An old friend of mine recently left, as he does at least a couple of times each year, for New Zealand, which got me to thinking about New Zealand wines. And since it seems like the perfect time of year to drink Sauvignon Blanc, I decided to explore New Zealand in a bottle. Or rather, many bottles.
Virtually all New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc comes from Marlborough province, on the south end of the island. These wines are almost exclusively unoaked (fermented in steel containers), but are dense, big, rich and fruity. For my money, New Zealand produces the best Sauvignon Blanc being made today. Here are some highlights of my trip through Marlborough:
Cloudy Bay is pretty much the gold standard. And while I’ve always liked it in the past, I’m less fond of the current vintage and I think the prestige of the name has inflated the price to an unjustified level. Still, the fact that New Zealand’s supposed best bottle of Sauvignon Blanc can be had for $22.25 indicates what great values these wines generally are. I found the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2003 somewhat closed and on the tart side. If you can find some of the 2002 vintage, buy that instead. A good substitute for Cloudy Bay is the friendlier-priced ($12.95) Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Private Bin 2002. It’s amazingly well-balanced and packs a whopping tropical fruit punch. It’s my “go to” Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.
In our blind tasting, Highfield Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2002 ($17.95) was hands-down my companion’s favorite. Wine Spectator liked it too, giving Highfield a 91 point rating and calling it “explosive up front and persistent through the finish.” But I was less fond of this particular wine, finding the finish a bit funky, even steely. It’s a dark-colored S-V, with tons of asparagus flavor and smell, although the folks at Wine Spectator found something I didn’t: notes of “quince, passion fruit, and ripe pears.” This is not a timid Sauvignon Blanc. Try it if you like your salad in a glass.
The lower cost New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs tend to taste a bit green and unripe, slightly out of balance. That’s the case with Lake Chalice Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2002 ($14.30), even though it’s not one of the cheaper wines I tasted. It’s pleasant enough, with hints of tropical fruit, pears, passion fruit (Did I really taste bananas?) and mint. But for the price you could do better.
At $16.95, Huia Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2003 approaches the “high end” of the NZ Sauvignon Blanc price range. The Huia is light-bodied and airy, subtle and well-balanced. It’s so light colored in the glass it almost looks like water. But don’t be fooled, because there are nice peach and lime flavors. The 2003 Huia was by far the favorite of the New Zealand wines I sampled, including the much ballyhooed Cloudy Bay. Still, this wine isn’t going to stand up well to many foods. Drink it with only the most delicate courses at mealtime; it’s probably better served as an aperitif.
Matua Valley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 ($9.95) is a zippy, citrusy wine with good acidity, astringent and fruit-forward, with lively flavors of pineapple and lemon-lime. Of the New Zealand wines I tasted, this one was the best value. Although I drank it solo, I think it would be a fine choice for shellfish dishes, especially anything featuring fruit-based sauces, salsa or chutney.
Surprisingly, one of my favorite bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand wasn’t strictly Sauvignon Blanc at all, nor was it one of the expensive bottles I tried. At $6.95, Azure Bay Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2002 is a good bang-for-the-buck. Unlike the other wines discussed here, Azure Bay is from New Zealand’s East Coast. It comes in a blue bottle that looks like it should hold vodka. But the fruity flavors are yummy, and the wine has good balance and acidity. I’d drink it with a bushel of raw oysters or steamed clams.