Three evolving styles of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

New Zealand’s Marlborough region is famous for singular Sauvignon Blanc, but as Chris Howard discovers, diverse expressions are well under way deep in the South Pacific

Words by Chris Howard

Te Pa Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand
te Pā winery is one of many Marlborough estates experimenting with different styles of Sauvignon Blanc 

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s overnight success simultaneously redefined the French variety and placed New Zealand on the wine world stage. Exploding on the scene in the late 1970s, the wines displayed an exuberance and vitality that had never been seen before.

In his Wine Atlas, Oz Clarke reflects: ‘No previous wine had shocked, thrilled, offended, entranced the world before with such brash, unexpected flavours of gooseberries, passion fruit and lime, or crunchy green asparagus spears.’ While loved by many for its immediate impact, herbaceous intensity and razor-sharp acidity, it has also been labelled a one-trick pony by scribes and sommeliers.

‘So much Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc tastes as if it’s come out of the same bottomless tank,’ said critic and Club Oenologique contributor Tim Atkin MW in a 2020 review. Jancis Robinson MW also recently noted: ‘There was a time when all NZSB seemed to taste the same – almost violently pungent with some obvious sweetness.’ Yet in recent years, the critics – including this pair – have warmed to the stylistic refinements and subregional expressions that demonstrate how one-note Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is moving along.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes on the vine at Villa Maria in Marlborough, New Zealand
Villa Maria has released a series of subregional and single-vineyard Sauvignon Blancs to show off the grape's diversity

The evolution is the result of several factors, including the region’s maturing vines (some pushing 40), a deeper understanding of Marlborough’s terroir and developments in winemaking practices – especially organic farming. Thanks to its fame, the region has had significant investment and continues to attract winemaking talent from far and wide, which has no doubt played its part, too.

Given that Marlborough is a large and diverse region, the subregional story is steadily gaining ground. From the salty, electric Sauvignons of coastal Awatere and the pungent grapefruit and passion fruit expressions of stony lower Wairau to the dense tropicals of the clay-soiled Southern Valleys, greater specificity is Marlborough’s natural next step. A handful of respected producers, such as Mahi, Rapaura Springs and Villa Maria, release subregional and single-vineyard bottlings. Not to be taken lightly, these are wines that clearly speak of place (tūrangawaewae, as it’s called in Aotearoa NZ).

Despite variations, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s core identity remains

Despite subregional variations, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s core identity remains, defined by optimal, cool-climate growing conditions and green, tropical flavours. But Marlborough’s creative vignerons have worked hard to balance the elements. ‘The challenge is to keep those herbaceous characters in check,’ says Kevin Judd of Greywacke and former chief winemaker at Cloudy Bay. ‘The better of these wines have these herbaceous characters in context and balance with the more tropical-fruit characters associated with riper fruit.’

This signature style has given way to three distinct expressions. Here, we take a look at the defining flavours and characters of next-wave Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Budburst of Sauvignon Blanc grapes on the vine at Te Pa in Marlborough, New Zealand
Vineyard view at Te Pa in Marlborough, New Zealand
The flavour profile of Sauvignon Blanc has evolved considerably over the past two decades

1. The New Classic

This is the one you already know: the infamous one. Or as Marlborough Sauv specialist Jules Taylor puts it: ‘The party-pants SB, the aperitif style with octopus arms that hit you with eight different flavours from all directions.’

The New Classic style remains unmistakably Marlborough, but the flavour profile of today’s Sauvignon Blanc is quite different from 20-plus years ago. Cut grass, canned asparagus and pea flavours have given way to ripe tropicals, citrus and stone fruits and sweet herbs like basil and thyme. The signature pungency remains, but with more mineral lines and satin texture. In short, the classic has gone from lean and green to a fuller, lusher style.

Dialling back Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s herbaceousness has been achieved in the vineyard and winery. A closer look at canopy management has helped keep ‘green’-flavoured chemical compounds (methoxypyrazines) in check. Allowing the grapes to hang longer and ripen more also eschews the green tones and brings out the varietal’s tropical side.

We’re not talking about a new style – rather an evolution of the classic one

In the winery, Marlborough producers imbue textural elements and complexity to the classic style by blending small amounts (5%-15%) of barrel or large format oak-matured wine. Lees contact, stirring and partial malolactic fermentation are other winemaking techniques employed to create softer, textural wines where some of the savageness is tamed but the fresh, punchy fruit aromas and flavours remain.

‘The desired effect is more subliminal than obvious,’ observes Clive Jones of Nautilus Estate. ‘We’re not talking about a new style but rather an evolution of the classic one.’ Astrolabe winemaker Simon Waghorn agrees: ‘Less is more, and the drinkability and food-friendliness of my Sauvignon Blancs are as important as the regional typicity.’

New Classic Sauvignon Blanc to try:

  • Mahi
  • Clos Henri Bel Echo
  • Villa Maria Reserve Wairau Valley
  • Te Whare Ra
  • Rapaura Springs Rohe Series Dillons Point
  • Rock Ferry
sauvignon blanc grapes at villa maria vineyards in marlborough, new zealand

2. Oaked and ageworthy

Forget what you know about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – this is the serious, sexy style for Chardonnay lovers. Made along Burgundian lines, it’s typically hand-picked, whole-bunch pressed, wild fermented and matured for a year or so in mostly older barrels and large-format oak vessels. Currently on the rise, the wood treatment began in the early 1990s with Tony Bish’s Sauvage, followed shortly after by Cloudy Bay’s long-standing benchmark, Te Koko.

Along with oak, lees contact and stirring adds body and structure, while full or partial malolactic fermentation converts Marlborough’s electric acid from lighting bolt to tingling undercurrent. While the New Classic style is best drunk young and fresh, the added oomph of these Sauvignons allow them to improve with age. Like Chardonnay, they begin showing their potential after three years but will go for 10 or more. Also like Chardonnay, these wines sit at a higher price due to the cost of oak and the extra time and attention required in the winery.

The Waghorm family at Astrolabe farm and vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand
Astrolade's Taihoa vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand
Astrolabe is at the forefront of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – its Taihoa bottling spends time in oak and is designed for ageing

Less about raw power, these wines are focused on finesse, complexity and age-worthiness. Wines like Dog Point’s Section 94, Greywacke’s Wild Sauvignon and Mahi’s Boundary Farm expressions show serious personality and pronounced vintage variation. Beneath concentrated tropicals and stone fruits, mature examples reveal a bewildering array of secondary flavours, from tarragon and lemon thyme to saffron, elderflower, fennel and white florals (no green beans and asparagus here).

While a handful of Marlborough’s finest make this style, Greywacke is widely regarded as leading the charge. Having been on the ground from the beginning, Kevin Judd has a deep understanding of Sauvignon Blanc’s potential and how a touch of reduction (depriving the wine of air during fermentation) brings complex mineral layers into the fold. It turns out that tropical fruits, wet stones and a hint of gun smoke make for a fine combination.

Oaked and ageworthy Sauvignon Blanc to try:

  • Jules Taylor OTQ
  • te Pā Oke
  • Hans Herzog
  • Spy Valley Envoy
  • Blank Canvas Abstract
  • Astrolabe Taihoa
Yealands wine estate in Marlborough, New Zealand
Yealands Estate, which has incorporated the use of concrete eggs into the fermenting and ageing process for its State of Flux Sauvignon Blanc

3. Experimental Sauvignon Blanc

Sitting between and a little to the left, we come to a hybrid, non-binary, postmodern Sauvignon Blanc. Informed by the natural wine trend, the style springs from fermentation in a range of alternative vessels, from concrete eggs, clay amphora and steel tanks, to oak and acacia barrels of various sizes. Wood contact adds nutty, savoury textural elements without any overt oakiness, while skin and/or extensive lees contact lends body, complexity and density.

Most of these wines blend batches matured in different vessels and some include small portions of Semillon. This oenological bricolage results in wines full of character, intrigue and surprise. The intermezzo style is food-friendly yet interesting enough to sip solo. Rewarding a few years at rest, these wines typically show layers of tropical and citrus fruits, fresh herbs, chalky minerality and bright, focused acidity.

winemaker Erica Crawford with concrete eggs at Loveblock winery in New Zealand
Erica Crawford of Loveblock is at the forefront of experimentation, using clay 'egg' fermenters, and a special green-tea mixture to preserve her wines, rather than sulphur

Beyond experimenting with vessels, Erica Crawford of Loveblock has been pioneering the use of ‘tee’ (green tea, rooibos and honeybush) as an alternative to sulphur (the winemaker’s traditional preservative of choice). The tannins in the tee extract, like sulphur, turn out to have a significant antioxidant, preservative effect. Things get even more interesting when you taste her organic, single-vineyard Tee Sauvignon Blanc, with its unexpected notes of apricot, blood orange and fennel.

For Erica and others, the potential of Sauvignon Blanc is only just being tapped. She says: ‘Exploring the boundaries of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has been fascinating. We have seen flavours emerging that are not ordinarily associated with Sauvignon Blanc, such as saffron, cumin and mandarin zest.’

Experimental Sauvignon Blanc to try:

  • Two Rivers Convergence
  • Zephyr MK111
  • Nautilus The Paper Nautilus
  • Tupari Boulder Rows
  • Yealands State of Flux
  • Churton Natural State