For a time, it felt like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was taking over the world. With its sharp acidity and oodles of gooseberry and asparagus flavours, the style became a huge hit in restaurants and wine bars, washing away the previous fashion for highly-oaked Australian Chardonnay.
While Italy’s Pinot Grigio and upstarts like Spain’s Albarino may have since wobbled New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from its perch, the wine is still a great match for many seafood dishes and can be a delicious aperitif on a hot summer’s day.
But not all New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is born equal. Cheaper versions share many similarities with paint stripper, with unbalanced acidity slapping you around the chops and not supplying enough fruitiness to give balance.
The need for ripe fruit flavours is something of an obsession for winemaker Kevin Judd. Born in England and trained at Roseworthy College in Australia, Judd moved to New Zealand in 1983 and soon after became the first winemaker at Cloudy Bay, the country’s most famous winery, guiding the institution through its first 25 years.
In 2009 he setup his own label, Greywacke, named after the distinctive grey stone found in New Zealand – and parts of Scotland. He has since forged a name for himself making Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, his adopted nation’s classic varieties, along with deliciously-aromatic wines such as Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Riesling.
One of Judd’s most interesting innovations has been his series of Wild Sauvignon Blanc, which uses wild yeasts circulating through the air of the Dog Point Winery to ferment the grape juice, as opposed to the normal method of introducing cultured yeasts bought in a packet. The result is what Judd likes to call “funky” flavours that come from the wild, natural or indigenous yeasts that get the fermentation going in the first place.
“It’s not how they taught me to make wine at Roseworthy,” grinned Judd as he entertained guests at his recent Five Wild Years event, which offered a vertical tasting of Wild Sauvignon Blanc from 2009 through to 2013, hosted by wine merchant Liberty Wines at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh.
Winemakers are usually trained to make white wine in the classic New World style, using stainless steel tanks to ferment the juice at cool temperatures to preserve its acidity and its fresh and fruity flavours. Using natural yeasts and wooden barrels for the fermentation, as Judd does for his Wild Sauvignon Blanc, is more akin to the traditional Old World way of making rich and rounded whites.
The result is a deliciously-different take on Sauvignon Blanc. Although some winemakers in the Loire Valley in France ferment in barrels – and Fume-Blanc from California is famed or its oak-aged sauvignons – it’s fascinating to see this style in New Zealand, especially using the ripe fruit that Judd craves from his growers.
While many winemakers in New Zealand want grapes that have been shaded from the heat so that they can focus on Sauvignon Blanc’s traditional herbaceous aromas and flavours, Judd wants grapes that have been fully-ripened by the sun’s rays, developing more stone-fruit flavours of peach and apricot and tropical notes such as passion-fruit.
It was fascinating to see not only how the wines had developed over time but also how different weather in different years can lead to vintage variation. It makes me wonder what it would be like to have a ten wild years tasting further down the line.
2013 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc
2013 was hailed as the “vintage of a lifetime” on New Zealand’s North Island but, for Rudd in Marlborough on the South Island, conditions were far more in-line with the average, producing a wine that’s full of apricot, peach and ripe gooseberry aromas and flavours, with a tingling mineral note on the finish.
2012 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc
The cooler conditions that swept New Zealand in 2012 are evident in this wine, with sharper acidity keeping the ripe fruit flavours in check. The stone-fruit flavours are still there, but so are the more typical asparagus notes for Sauvignon Blanc.
2011 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc
Richer and creamier flavours shone through for me with the 2011, beautifully balancing the stone-fruit and the crisp but not over-powering acidity. The aromas on the nose are a little bit lighter, with touches of pear and nectarine in amongst the apricots and peaches.
2010 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc
The minerality shone through on the finish on the 2010 wine, which struck an excellent balance between the acidity, the fruity flavours and the creaminess from the stirring of the lees, the dead yeast cells that add body to the wine before being filtered out.
2009 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc
My favourite from the five wines. Although the 2011 and 2010 showed superb balance, the whole orchestra of flavours and textures really came together for me with the 2009 bottle, which even retained some sweeter vanilla flecks from the new oak barrels. Exquisite.
The 2013 and 2012 vintages are available from the following retailers:
Aitken Wines – 2013
The Bon Vivant’s Companion – 2013, 2012
Cornelius Beer & Wine – 2012
Drinkmonger – 2013, 2012
Eliies Cellar – 2013, 2012
Exel Wines – 2013, 2012
The Fine Wine Company – 2013, 2012
Henderson Wines – 2012
House of Menzies – 2012
Lockett Bros – 2012
Luvians Bottleshop – 2012
Provender Brown – 2012
Valhalla’s Goat – 2013, 2012
Villeneuve Wines – 2013, 2012
WoodWinters – 2012
For details about where to find the older vintages of Wild Sauvignon Blanc, please call Liberty Wines on 020 7720 5350.