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New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc widens its scope

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc widens its scope
Vineyards at Ata Rangi in the Martinborough region of New Zealand. (Patrick Comiskey)

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is like no other wine on Earth. If you've had so much as a sip of this New Zealand white, then you already know this. Pungent, herbaceous, redolent of grass and gooseberries, of Key lime and passion fruit and torn tomato leaves, renowned, if that's the word, for its olfactory associations with cat pee, it's one of the most recognizable, aromatically peremptory wines in the world.

Almost against the odds, it became a global commodity, a white-wine wildfire started three decades ago by brands like Montana (now Brancott Estate), Cloudy Bay and Kim Crawford, filling supermarket and liquor store shelves, bodegas and BevMos. The style was so successful that it was seized upon by large wine companies such as Gallo, Constellation and Pernod Ricard, who ramped up production to a global scale, resulting in a kind of Marlborough Industrial Complex, with crop levels maximized and harvests mechanized, with commercial yeast strains and sugar additions bringing everything into balance and consistency. Discussions of flavor, texture and regional identity were secondary; tons per hectare, price per gallon and cost analyses became the order of the day.

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So imagine you're the brothers Giesen — Marlborough winemakers Theo, Alex and Marcel — and you wanted to make a Sauvignon Blanc that stood out from all that? What if you had acquired vineyards, farmed them organically and seen the vines that issued the fruit that went into the wines that filled the shelves get older and more compelling than could simply be conveyed in a mass-market bottling? What if your wine was inherently more interesting than what the commercial paradigm demanded? What if it was capable of exhibiting sensory realms outside of, let's say, the merely uric? And exactly what were your options when the world's perception of the most important wine in the playbook was seemingly indelible?

Many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc producers face a similar dilemma: the country amounts to one of the world's great conservatories for the variety, and yet in a sea of similarity, how do such wines find voice?

"It was a stylistic clutch in a way," says winemaker brother Marcel Giesen. "The Marlborough style was something we were all aware of; could there be a textural, mineral side? Would the earth have a loud enough voice to be heard? That was relatively unknown."

New Zealand is a small country with a wide range of climates and terroirs. Most of it is cool, but regional differences are as stark and dramatic as those between, say, St. Estephe and St. Joseph. At Ata Rangi in Martinborough, for example, a North Island region just 90 kilometers across Cook Strait from Marlborough's coastal vineyards, Helen Masters grows Sauvignon Blanc that bears no resemblance to Marlborough iterations. Her yields, for starters, are minuscule, owing in large part to the spring winds that disrupt flowering; free-draining soils keep canopies thin, which means that the fruit is exposed to more sunlight, burning off the chemical precursors that cause green flavors. Masters hand-harvests everything, conducts her fermentations without commercial yeasts, and even gives the wines a bit of skin contact.

The result is a Sauvignon of remarkable textural complexity, deeper, drier, more mouth-filling, the aromas more given to citrus and fennel bulb than parsley and pee. And in place of the sweet fruit is a savory minerality, and so much vibrant acidity that a recent group of visiting German buyers mistook the wine for Riesling, which secretly pleased Masters; with a Marlborough wine, no one would make such an error.

Three hours by car north of Martinborough lies Hawke's Bay, the only region in the country where Bordeaux and Rhône varieties have a fighting chance at ripening in the country. The warmer climate changes the Sauvignon Blanc profile again; here it is much more tropical, its warm tone augmented by additional lees aging. Or at least they have options. At Elephant Hill, for example, just a stone's throw from Cape Kidnappers on the south bend of the bay, viticulturist Jon Peet makes multiple vineyard picks to get different levels of ripeness for his Sauvignon, a palette of flavors to work with, and not a gooseberry in sight. There's some herb, to be sure, but it's off in the distance; what's foregrounded is a pure, mineral bath of flavor, a saline, wet-stone texture that is naturally sapid and hunger-inducing.

In Marlborough too, wineries such as Greywacke, Te Whare Ra, Dog Point and Fromm have chipped away at the mold, producing dramatically distinct Sauvignon Blancs that hint at the regional style before departing from it — even Cloudy Bay makes a rich, oak-inflected Sauvignon called Te Koko that bears little resemblance to the wine that launched the region onto the international stage.

But none has gone quite so far as Giesen. The brothers produce no less than eight Sauvignon Blanc bottlings, drawing in large part from a diligent exploration of their older vineyards, from the seaside plantings of Wairau to the gently rolling slopes of the Southern Valley.

In 2008 Giesen had one of its largest harvests ever, and with it an opportunity to bottle some of the more distinctive sites in special bottlings. This was so successful that in subsequent years they farmed parts of their older vineyards for smaller yields; the harvested fruit was fermented with indigenous yeasts and aged in large German oak barrels (called Fuder) which lent some roundness, suppleness, and a bit of spice to the texture. The following year they produced a barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc called the August 1888 named after their grandfather (who was a wine steward, well before it was fashionable).

The quantities of these wines are still minimal, dwarfed by the Giesen's 700,000-case commercial bottling; but they'll help to broaden the stylistic definition of a once narrowly defined category and dispel any lingering notions that the country's Sauvignon Blanc can all be painted with the same broad brush.

Where to find:

Mainstream Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is fairly easy to come across if you need an introduction to this odd and unique white wine: $12 to $15 gets you in the door with supermarket brands such as Brancott Estate, Kim Crawford and Villa Maria. For $20 or a bit less you can access more carefully crafted wines from the likes of Craggy Range, Palliser and Ata Rangi in Martinborough, Elephant Hill in Hawke's Bay, and Marlborough producers such as Greywacke, Dog Point and Cloudy Bay; Fireside Liquors in Santa Monica, Hi Time Wine Cellars, Wine House, and Woodland Hills Wine Merchant all carry an array. K&L Wine Merchant, which has the best selection of the Giesen wines, is a standout for its range — its New Zealand buyer, Ryan Woodhouse, brings in a number of very good New Zealand brands through its direct import program.

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