Good wine is often compared to good music, a perfectly composed symphony of tastes, smells and textures. Marlborough sauvignon blanc is often described, rather unkindly, as a one-note wonder. Perhaps, but it’s also perfectly pitched with both purity and punch, the sound of one voice singing rather than the whole orchestra. It clearly has an audience, because in three decades, Marlborough sauvignon blanc, an astringent drop with an almost ostentatious aroma, has become a brand as recognisable as a Barossa shiraz or a Californian zinfandel. It is generally credited with launching an entire wine industry: sauvignon blanc now constitutes 75 per cent of New Zealand wine exports, 80 per cent of which come from Marlborough.
Marlborough has been transformed as a consequence, from a pastoral province to the largest grape-growing region in the country, now filled with thousands of hectares of vines. And filling up further: another 2,000 ha of Marlborough is planted out in vineyards every year.
By now you may have tasted your first 2008 sauvignon blanc. If not, now is the time; this is a variety best drunk fresh. This year Marlborough reaped the most bounteous harvest in its history. It is estimated that 150,000 tonnes of Marlborough grapes would be crushed, 30,000 t more than last year and 10 times the tonnage of a decade ago. It was the result of a warm spring, a long hot summer and an ever-increasing amount of land being planted out in vines, mostly in sauvignon blanc. At harvest, Blenheim seemed awash with sauvignon blanc, with spilt juice on every corner and the air thick with the fruity, boozy aromas of fermenting grapes.
“It is one of the only new flavours the industry has offered in the last 100 years,” says Gerry Gregg, national winery manager for Pernod-Ricard, owner of Montana Wines. The drop may have changed a little over the decades, from a wine so vegetal you could have ordered it as a side-salad, to something more tropical, but clearly there is something about Marlborough that produces such a uniquely, spectacularly sauvignon-ish sauvignon blanc. The question yet to be answered is; what?
This is the question preoccupying scientists involved in the sauvignon blanc project, a $9.6 million, six-year Foundation for Research Science and Technology funded project that involves a number of institutions, including the University of Auckland, Lincoln University, the Marlborough Wine Research Centre and HortResearch and myriad scientific disciplines, including microbiology, chemistry, sensory evaluation, plant physiology and genetics.
The aim of the project is to identify the key compounds and characteristics of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, particularly Marlborough sauvignon blanc, in order to secure its future in the face of increasing competition from, say, South Africa and Chile, both beginning to make sauvignon blanc much like ours, and are likely to do so more cheaply. “They are probably where we were 20 years ago,” says Gerry Gregg, adding half-jokingly, “and long may they stay there.”
But wine is a complex and mysterious substance—which is what makes it so wonderful—and even the simplest wines (sauvignon blanc is one of the simplest) are affected by a number of variables: the weather, the winemaker, the management of the vineyard, the vintage. There is, for instance, anecdotal evidence that a decade ago, Hawke’s Bay sauvignon blanc tasted more like a Marlborough sauvignon than the same vintage from Marlborough. And those from Marlborough can taste more like a typical Marlborough sav six months after bottling, while others may taste more typical 15 months after bottling. And what exactly is a typical Marlborough sauvignon blanc anyway?
“This is not a fixed thing,” says Wendy Parr who, through Lincoln University, has spent four years researching the taste and aroma of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. “There is this concept of the Marlborough savvy, but it’s dynamic and changing all the time. I remember tasting the Hunter’s wine in the late 1980s. It was just so green. We’ve really ripened up since then.”
Not only is the wine difficult to pin down, so is the person drinking it. This is Parr’s specialty: sensory evaluation, that is quantifying the highly subjective matters of human taste and smell. This isn’t easy, almost impossible. Taste and smell are inextricably tied up with people’s individual physiologies as well as their unique psychologies; their memories, experiences, frame of mind. “People are different, not only between themselves but also within themselves.”
Which is why one person’s passionfruit is another person’s peach. Passionfruit, peach, kiwifruit, capsicum, canned asparagus, grass clippings, melon, green beans, tomato stalk, cat’s pee, sweaty armpit… there are dozens of terms used to describe Marlborough sauvignon blanc. What is the point at which reality ends and perception begins? When does a mango become a pineapple? Or grass-clippings become cat’s pee?
As Parr has demonstrated, even experts sometimes struggle to tell the difference between a red wine and a white wine. In one of her blind trials she gave a panel of cognoscenti a chardonnay that was coloured red. “And some of the wine experts judged the chardonnay as a red wine, and even found the berry notes and so on. It was the most devious thing I’d ever done.”
But of all the wines in the world, Marlborough sauvignon blanc is still one of the most easily identified. And despite the complexities of wine and human perception, Parr has been able to build a distinct profile of what people expect from a Marlborough sauvignon blanc: “A wine that has a combination of specific green notes, specific ripe and fruity notes, and good acid-flavour balance.”
This probably sounds obvious, but it also squares with the chemical analyses of Marlborough sauvignon blanc conducted by scientists on the project.
There are hundreds of compounds responsible for the aromas and flavours of your average wine, all of which interact with one another in complex and mostly unknown ways. What makes sauvignon blanc less complicated is that its particularly pungent aromas boil down to a few, clearly distinguishable compounds, what scientists call “impact compounds”.
These include two particular methoxypyrazines, which are responsible for the aromas of capsicum, asparagus and other “green” characteristics we associate with Marlborough sauvignon blanc. (They are the very same compounds responsible for the green minty characters that can wreck a cabernet sauvignon.) Researchers have also concentrated on a couple of volatile thiols—compounds which usually have a strong, unpleasant pong and, like methoxypyrazines, can be picked up by humans at very low levels. The two readily identifiable volatile thiols in sauvignon blanc (known as 3MH and 3MHA) were first identified in passionfruit and are responsible for that distinct burst of fruit, sometimes described as passionfruit, sometimes “sweaty passionfruit” or less flatteringly “sweaty armpit.”
Broken down further, these volatile thiols come in two forms, mirror images of the same molecule—think of it as a pair of hands—that are called enantiomers. Known as the R form and S forms, they each produce different aromas. The R form of the 3MH, for example, is redolent of grapefruit, while the S form smells more like passionfruit. The R form of the 3MHA also smells like passionfruit, but the S form smells more like what the French call boxwood and New Zealanders call “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush”.
By painstakingly analysing dozens of sauvignon blancs, researchers at the University of Auckland’s wine science course have been able to show that Marlborough sauvignon blanc has more volatile thiols and methoxypyrazines than sauvignon blancs from other parts of the country and other parts of the world. In other words, the scientists have cracked it; what makes Marlborough sauvignon blanc so unique is an unusually high level of a few high-impact compounds.
And it proves—at least as far as something like smell and taste can be scientifically proven— that all those terms used to describe the aromas of Marlborough sauvignon blanc are not just an arbitrary collection of descriptors dreamed up by wine writers desperately searching for something to say, or by winemakers looking for something to write on the back label.
But of all the notable wine regions, what is it about Marlborough that produces such high levels of these aromatic compounds?
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the reason sauvignon does so well here is primarily a function of climate,” says Kevin Judd, head winemaker of Cloudy Bay, pointing to a long, sunny growing season, where the high temperatures don’t get particularly high, allowing the grapes to ripen in sunny but cool ambient conditions. He also points to the diurnal temperature, of long hot days followed by very cold nights. “So you get this incredible flavour retention in the fruit, and good natural acids. And that’s why you get that nice combination of tropical fruit flavours and that slightly herbal, green element.” Stu Marfell, winemaker of Vavasour Wines, has a nice analogy: “It’s like putting the grapes in the fridge for the night, and then taking them out and letting them carry on ripening.”
When people theorise on what makes a wine unique, they usually talk about terroir, which is at the base of the French Appellation system. The idea is that the place in which grapes are grown imparts unique and specific characteristics on the wine that can’t be reproduced outside that area, even if the grape variety and the winemaking techniques are the same. A Burgundy is not a pinot noir that happens to come from Burgundy, but a uniquely Burgundian wine that happens to be made from pinot noir grapes.
Conventionally speaking, terroir is usually understood as a combination of soil, climate and topography, although the scope of the concept is the subject of much debate. (More of that later.) Talking of the terroir of a winemaking region is about evoking a sense of place, through that place’s riverbanks, valleys, mountains and gravelly soils. In France, it provides an excellent means of protecting a winemaker’s patch and the reputation of the wine that comes from there.
The Wairau River plains, the first area to be planted out with vineyards around Blenheim, have soil that is characteristic of much of the soil on the east coast of the South Island—a mix of stony and sandy loams over free-draining shingle.
But not all Marlborough soil is the same. The northern Wairau Valley, characterised by free-draining silt anod river gravel, produces a sav with tropical notes and a flinty character. The southern valley has older soils with more clay and produces a greener sav with gooseberry, capsicum and olive characters. Meanwhile, the Awatere Valley, 25 km from Blenheim, has free-draining soils over impervious mudstone, resulting in sweet herb, fennel and tomato stalk characters.
Well, that’s according to the tasting notes of Montana’s Terroir series, and as is usual with matters of taste, it is difficult to differentiate between reality and perception, or reality and the commercial imperative to “extend the brand”. One winemaker described the characters associated with the northern and southern regions of the Wairau Valley as the inverse of the above. Marfell says he never really tasted the tomato stalk characters commonly associated with the Awatere Valley until this year, and more readily associates the wine with the characters of “intense white peach and tropical melons”.
The composition of Marlborough’s soil has been a research focus for Mike Trought, a plant physiologist with the Marlborough Wine Research Centre. But as he points out, there isn’t really such as thing as “Marlborough soil”. You don’t need to dig very far to discover that the composition of the soil varies not only within Marlborough, but also within the subregions of Marlborough, as well as within a single vineyard, and even within a single row. “Terroir matters,” says Trought. “But it might only be a matter of metres.”
He brings up an aerial view over Blenheim on Google Earth and points to the clearly visible patterns in the Wairau Valley vineyards, undulating bands of dark green and light green. As his research has revealed, the structure of the soil changes within 50 metres, from stony to distinctly silty—the result of the former paths of obsolete river channels dumping silt and stone as they meandered east to west. The stony soils produce much smaller vines, while siltier soils produce larger ones. As the vineyards were mostly planted north to south, you can see the former river channels imprinted on the leaves of the grapevines as you fly over Blenheim.
What does this mean for Marlborough’s viticulturalists and winemakers? Good wine is largely about picking the grapes when they are ripe but still have high acid levels. Winemakers also operate on the premise that lower-yielding vines tend to produce fruit with a fuller flavour, which is why they often drop the crop, forfeiting quantity for quality. But while it is generally assumed that a small yield produces better flavours, Trought’s argument is that as smaller vines tend to ripen earlier than larger varieties—often 10 days earlier—that difference [in flavour] is a function of site rather than yield. “The higher the proportion of gravelly soils, and therefore higher number of smaller vines in the vineyard, the riper the fruit and the wine.”
But so far, this hasn’t mattered. Most sauvignon blanc is machine-harvested, and even if some berries are riper than others at the time of harvesting, they all end up in the same stainless-steel vat. In fact, this mix of ripeness could be partly responsible for those “tropical fruit aromas” and the “herbaceous spine” that a Marlborough sav is so famous for. (Besides which, most sauvignon blanc is blended from grapes grown all over the region.) However, the diversity of soils within Marlborough also suggests that if there is a single geographical influence on Marlborough sauvignon blanc, it isn’t the soil.
And perhaps it really isn’t possible to identify one, or even two, unifying forces behind Marlborough sauvignon blanc. At least not according to Warren Moran, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Auckland, who promotes a version of terroir which he describes as a kind of prism, an intersection of several terroir-based dimensions, which can’t be separated from one another. Yes, it has something to do with soil and climate—“the vine has its roots in the soil, and its leaves in the atmosphere”—but a vine is a managed plant, and any definition of terroir that focuses on just geological patterns and processes omits all the viticultural and winemaking practices that intervene. It also neglects the marketing and business strategies that have somehow persuaded people all around the world to drink a low-profile wine variety from an unknown region with one of the briefest winemaking histories in the world.
“Most people tend to be environmentally deterministic, promoting this idea that it’s the environment that creates these special wines,” says Moran. “But it’s people who are integral, making decisions on where they are going to plant grapes, then learning how to achieve what they want.”
To understand Moran’s argument, it is worth considering the serendipitous events that led to the rise of Marlborough sauvignon blanc and how, in many ways, it was a matter of being the right grape at the right time.
It was in the 1970s that Bill and Ross Spence, at Matua Winery, first imported six sauvignon blanc cuttings from the University of California. (There is evidence that the first sauvignon blanc vines were planted in Marlborough as early as the 1870s, but not in commercial quantities.) Only one of those clones, called UCD1, proved to be good at fighting off the leaf roll virus and still producing significant amounts of quality fruit. UCD1 went on to underpin the sauvignon industry in New Zealand.
It was in 1973 that Montana Wines, then led by Frank Yukich, decided to expand its white wine production to fill the growing demand for the casked white that New Zealanders were then quaffing. After surveying suitable regions for the company, Wayne Thomas of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research recommended Marlborough. In less than a fortnight, several farms were snapped up, with the value of farmland increasing from $1000 to $2000 an acre within 10 days. (Harcourts recently sold land in the northern Wairau Valley for $75,000 an acre.)
This was the decade that New Zealanders, having recently weaned themselves off fortified wines, were taking to table whites with the enthusiasm of the recently converted. Such as Montana’s Blenheimer, mostly made out of Müller Thurgau. “It was fresh and it had flavour. It was, ‘wow!’” recalls Allan Scott of Allan Scott Wines. Chenin blanc was also popular; a fresh and fruity wine in its own right, and a classical variety popular in the Loire. However, Scott says New Zealand winemakers treated it very much as a bulk product, planted it to deliver 12 tonnes per acre and picked it before it was ripe, after which an “enormous amount of sugar” was added to the juice. The reputation of the variety has never really recovered.
Randy Weaver, winemaker and lecturer at Auckland University’s wine research centre has several award-winning chardonnays under his belt, but also owns up to being responsible for the cloyingly sweet and barely alcoholic Chardon. “You could never underestimate how much New Zealanders liked sweetness. We made Chardon. Low in alcohol—only eight per cent—so that people would like it and drink gallons of it. And they did.”
So when Montana began planting in Marlborough, it was with Müller Thurgau, chenin blanc, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and a bit of sauvignon blanc. (Many of the cuttings were planted upside down because the hired labour couldn’t tell which the right side was up.) It was also the first time in New Zealand that a large area of vineyards had been planted on gravelly soil, which demanded some quick innovations in irrigation. After the first dry summer without it, 300 of the 486 ha had to be replanted.
By the 1980s, several other companies had moved into the region and were growing sauvignon, including Selaks and Corbans, but it still wasn’t a priority variety and most, following the Californian model, still imagined a future in chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
Then, in the mid-80s, Ernie Hunter of Hunter’s Wines took some Marlborough sauvignon blanc to the International Wine Show in the UK. He was competing against some of the largest winemaking companies from Europe. Some say that had he known what he was up against, or what sauvignon blanc was supposed to taste like (the more mineral-based and decidedly un-grassy Sancerre) he mightn’t have bothered. He won three top trophies, all for sauvignon blanc, and the UK wine press was alerted to a brand new taste. Cloudy Bayhad also entered the UK market around the same time with a moody name, a smart label, an excellent wine and a distribution network that targeted premium wine outlets. By the late 1980s, it had become the most famous New Zealand sauvignon blanc in the world, and probably still is.
With its crisp edge and strident, grassy aromas, the Marlborough sauvignon had novelty value, and was finally something new for winewriters to write about. It also seemed to hit exactly the right notes at the right time. “I personally believe that the health fad has a lot to do with it,” says Pernod-Ricard’s Gerry Gregg. “It’s clean. It’s fresh. And you can taste the grape.”
Yet according to Allan Scott, it all could still have ended otherwise, maybe with chenin blanc. “It was the luck of the draw. Ernie was the catalyst, but he wanted it to be chardonnay. I didn’t think it would be sauvignon. Nobody predicted it. But it was definitely Marlborough.”
If scientists on the sauvignon blanc project haven’t yet been able to identify exactly what is so special about Marlborough, this hasn’t stopped them from developing ways for winemakers to add a little more “Marlborough” to the New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
Mat Goddard, from the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences, is hoping to do this with yeasts. This makes sense, given that all those flavour-producing thiols and methoxypyrazines are produced during fermentation.
Goddard is an ecological and evolutionary biologist, someone who looks at the big questions, such as the forces of evolution, by studying small creatures, such as yeast microbes. As he points out, yeasts evolved around the same time as flowering fruit, hundreds of millions of years ago. The fruit provided a ready food source, but there were a number of other species competing for it. The response of the yeast to this competition was particularly innovative: it poisoned its own environment.
“Yeasts don’t produce ethanol for the good of us,” says Goddard. ”They produce ethanol because it’s a toxin, and it kills its competitors. We’ve secondarily adapted to like it, but that’s a perversion.” We can only be grateful; life without yeast would be rather Calvinistic, without whisky, wine or beer.
Some yeasts are better at reconstructing their niche than others, and the best of all is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This is the commercially available yeast preferred by winemakers in the New World, a strong, predictable yeast that converts the sugar without unpleasant consequences. The zoo of yeast that would be involved in a spontaneous ferment—by yeasts found in-situ on the grape—can take much longer and result in the production of microbes that taste ghastly. “That’s not surprising. If you have a diversity of yeasts creating a diversity of metabolites—which are what give the wine flavour—you’re going to have a more complex wine.”
Goddard therefore went looking for indigenous yeasts in the vineyards of Auckland’s Kumeu River, one of the few companies that use spontaneous ferments in their wine. He then began experimenting on sauvignon blanc with different yeasts and in different combinations until he hit what could be called a jackpot. One co-ferment (with the common S. cerevisiae and a yeast found in a Kumeu River 2005 chardonnay) produced seven times the usual level of volatile thiols in sauvignon blanc.
“Everyone who tastes it can taste the difference,” he says. “It’s more complex. There’s more to it.” The combination is now being used in commercial trials with five different wine companies, including Delegats, which has stumped up 30,000 litres of sauvignon blanc for the trial. “Which I’m particularly nervous about. How much does a litre of Oyster Bay sell for? Multiply that by 30,000…”
What is the future of the platinum grape? The Winegrowers of Ara could signal a new direction, with plans to develop a rare style of sauvignon blanc, one that could fetch a premium price. The company has a massive new vineyard at the confluence of the Waihopai and Wairau rivers, where 390 ha are now under vines, 85 per cent of them sauvignon blanc, the first of 1500 ha Ara plans to have under vines within the decade.
Viticultural scientist Damian Martin wants to move away from a “one-dimensional” expression of sauvignon and develop a style that combines New World aromatics with the Old World texture, length and ageing ability. He hopes to do this by growing sauvignon as a kind of “bonsai”, with tighter plantings, lower yields, smaller berries and thicker skins. “It would be a really unique style. I don’t know anyone who has cracked it yet, but we’ve started.”
Most winemakers admit that sauvignon isn’t a particularly interesting wine to make and they prefer to exercise their intellect on more challenging varieties, such as chardonnay and pinot noir, varieties in which winemakers can play a much greater role in the end result. But many winemakers are also experimenting with sauvignon, maturing it in oak, or leaving it to sit on the yeast lees, adding a bit of complexity and ageing potential. This is more to satisfy winemaking urges; the money is till clearly with the fresh, fruity, rather straightforward and relatively inexpensive version.
And if there is a whiff of a backlash against sauvignon blanc, a variety beloved and also derided for its simplicity, this is nothing new. For more than a decade winewriters have been predicting the end of it all, that our palates would become more “refined” and turn against it. So far we haven’t, and they still can’t get enough of it overseas. While this year’s bumper crop means that it will be a challenging year, it’s clear that people have plenty of confidence in the future of the variety. For evidence, you only need drive around the Awatere Valley, the newest subregion within Marlborough where (largely due to the plantings of Marlborough entrepreneur Peter Yealands and Montana) there is now more acreage under vine than in the whole of Hawke’s Bay.
“Anyone who has been around this business has seen how fast it has moved,” says Randy Weaver, noting that the New Zealand wine industry has already rebuilt itself twice within three decades, moving from sherry and port to table wine and from there to sauvignon blanc. “That’s moving real fast.” Which is why he argues that it is worth researching the variety, keeping on eye on its future, and staying one step ahead of the Chileans and South Africans.
Vavasour’s Marfell agrees. “We’re always striving to keep ahead. We’ve always got trials going, trying out new yeasts, new fermentation temperatures. We’ve got to keep on experimenting, keep on being innovative.” Marfell, whose sauvignon was judged best in the world last year, clearly remains an enthusiast. “The whole winery smells good when those grapes are fermenting. The yeasts are doing all sorts of things and releasing all those aromas. I still get a buzz out of sauvignon.”