Sauvignon blanc — cat’s pee or god’s nectar

Sauvignon Blanc. Kath and Kym once called it sauvignon plonk. Others call it cat’s pee. Over a glass or two, a vet I know enquired if the horse had been shot. Wine man, the late Len Evans listed it with goat’s cheese amongst his pet hates. And England’s wine luminary, Jancis Robinson, once wrote that its ranking amongst the world’s nine ‘classic’ varieties came only because of its ‘divine combination with semillon in parts of Bordeaux’.

While wine show judges almost invariably find sauvignon classes disappointing, populated by weedy, tart wines, sprinkled with one or two juicy highlights. Despite all the sauvignon put downs, Aussie drinkers love the variety – notably as a straight varietal from Marlborough, New Zealand or, from Margaret River, Western Australia, blended with semillon.

Twenty-one years ago, Jancis Robinson wrote “Sauvignon blanc produces wines for our times: white, dry, refreshingly zesty, aggressively recognisable and ready to drink almost before the presses have been hosed down after the vintage”. Her words seem even more on the money now than they did in 1986.
And the word from retailers and producers is that sauvignon blanc and blends are the fastest growing segment in the domestic wine market. And, for example, when I left Vintage Cellars a few years back, sauvignon blanc already accounted for one sixth of wine sales at a time when the variety accounted for only one twenty fifth of Australia’s grape crush.

This suggests a dash into sauvignon blanc by Australia’s keenest wine drinkers. The sustained growth in sauvignon blanc demand shows up, too, at the nation’s grape crushers. In 2002 we crushed 28, 567 tonnes of it. In the small 2003 vintage the figure fell to 21,028 tonnes before doubling to 42,504 tonnes in 2006 and slipping marginally in the drought-affected 2007 vintage to 39,463 tonnes. This growth suggests many hectares of plantings coming on stream to meet rising demand.

So why the rise in popularity of sauvignon blanc? I suspect it’s the exciting quality of straight varietals from Marlborough and blends from Western Australia delivering what Jancis described 20 years ago, “dry, refreshingly zesty, aggressively recognisable and ready to drink almost before the presses have been hosed down”.

It’s not that chardonnay’s in decline. Far from it. Rather, sauvignon blanc has found its niche as a fruity, zesty undemanding white well suited to our warm climate and casual dining habits – capturing what might have been riesling’s role.

Twenty years ago when the Aussie dollar was stronger, the most loved sauvignons were those imported from Pouilly and Sancerre at the eastern end of France’s Loire Valley. Magically fruity with a minerally, bone-dry finish, they reigned until international demand and a weakening dollar pushed them out of reach of most Australians.

Domestic sauvignons, at the time, came from mainly warm areas and were often made in the oak matured ‘fume blanc’ style pioneered by Robert Mondavi in California. These attracted momentary attention but were by and large over oaked and lacking varietal flavour.

By the mid eighties Australians had begun to enjoy the first in-your-face Marlborough sauvignon blancs. These offered pungent, capsicum-like aromas and flavours in tandem with high natural acidity – the product of Marlborough’s very cool climate, a pre condition for good sauvignon.

Twenty years on and Marlborough’s the world capital of sauvignon, having spread from a few vineyards at the southern cooler side of the Wairau valley to the warmer northern side and to the even cooler Awatere Valley, over the Wither Hills to the south.

The resulting diversity of sites, viticultural practice and winemaking preferences means a great diversity of Marlborough styles today. In general that means zesty, fresh, well-defined varietal flavours. But the varietal spectrum varies from the riper citrus and tropical fruit character of warmer sites to the old in-your-face capsicum-like ones.

Australian sauvignon blanc hasn’t found its Marlborough yet. But it has found a comfortable home in the Adelaide Hills. Like Marlborough the Adelaide Hills region is far from homogenous climatically. But selected sites do bring home the bacon, like the pace-setting Shaw and Smith.

And at Margaret River in the west, where sauvignon blanc seldom makes it on its own, semillon steps in to fatten out the mid palate and add a lovely citrus note without detracting from the racy freshness of sauvignon blanc.

These range from ever-popular ‘classic dry white’ styles like those from Evans & Tate and Vasse Felix at modest prices to the seamless glory of Cullens and Cape Mentelle partly oak fermented sauvignon blanc and semillon blends.

With a few exceptions like Cullens and Cape Mentelle wine, though, these are wines to chill, quaff and enjoy by the bucketful. Then back up for the new vintage as soon it hits the shelves.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007