for iconic Sauvignon Blanc: can it ever be really
A blind tasting of great
Sauvignons from around the world
Oz Clarke and Stephen Spurrier
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.
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
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
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.
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.
are as written blind.
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
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
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
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.
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
‘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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
Dagueneau is the stand-out in this flight. It’s complex, broad and
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,
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
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
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.
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
also: my series
on New Zealand wine; Montana
Sauvignon Blanc 2008
Wines tasted 05/09
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