One of my favorite white varietals, especially to enjoy during spring and early summer, is sauvignon blanc.
Light, dry and crisp, the chilled wine is an ideal match for oysters and other shellfish, as well as sushi. It pairs well with chevre and many cheeses.
A native of France’s Bordeaux region, the green-skinned grape is grown in wine regions all over the world — including Europe, North and South America, South Africa and Australia. But, surprisingly, outside of France and Italy, the nation producing more sauvignon blanc than any other is New Zealand.
This Pacific country’s wine industry blossomed in the late 1970s in Marlborough province, at the northeastern end of the South Island. With a dry, temperate climate comparable to Northern California (it lies at a similar latitude in the Southern Hemisphere), this region is planted with 77 percent of New Zealand’s vineyards. More than 85 percent of the harvest is “sauv blanc,” which dominates over such other varietals as pinot noir and chardonnay.
Blenheim (pronounced “BLEN-im”), the hub of the region, has more hours of sunshine than any other New Zealand city. Long summer days and comfortably cool evenings extend the growing season well into the autumn, which in these southern climes comes in March.
International wine critics have praised New Zealand sauvignon blancs for their distinctive flavors and aromas, declaring them among the best in the world. Indeed, Brancott Estate, Clifford Bay, Cloudy Bay, Craggy Range, Kim Crawford, Matua, Mohua, Monkey Bay, Nobilo, Omaka Springs, Oyster Bay, Starborough, Villa Maria, Wairau River and Whitehaven are all Marlborough labels that wine lovers have seen in Bend-area wine shops and supermarkets.
A world of difference
In Bordeaux, sauvignon blanc is noted for its herbaceous, almost grassy, nose and its sharp acidity. Typical flavors may include elderflower, green apple and bell pepper. The grapes may sometimes be blended with others, such as semillon, or aged in oak barrels to make creamier, fuller-bodied wines. Sauvignon blanc is also used to make sweet Sauternes dessert wine in a blend with dried grapes affected by the botrytis fungus. North of Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley, limestone-rich soils impart more minerality to the wine, resulting in such varietals as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
California sauvignon blancs come primarily from Napa and Sonoma counties and from the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. A small number are also produced in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and in Washington’s Walla Walla region. In these cooler-climate zones, flavors may range from zesty lime to white peach, depending in part on the ripeness of the grapes when they are picked. But nearly all West Coast sauv blancs have a characteristic grassiness on the palate.
I don’t find this to the same degree in New Zealand sauvignon blancs. Perhaps some subtropical influences filter down from the country’s north, where the latitude is similar to that of Santa Barbara. The terroir tends to produce wines with more sweetly tropical flavors, notably passion fruit and (appropriately for this country) kiwi fruit. There’s most frequently also a strong tang of citrus up front: grapefruit or perhaps Meyer lemon.
These are elegant wines. Nobilo, Cloudy Bay and Matua are all good bets, readily available at local wine outlets for $15 or less. And they’re bottled not with corks but with screw caps, as sauvignon blancs are intended to be consumed young. Without oak, there’s no particular benefit to aging.
Kim Crawford wines
If I must choose just one New Zealand winery for sauvignon blanc, I’ll pick Kim Crawford. The 2016 vintage is already available in area stores, and if anything, it’s even better than previous years’.
Straw-colored, almost greenish on the pour, this wine is unoaked and bone dry with a suggestion of smokiness. On the nose, there’s a pleasing suggestion of ripe stonefruit, like walking through an orchard before the pears have been harvested. The palate offers passion fruit and subtle flavors of pomelo, or Chinese grapefruit, along with the varietal’s naturally grassy notes. The lingering flavor is fresh and tangy.
Kim Crawford’s grapes come from vineyards in Marlborough’s Wairau and Awatere valleys, neighboring alluvial terroirs much like Napa and Sonoma in California.
There’s nothing quite like this in the Northwest, but one winemaker who “gets it” is Ray Walsh of Eugene’s Capitello Wines. No surprise here: Walsh is a “Kiwi,” a native New Zealander.
Having discovered wine on a backpacking trip through Europe, Walsh was working in Marlborough for Kim Crawford and the large Villa Maria estate when he was recruited in 1993 by Eugene’s King Estate. After successfully raising its international profile in pinot noir and pinot gris, he stepped away in 2003 to establish his own brand, Capitello. Now he and his family fly back to Marlborough every harvest season.
Capitello’s Marlborough sauvignon blanc features a hint of oak, separating it from traditional New Zealand wines. But his Willamette Valley sauvignon blanc, sourced from local grapes, is a distinctly “Down Under”-style wine, with aromatics of passion fruit, lychee and lemon zest.
Walsh also makes wines on contract for Eugene’s Territorial Vineyards. But as something very near and dear to his heart, he keeps the sauvignon blancs to Capitello, the company he owns.
— John Gottberg Anderson specializes in Northwest wines. His column appears in GO! every other week. He also writes for our food section.