Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc: All the Same?

“All Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc tastes the same,” is the major misconception that the industry must combat, according to Darryl Woolley, Chief Winemaker for the Constellation Group, which controls about ten percent of Marlborough’s production through their labels.  Certainly the hallmark of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is the zesty, pleasantly pungent, grapefruit-like zing that makes these wines extraordinarily versatile–and popular–with a wide variety of foods, from simply grilled fish to Asian-influenced cuisine.  It is equally certain, however, that they don’t all taste the same, as demonstrated by a tasting organized recently by Woolley in New York.

Sauvignon Blanc is King

No country depends on one wine the way New Zealand depends on Sauvignon Blanc.  Despite the Kiwi effort to promote their unique and distinctive Pinot Noir and other reds (and Kumeu River’s stunning Chardonnays), one look at the statistics tells how much Sauvignon Blanc–and more specifically Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough–dominates the market.  Sixty percent of New Zealand’s total wine grape crush was Sauvignon Blanc in 2008, according to New Zealand Winegrowers website.  And of that, more than 85% came from Marlborough, the region on the northern tip of the country’s South Island.  Those impressive numbers mean that the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc represents more than half of all of New Zealand’s annual production.  To put those numbers in perspective, Bordeaux, France’s largest appellation, accounts for about 20% of that country’s vineyard land.  Italy’s most well recognized wine, Chianti, only accounts for about 1% of the country’s wine production.  There is no other country in the world where one small region so dominates an entire industry.

Even more astounding is how fast Marlborough has grown to dominate the New Zealand industry.  The first wine grapes were planted there only in 1973; prior to that the land was used for grazing cattle.  In the last ten years, while New Zealand total vineyard area has expanded roughly three-fold (from 22,500 to 73,000 acres), plantings in Marlborough zoomed almost five-fold (from 8,700 to 40,000 acres).

Boundaries and Limits

The Marlborough region is delimited by political boundaries–county lines–not by any geologic parameters.  Woolley estimates that almost all of Marlborough’s available land for vines—95% or so–has now been planted.  Taking a dig at the French, he notes, “We can’t extend the boundary, unlike Champagne.”  Of course there’s no saying that Sauvignon Blanc planted just on the other side of the county line wouldn’t be as distinctive, but it couldn’t carry the magical Marlborough name and, hence, would be far less marketable.

The real limitations for planting according to Woolley are scarcity of water and warmth, which is needed to ripen the fruit adequately and protect from frost.

Two Valleys

The Marlborough region is roughly divided into two major valleys, theWairau and, to the south, the cooler Awatere.  The Awatere Valley, first commercialized by Vavasour, has an even greater water deficit than the Wairau and hence, was planted later.  Awatere’s soil is very stony and poor, with little sub-soil, according to Woolley.

The Wairau Valley was the first area in Marlborough to be planted and is prized because it delivers riper grapes and hence, richer wines.  The Wairau has varied soils in different spots, but is generally home to deeper alluvial soils than the Awatere, with schist and stone, according to Woolley.

The Upper Wairau, which was the first area to be planted and which catapulted Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc onto the world stage, delivers plumper, riper wines.  Although the lower Wairau is closer to the sea, Woolley doesn’t think that accounts for the difference in the quality of the grapes.  “The prevailing winds come from the West.  It has to be a very warm day before any wind comes off the ocean to cool down the lower Wairau.  I think it’s the different soil that accounts for the leaner wines from the lower Wairau.”

Within the Awatere lies a less well-known and defined region, the notoriously dry Blind River Valley.  Adjacent to the Awatere Valley, it was long overlooked for lack of water.  But as soon as irrigation from the Awatere River came to the area, the vines blossomed.  Growers found different flavors from the grapes. Constellation invested heavily in the area.

Considering the differences within and between the Wairau and Awatere Valleys, the upshot is clear: climate and soil types vary enormously throughout Marlborough.

The Wines Are Different

Woolley poured four 2009 tank samples of Sauvignon Blanc made from grapes grown in their vineyards in the Awatere Valley, the Upper and Lower Wairau Valley, and the Blind Valley.  They reflected the differing origins of the grapes quite vividly.

The sample from Awatere Valley–with only about 12% alcohol, reflecting its cooler locale–had a quintessentially lean, slightly flinty, laser-like focus and a limey finish.  The wines from both the Upper and Lower Wairau were slightly less piercing and slightly riper, with a broader middle.  The wine from the Lower Wairau weighed in at about 12% alcohol, whereas the sample from Upper Wairau delivered riper flavors–consistent with its 13.5% alcohol–while maintaining an attractive, grapefruit-like character.  Both Wairau wines seemed to have a fuller mid-palate compared to the sample from Awatere. The sample from Blind River was very floral, far less piercing, softer, perhaps a “friendlier” style.  The final Nobilo wine, albeit from the 2008 vintage, was greater that the sum of its parts, demonstrating the value of blending.

Site-Specific Wines

Woolley’s tasting proved that all Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc does not taste the same.  The diversity of sites resulted in a diversity of distinctive wines.  So why aren’t there more wines from Marlborough that highlight a specific place, be it a valley or a vineyard?

Producers elsewhere in New Zealand are highlighting the differences in terroir and focusing on single vineyard wines. Craggy Range in Martinborough, on the southern tip of the North Island, focuses exclusively on single vineyard bottlings.  Craggy Range’s focus on single vineyard wines is not a marketing one, but rather a reflection of the diversity of the soils and climate New Zealand has to offer.

Some companies value brand consistency more than the quirky individualism resulting from bottlings based on a single vineyard.  And since much of Marlborough’s production is controlled by five companies, corporate brand strategy carries a lot of weight in the region.  Nevertheless, Michael Brajkovich, winemaker at the exemplary Kumeu River winery, notes that, “Making single vineyard wines is a sign of a maturation of a region.”  And it’s true that grapes were first planted in Marlborough only 35 years ago.

Some Marlborough producers are commercializing single vineyard wines—including Brancott and Dog Point–that highlight the dramatic differences that Woolley’s tasting demonstrated.  Others, such as Craggy Range, are making them in small quantities that are not available for export.

Marlborough is Changing

Already Marlborough is starting to see changes.  Vineyard expansion has virtually stopped.  And for the first time with the 2009 harvest, growers are showing selectivity at harvest.  According to Woolley, they did not pick all the Sauvignon Blanc, contradicting the convention wisdom, which has held that “If it’s Marlborough and it is Sauvignon Blanc, just pick it.”

Let’s hope that the future will add a proliferation of wines from single areas and vineyards to the list of changes we’re seeing in Marlborough.

October 20, 2009