As grape harvest date approaches in Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest wine region, my bus reaches its destination in the heart of Brancott Estate to celebrate 30 years of Marlborough sauvignon blancs.
It was here that Montana Wines’ founder, Frank Yukich, bought land and planted grapes in 1973. It was here that sauvignon blanc was first harvested in 1979. It is here that we are celebrating three decades of the wine described as the world’s most profitable by Master of Wine Tim Atkin.
However, not everything is rosy in the tropical-fruit-flavoured world of New Zealand sauvignon blancs. With most of them, if you don’t drink them within a couple of years of their vintage date they taste like tinned peas, says Yukich.
He is one of the few who openly admits what many others know: Marlborough sauvignon blancs fade fast. Even the most basic Marlborough sauvignon blanc lives up to being lovably in-your-face wine when first bottled, but it rarely has staying power. Because lasting the distance is one of the hallmarks of a great wine, this is the very thing most winemakers need to work on.
Just as he was adamant years ago that Marlborough was warm enough to grow grapes for winemaking, Yukich is now like a dog with a bone about making sauvignon blancs that taste good for longer than the ride home from the wine store. He is not alone.
At the small Dog Point Vineyard in Marlborough, James Healy and Ivan Sutherland hand-pick sauvignon blanc grapes to make Dog Point Section 94. Not many practise this time-consuming act, let alone at the leisurely pace this exacting duo claims. Their aim is to make a long-lasting dry white that differs from most crowd-pleasing tutti-frutti Marlborough sauvignon blancs. They want to bring fussy wine-lovers into the fold with a full-bodied sauvignon blanc that becomes more, rather than less, interesting as the years pass.
There are like-minded winemakers dispersed throughout Marlborough, including at Pernod Ricard New Zealand (which owns Montana Wines). In his quest to make longer-lasting, better-tasting sauvignon blancs, Pernod Ricard’s national viticulture manager, Tony Hoksbergen, has a trial block of land that he is planting at high density.
“Our objective is to lift quality with this trial,” he says. “We want to explore what could be. Unless we try these things we won’t know the answer. We have to be constantly looking at new ways.”