New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: Wines with Attitude

The success of New Zealand wines and in particular its flagship Sauvignon Blanc is really quite amazing. Ask any casual wine drinker, and he or she will most certainly be familiar with the wines and their signature zingy, zesty orchestra of aromas and flavors.

Yet the modern wine industry in New Zealand really only started about 25 years ago, and, wine production is tiny compared with most other well-known wine-producing countries. With about 57,000 acres under vine, New Zealand produces only 0.2% of the world's wine. Now, that's successful marketing and brand recognition at work.

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The arrival of the much-lauded Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc on export markets in the mid-eighties was probably one of the most important catalysts for the success. Instantly the world fell in love with the wine, with its daring crispness, and unapologetic, pungent purity. Unoaked and youthful, the wine represented a welcome change from the more usual oaked or oxidative styles of white wine. The rest is history.

While today New Zealand has also built a reputation for great Pinot Noir, and other aromatic whites like Pinot Gris, Riesling and Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc still represents the bread and butter of its industry. Over 50% of the vineyard area is still planted to Sauvignon Blanc.

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Located far south in the cool Pacific Ocean and 1400 miles from Australia, New Zealand consists of two narrow islands, the North Island and the South Island. Vineyards, north to south span over 1000 miles in distance. Surrounded by water, the strong prevailing 'westerlies' help create and ideal and unique climate for grape growing.

There are ten recognized wine regions, of which, Marlborough, at the northeastern tip of the South Island, is the largest and reigns supreme, when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc. That said, the first vines were planted here only as far back as 1973, and are mainly planted on dried up river beds, of which the Wairau and Awatere are the most important. Abundant sunshine (Marlborough is also the sunniest region in New Zealand) coupled with cool nights and a long growing season, are key to building that vibrant fruit character that is, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

As well as Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand is also recognized as the key crusading nation behind screwcaps, as alternate closures for fine wine. Indeed today, many New Zealand wineries are 'cork-free' zones! - but that's a story for another day.

Another achievement to be lauded is the fact that worldwide, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc manages to maintain consistent premium prices. There is no such thing as 'poor quality' or 'cheap' New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Apart from Cloudy Bay and a handful of select vineyard bottlings, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc retails for between $10 and $20.

And, even though we can generalize about the overall style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, there are differences, depending on the location of the vineyard, its microclimate, viticultural practices and winemaking techniques.

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These wines are no strangers at the dining table either. Their high level of acidity begs for seafood, so take full advantage of the summer's bounty. Some dishes that we have enjoyed pairing include seafood ceviche, traditional shrimp cocktail, razor clams with lemon butter or cockles, eaten fresh out of the shell with a pin. The wines are also delicious with salad made with any of the wonderful types (and colors) of string beans currently available at the market. And, one of our favorite pairings last week was New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with those delectable heritage peppers from Galicia 'Pimentos de Padron', simply blistered in a hot pan with olive oil and sprinkled generously with good quality sea salt.

Below are some suggestions of wines that we have tasted and particularly enjoyed:

2007 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc ($10) - Packed with zesty grassy aromas and refreshing flavors of gooseberry, lime and mango with an inviting herbal note on the finish.

2007 Huia Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($22) - Brimming with personality. Gooseberry, tropical fruit and citrus aromas and flavors. Great concentration and nice mineral hints add complexity.

2007 Seresin Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($20) - Lovely purity of fruit. Crisp and packed with gooseberry, citrus and tropical fruits and hints of flinty minerality.

2007 Kim Crawford Sauvignon BLanc, Marlborough ($16) - A classic, showing lots of lovely ripe and youthful citrus and tropical fruit and a refreshing grassiness persists across the palate.

2007 Crossroads Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($13) - Intense nose of nectarine, peach, passion fruit and gooseberry. Crisp and packed with refreshing bright fruit flavors.

Most stores now carry a good selection of New Zealand wines, but here are some recommendations

Union Square Wines & Spirits (Manhattan, NY)
Winerz.com (Orange, CA)
Astor Wines (Manhattan, NY)
Dean & Deluca (St. Helena, CA)
wine.com (San Francisco, CA)
Beltramo's WIne & Spirits (Menlo Park, CA)
The Wine Specialist (Washington DC)
Dotcom Wines & Spirits (West Hartford, CT)
Corporate Wines (Woburn, MA)
PJ Wine (Manhattan, NY)
Sam's Wines and Spirits (Chicago, IL)

With so many different brands of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on the market its fun to try out different ones. Enjoy!

Mary

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.

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