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Looking for iconic Sauvignon Blanc: can it ever be really serious?
A blind tasting of great Sauvignons from around the world

Oz Clarke and Stephen Spurrier tasting

This was a really interesting tasting. Organized by New Zealand producer Montana, and compered by Montana chief winemaker Jeff Clarke, the idea was to explore the idea of super-premium or ‘icon’ Sauvignon Blanc by means of a blind tasting of a broad range of Sauvignons from around the world.

‘Is there a place for ultra-premium Sauvignon Blanc?’ asked Jeff (pictured right) as he introduced the tasting. ‘I know a lot of journalists and winemakers often look down on Sauvignon Blanc, but New Zealand has a significant vested interest in it. It’s 30 years since we released the first Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, from vines planted in 1975. As we look back on 30 years of history, we are a little reflective of the huge boom in sales and wide acceptance of Sauvignon Blanc worldwide. But can we take Sauvignon Blanc to a new level?’

Clarke revealed that Montana are working on a prestige Sauvignon Blanc project with the aide of famous wine scientist Denis Dubourdieu. Along with the late Takashi Tominaga, Dubourdieu was responsible for identifying a group of sulphur-containing compounds called thiols as being important in the varietal aroma of Sauvignon Blanc.

Slightly simplistically speaking, there are two elements to the flavour of Sauvignon Blanc that are now well understood scientifically. Good Sauvignon typically has a balance between the herbal/green pepper/grassy character (which comes from a group of chemical known as methoxypyrazines, the most significant of which is 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine [MIPB]) and the riper passion fruit/grapefruit character (which comes from a group of chemicals known as thiols (aka mercaptans, these can also have a 'sweaty' character to them at high levels).

Marlborough's success with Sauvignon is because it manages to combine both these characteristics in ways that other regions have found tricky. If you have too much methoxypyrazine, Sauvignon can taste herbal and unripe. Too much passionfruit character, and it can taste a bit sickly and sweaty. In very warm climates, Sauvignon tends to taste boringly fruity and simple, without the zing that brings it to life.

Loire Sauvignon (Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre, Touraine Sauvignon) is usually more mineral and less overtly fruity than New Zealand Sauvignon. Bordeaux grows a lot of Sauvignon, where it frequently blended with a bit of Semillon: this can be good value, but often it's unexciting. High-end Bordeaux whites are usually oaked, so taste quite different. Chile makes some attractive, affordable Sauvignon, particularly from cooler regions such as Leyda and Elqui. These tend to be in the New Zealand style, but with more pronounced green pepper (methoxypyrazine) character. South Africa does quite a bit of Sauvignon, of varying quality, and, again, with more of an emphasis on the green herbal flavours. The best are very good. Austrian Sauvignon Blanc, from the southern Styrian region, is really lively and bright with real personality, but it's rare to find it.

Of all these countries, New Zealand has been far the most successful in recent years. Yet you don’t find many Marlborough Sauvignons at the very high end of the price scale: it’s hard to get people to spend more than £10–12 on even the very best of Sauvignons.

So we looked at eight flights of three wines each, tasting blind and then discussing our views. The participants were all experienced tasters: Oz Clarke, Stephen Spurrier, Julia Harding, Robert Joseph, Jane Parkinson, Quentin Johnson and myself.

Notes are as written blind.

Boatshed Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Marlborough, New Zealand
Gently aromatic, grassy nose with some subtle green notes. Almost chalky character. The palate has rich texture and good concentration. Balanced with some methoxy character. 88/100

St Clair Wairau Reserve 2008 Marlborough, New Zealand
Strong, powerful, herbal nose with lots of methoxypyrazine character, but also some vibrant fruitiness. The palate is lively and open with lots of passion fruit character and also some herby greenness. More open, and a bit sweaty. 89/100

Huntaway Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Marlborough, New Zealand
A rich, ripe style with sweet tropical fruit notes and some herbiness. Broad, soft and quite rich with more thiol character. Richer style. 88/100

These first three were chosen to represent the NZ show style, with significant grapefruit/passionfruit character. Lots of consumer research done in the last five years shows that consumers like sweaty/passionfruit aromas in their Sauvignon, and these tend to be the wines that win the gold medals and trophies.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Marlborough, New Zealand
Quite fresh on the nose with delicate herby notes. Fruity but a little green. The palate shows really delicate green herby notes and fresh fruitiness. Very successful methoypyrazine style. Delicate, green and a bit minerally. 89/100

Montana ‘B’ 2008 Marlborough, New Zealand
Bright, quite rounded fruity style with a subtle green herby edge. Fresh, delicate, attractive, yet rich at the same time. Nice purity of flavour here. 89/100

Clos Henri 2007 Marlborough, New Zealand
Bold, intense green herbal nose has a bit of tinned pea to it. Rich, intense herbal palate is ripe and fruity. There’s nice minerality here, but the tinned pea, green, herbal notes are offputting. 82/100

These three wines were interesting. Cloudy Bay is the most famous of all New Zealand Sauvignons, and has created a cult image for itself: retail in the UK is around £18, which is much higher than average. I was surprised by the Clos Henri, because I liked the 2006 a good deal. Some of my fellow journalists really liked it for its minerality (this is made by the Bourgeois family of Sancerre), but I found the methoxypyrazine character just too much in this 2007 vintage, and I marked it down for this.

Seresin Marama 2007 Marlborough, New Zealand
Intense minerally, toasty nose. Rich, concentrated and complex with powerful ripe fruit flavours and some smoky herbal notes. The palate has an amazing array of flavours: green herbs, toast, minerals and fresh citrus. There’s noticeable oak here but lots of fruit, too. An amazing wine that’s weird but really good. 92/100

Dog Point Block 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2007 Marlborough, New Zealand
Minerally, flinty, slightly reduced nose. The palate is powerful, nutty and herby. Intense with a nice minerality to it. Concentrated and broad with lovely freshness and definition. 92/100

Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc 2005 Marlborough, New Zealand
Very rich with a sweet toasty nose. The palate is fat and broad with a strong buttery character. Not great. 85/100

These are existing attempts at doing a high-end, serious Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The Dog Point and Seresin are both really good, if a little extreme. The poor showing of the Te Koko may reflect that it’s a few years old. This raises the question: should an icon level Sauvignon be ageable to be serious? I think that if someone is paying a lot for a white wine, they’ll expect it to develop a bit with age, and certainly that it should be good drinking for a decade from vintage. It’s important that an icon Sauvignon doesn’t fall over after a few years in bottle.

Vergelegen Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2008 South Africa
Complex, minerally nose with lovely fruit and grassiness. The palate is balanced and complex with broad yet taut fruit. Stylish and sophisticated with lovely fruit focus and balance. 90/100

Steenberg Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2007 Constantia, South Africa
Distinctive and almost aggressive green herbal nose, verging on the vegetal. The palate is green and unclean with a harsh vegetal edge. Methoxypyrazine and not much more here. 76/100

Cape Point Sauvignon Blanc 2005 South Africa
Rich, almost sweet nose is brightly fruited and fresh with nice herbiness. The palate is minerally with some herby notes and a fresh finish. Attractive stuff. 88/100

I was amazed that some of my colleagues liked the Steenberg. Each to their own, but I won’t be following their Sauvignon recommendations in the future! For me, this was unbalanced, focusing just on methoxypyrazine flavours. Infact, it was plain unripe. Methoxypyrazines are present in high concentrations in unripe grapes, and then diminish as ripening advances. Normally, you don’t want any of them in your wine, but with Sauvignon a little can be attractive. As with many aspects of winemaking, it’s a question of balance. I think the Vergelegen is really good. I was recently discussing Sauvignon with Andre van Rensburg, the Vergelegen winemaker, and he agrees that excessive methoxy character is a problem in Sauvignon  

Merry Edward Sauvignon Blanc 2007 Sonoma, California
Herby, intense and quite linear with nice fruit. The palate is bold and fruity with rich, dense, ripe fruit. Sweet melon character. 87/100

Peter Michael l’Apres Midi 2007 California
Odd, slightly herbal, fruity style with a hint of smokiness to the bright fruity character. Rounded and open with sweet fruit and some distinctive herbiness. 86/100

Mondavi To Kalon Sauvignon Blanc 2006 California
Sweet, oaky and intense with bold fruit. Soft and sweet with some interesting grapefruit notes, but also a bit corked, so not rated.

These Californians were a bit disappointing blind. The Mondavi would have been pretty good if it wasn’t corked. The fruit here is much riper: California is a warm climate for Sauvignon.

Viña Leyda Garuma Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Leyda Valley, Chile
Rich yet fresh nose with nice fruity notes. The palate is concentrated with dense methoxypyrazine greenness, although this is within the context of rich fruit. Powerful with lots of impact and a herbal finish. 90/100

Henri Bourgeois La Côtes des Monts Damnés 2007 Sancerre, France
Rich, sweet, bold nose with some toasty hints. Fresh, intense, slightly reductive palate with a lovely mineral character. Sophisticated and bold. This is well balanced and full of interest in a grown-up savoury style. 93/100

Alphonse Mellot Generations IXI 2005 Sancerre, France
Unusual sweet lime, grapefruit and herb character on the nose. The palate shows strange but appealing melon, herb and apple character. Lots of personality to this distinctive wine. 91/100

The first wine of this flight was a ringer supplied by Oz Clarke, and it was lovely, with real interest – it’s the best of Chile’s Sauvignons in my opinion, and should get the Kiwis a little worried. The other two were high end Sancerres: the Bourgeois wine was my favourite of this tasting.

Henri Bourgeois Sancerre d’Antan 2006 France
Yellow colour.
Ric hand quite bold with herby, subtly toasty notes. Some minerality, too. Sophisticated and broad. 89/100

Ladoucette Baron de L 2005 Pouilly Fume, France
Initially shows a strikingly mineralic struck flint nose. The palate is crisp and lean with bright minerally fruit. Very distinctive with a herby character and in a fresh, savoury style. Subtle and quite pure. 89/100

Didier Dagueneau Silex 2004 Pouilly-Fume, France
Deep yellow colour.
Nice broad nose with smooth herby notes. The palate is intense and crisp with some evolution evident. High acidity here, with lovely herby savouriness. Bold, complex, minerally and bright with some age. 93/100

The Dagueneau is the stand-out in this flight. It’s complex, broad and fresh.

Château Doisy-Daëne 2007 Bordeaux
Beautifully creamy, subtle, toasty, minerally grapefruity nose. The palate is super-fresh with lovely subtle herbal notes and good concentration of bright minerally flavours. Well integrated oak, too. 93/100

Château Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2005 Bordeaux
Nutty, broad toasty nose is rich and intense with hints of sherry and baked apples. The palate is broad and creamy and sophisticated with lovely texture and warmth. Very stylish, showing lovely evolution. 91/100

Château Haut Brion Blanc 2005 Bordeaux
Powerful, grapefruity, citrussy and intense with lovely bold, broad tropical fruit notes as well as grapefruit freshness. Smooth and powerful with well integrated oak. No rough edges her: this is stylish and sophisticated. 93/100

This flight of Bordeaux was very interesting. Serious white Bordeaux is serious wine, but this isn’t a style that Marlborough would be wise to try to emulate. There’s a restricted market for this sort of wine, and without the Bordeaux cachet, and the names of famous Châteaux on the label, it would be a really hard sell.

So what would I do if I were Jeff Clarke, looking to make a super-premium Marlborough Sauvignon?

First, you need to recognize that it’s not just about what is in the bottle. Marlborough already has an icon Sauvignon: Cloudy Bay. There’s something about this brand that has captured the hearts of wine drinkers and propelled it into superstar status, even though these days it is a wine that has dozens of qualitative peers that don’t attract the same attention.

What I’m trying to say is that image and marketing matter a great deal, and can help shape the expectation and perception of the consumer. Montana need to sell the story of any super-premium wine they produce very well, and they need to think carefully about who their target market is.

Second, I’m convinced that blending is the way to go. Montana need to think about producing suitable blending components and then pulling them together. The whole thiol/methoxypyrazine discussion is important: no wine can rely solely on one or the other. Also, there’s no exact link between the chemical composition of the wine and the way it tastes: these components all interact in complex, context-dependent ways.

I think an icon Marlborough Sauvignon needs to be a distinctive style of wine with lots of flavour. I also think it needs to develop well over 5–10 years. It can’t be reliant on methoxypyrazines (such wines can turn 'tinned peas/asparagus' with age) or thiols (these diminish with time in bottle).

In Marlborough, Sauvignon grapes that become over-ripe tend to produce boring, rather flat wines. I’d look to develop blending components that were fresh and bright – on the cusp of ripeness – but without excessive methoxypyrazine characters. I’d also look to develop ripe blending components with some thiol character, but not so that it becomes all sweaty. Then I might play with some barrel-fermented, non-Saccharomyces yeast-fermented components for complex, slightly funky notes. I might toy with fermentation temperatures, to see what this gave me, as well as dropping crop on some blocks to see the effect of reducing yields on quality.

More controversially, I’d look at producing a few barrels from botrytised grapes to get a bit of spicy complexity as well as some residual sugar. With all these blending components, it would be fun to try to construct a distinctive style of Sauvignon that had power, precision and complexity.

Even more controversially, how about producing a blending component made from very ripe grapes with some extended skin contact? – or even some maceration? I’m not suggesting making a wine like the Friulian/Slovenian 'orange' wines, but phenolics are something we shouldn’t be too scared about in white wines if we want them to have personality and longevity.

I think that going for elegance - and a Sancerre-like style - misses the point a bit. One of the wines not included in this tasting but which might have been instructive, is the wonderful Vulcaia Fumé Blanc from Inama – a full-on style of barrel-fermented Sauvignon that’s world class. Marlborough does so well with its rather bold Sauvignon style that it would make sense to make a premium Sauvignon that amplifies these distinctive and delicious characters, taking them to a new level. 

We also tried some 2009 samples of wines that Montana are making with a view to assembling them into a high-end Sauvignon. However, I don't really want to comment much on such young samples that are hard to assess properly in this sort of context. All in all, though, this was a really fantastic, eye-opening tasting of a great selection of wines. 

see also: my series on New Zealand wine; Montana Sauvignon Blanc 2008

Wines tasted 05/09  
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