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(Dzianis Miraniuk/Getty Images/Hemera)
(Dzianis Miraniuk/Getty Images/Hemera)

The new sauvignon blancs: New Zealand's great white hope Add to ...

At Seresin Estate, a winery owned by New Zealand cinematographer Michael Seresin, known for such films as Midnight Express and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the past blurs with the present, like a movie flashback. Where tractors once roamed, noisy motors are yielding to the pastoral clip-clop of horse and buggy. Two burly Clydesdales pull a makeshift trailer that sprays organic compost from a sprinkler driven by a bicycle-chain gizmo linked to its axle. A mix of weed cuttings, worm-farm deposits and manure supplied by Olga the vineyard cow serve as a biological shield to curb pests while adding vigour to the vines.

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It's part of a holistic farming approach that Colin Ross, the estate's manager, believes benefits the wines. I'm inclined to agree, especially in the case of Seresin's silky, nuanced sauvignon blancs. They seem to have more of a shadowy gravitas about them, like characters in Mr. Seresin's darkly lit films - at least compared with the sunnier, fruity-grassy style of sauvignon blanc that vaulted this country, and Marlborough in particular, onto the world wine stage.

Seresin's old-school ways also stand in stark contrast to the hyper-mechanized norm of Marlborough, a V-shaped basin on the northern tip of South Island. Since the first sauvignon blanc vines were planted here in the mid-1970s, the region has perfected one of the most profitable wine categories on the planet.

"We wanted to prove that sauvignon blanc doesn't have to be a commercial whore," Mr. Ross candidly said as I tiptoed cautiously around some of Olga's latest contributions.

Though I remain enamoured with classic Marlborough "savvie," as the locals sometimes call it, with its park-picnic freshness and attractive quality-price ratio (often between $15 and $20), I was heartened to discover dozens like Seresin`s that have begun to push the stylistic envelope. Some producers are toning down the fruit and mowing the grass, so to speak, genuflecting toward Bordeaux as well as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire Valley, France's standard-bearers for graceful sauvignon blanc.

Their motivation: a need to compete in the higher, more profitable bracket of $25 to $40 as demand slumps for its more modestly priced offerings due to recent overproduction. Hard-core organic farming is just one means to that end. Some producers, including Dog Point, Spy Valley, Cloudy Bay, Mission, Amisfield and Astrolabe, as well as Seresin, are moving forward into the past in other ways. Some are fermenting their sauvignon blancs in oak barrels instead of refrigerated steel tanks, often leaving them to mature in wood for months on yeast-cell deposits known as lees. Higher fermentation temperatures and lees contact yield softer, richer, more complex whites designed for serious food rather than patio sipping.

It's an artful technique used to impressive effect by some of France's best sauvignon blanc producers and, with more mixed results, in California. But sauvignon blanc and wood can spell disaster when the proportions miss the mark, like too much vermouth in a "dry" martini. Most New Zealand producers prefer the risk-free route, bottling their whites with as much freshness as the country's cool climate, blue skies and youthful, alluvial soils tend to deliver.

But there's a fine precedent for the style. Cloudy Bay, New Zealand's greatest cult brand, blazed the oak trail with a barrel-fermented, lees-aged sauvignon blanc called Te Koko starting in 1996. "It`s supposed to challenge the mould of what people think of Marlborough sauvignon blanc," Cloudy Bay winemaker Tim Heath told me. "It's nice to know that we were in there doing it first and kind of forged a bit of a category." One of the most compelling examples is Dog Point Vineyard Section 94 2008, a creamy mouthful of a wine blissfully absent of any overt, vanilla-like oak flavour. It still managed to deliver a Sancerre-like mineral tingle on the refreshing finish. Other highlights included Spy Valley Envoy 2009, and Elephant Hill Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2010, the latter from Hawke`s Bay on the North Island, which evoked the subtle richness of top wines from Pascal Jolivet and Didier Daguenau in the Loire.

Sadly, the Elephant Hill wine is made in minuscule quantities and is unlikely to be exported to Canada. Winemaker Steve Skinner even implored me to resist the temptation of smuggling home a sample. Bottled without the protective advantages of clarification or filtration, it was likely to turn hazy in the cold cargo hold, he warned. I ignored him. He was right. But a replay of its flavour, not its clear colour, is what I was after, and I can't wait to uncork the hazy nectar over a plate of grilled prawns.

Arguably just as radical is the growing reliance on wild, as opposed to commercial, yeasts. Most consumers may be surprised to learn that industrially isolated strains are standard in the wine world. Off-the-shelf formulations produce more consistent results and even can yield customized taste profiles. In Marlborough, where factory-farming practices are tantamount to religion, dial-a-flavour strains are often used to produce such recognizable characters as passion fruit and grapefruit, amounting to a cheap trick in the eyes of some connoisseurs.

By contrast, natural yeasts found on grape skins generally produce a more complex wine, but there's a drawback: The organisms can tire out or die before fermentation runs its course, sending profits down the drain.

Still, some boutique craftsmen are willing to take that gamble. And if the new wave of French-inspired sauvignon blancs fails to score with consumers, New Zealand has a few other aces up its sleeve, namely a host of emerging varieties vying for the spotlight next to its signature sauvignon blancs, chardonnays and merlots. Among them: pinot gris, gewürztraminer and, my personal favourites, pinot noir and syrah.

I'll focus on pinot noir next Wednesday. And you can bet there won`t be a commercial whore among them.

Follow on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol

 

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