it takes longer for them to ripen, meaning that the grapes stand a greater chance of suffering mold damage as their harvest date is pushed back into wetter autumnal weather.

Marlborough’s autumns are relatively dry, but it’s dangerous for growers to count on a long growing season. In 2008, heavy rains spelled disaster for many smaller grape growers who didn’t have the resources to crush their own grapes into must. A mad scramble to harvest led to ugly scenes, as many growers tried to rent equipment at the same time. “There are only so many people there and only so many places where the grapes can go. You literally had fist fights on the crushing pads,” says Carl Robinson, CEO of Jeroboam, a company that imports a wide range of New Zealand wines to Japan.

While you probably won’t be too disappointed with a bog-standard bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon, there are some wine makers out there who are giving the grape that little extra bit of care and attention, resulting in some really stellar Sauvignon Blancs.

Two winemakers who were instrumental in making the fortunes of Cloudy Bay, New Zealand’s most successful Sauvignon Blanc producer, have now stepped out from under the vineyard’s monolith shadow to start making a distinctive wine of their own. Dog Point was the brainchild of Ivan Sutherland and James Healey, who decided to set up shop together in 2002. “We’d both been in the industry since the late 1970s and we’d been doing things for other people in that time. So we got to a point where we really wanted to do it all ourselves,” said Healey in a phone conversation.

One of the many things that distinguishes Dog Point is that its Sauvignon Blancs are harvested from relatively old vine stock — being a young wine region, the grape wasn’t planted in the region until the ’70s and Dog Point’s vines date from the ’80s. Older vines equal deeper roots that are better able to absorb the distinctive mineral flavors that lie further below ground.

“We believe very much in vine age for making quality wine. We have some of the oldest vineyards in the region,” said Healey.

Unlike many of their neighbors in the Wairau Valley, the team at Dog Point harvest by hand and use organic methods in the vineyard. Due to the dry autumnal weather, there rarely are any problems with diseases on the vine, which made going organic relatively painless. According to Healey, the extended autumns are “really the secret to the intensity of the fruit in the wine.”

Alongside producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Dog Point produces two Sauvignon Blanc wines. The first is Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, which impeccably shows off the typical flavors of a classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The other, Section 94, is in an entirely different style. Using old-fashioned vinification techniques, the grapes are pressed more gently and fermented in old oak barrels rather than in stainless steel. The fermentation is done with 100 percent indigenous yeasts, which give the wine its distinctive character. “It’s more full bodied; it doesn’t taste like it’s been in barrels, but it has a lot of evolution in the sense that it’s spent such a long time in oak,” said Healey.

Evolution is important for these wines, Healey explained. “Both of them age differently. The Section 94 has a very yeasty character and as it ages it develops quite a strong mineral structure on the palate. The aroma and flavor also develops. It has quite a strong influence of, I’d say, floral, citrus blossom and white flowers.”

It’s not just Dog Point that is taking Sauvignon Blanc to the next level. Winemakers, such as Steve Smith, wine and viticultural director of Craggy Range, are now exploring the possibilities of soils and climates outside of Marlborough. Craggy Range’s Te Muna Road vineyard is located in the south of the North Island, at Martinborough, which like Marlborough is located on alluvial stony soil. Unlike Marlborough, however, the soil is scattered with chunks of limestone that lend the wines a distinctive quality, which, Smith points out in a phone conversation, gives them “a powdery texture, with not so much stony minerality.”

Because it is also not close to the sea where the climate tends to help grapes to ripen faster, harvesting occurs a couple of weeks later in Martinborough — conditions that Smith explained has an affect on the wines. “If you have a longer hang time of grapes on the vine, what you tend to get are wines with a little more complexity of character and wines with a little more reserve to them.”

Smith, a skilled winemaker and qualified Master of Wine, went on to explain a little about the attention to detail he gives his Sauvignons. “The Martinborough wines, because they’re fruitier and have a wider array of characteristics, we tend to craft the wine a little bit more in the winery. There is more indigenous yeast fermentation.”

Just like Dog Point, Craggy Range’s Te Muna Road Sauvignon develops over time. “The Martinborough wines certainly taste better after a year in the bottle than when they’re first released,” Smith said, “At two or three years old, it tastes fantastic.”

If you’re curious about trying out some of these premium Sauvignon Blancs, now’s the best time to buy a bottle. Around three years ago, a quality bottle would cost upward of ¥3,000, but now the average price has dropped and it’s possible to find decent ones for around ¥2,500. At these prices, it’d be ridiculous to deny yourself a refreshing splash of quality Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc.