Around the world with Sauvignon Blanc

Ucuquer vineyard in Colchagua, Chile

Some crisp, aromatic alternatives – none budget-busting. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Above, the Ucúquer vineyard in Colchagua, Chile, responsible for the new Casillero del Diablo Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is one of wine’s greatest commercial successes ever. Wine professionals may be a bit snooty about its simplicity and, often, light sweetness but wine drinkers all over the world love it the minute they are introduced to it. And for producers it has the blissful advantage of being made from a productive grape variety and being ready to sell within weeks of harvest. No need for heavy investment in ageing or oak barrels, so the wines can be found from around £8 a bottle in the UK. Twice as much Sauvignon Blanc is sold in British retail outlets as Chardonnay.

Marlborough, in the north of the South Island, home of Cloudy Bay, is the country’s Sauvignon heartland and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc constitutes a massive 67% of all New Zealand wine. First British and then American wine drinkers fell for it – to such an extent that the US imports more wine from tiny New Zealand than from Australia, which produces more than four times as much. Exports were soaring until the 2021 vintage came along, shrunk by a fifth, the smallest Marlborough harvest in six years, as a result of spring frosts and a summer so dry that the berries lacked juice. In 2021 the New Zealand wine industry experienced its first fall in the value of exports in 26 years.

All of last year and early 2022 there has been a seven-million-case shortage of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and the hope was that this year’s crop, picked last month, would replenish supplies. But yet again, the vintage was hit by problematic weather. This year of La Niña brought inconvenient rains as the grapes ripened, forcing early picking in some cases. But the real problem was the lack of seasonal foreign labour because of New Zealand’s stringent isolation in response to COVID-19, exacerbated by the sudden spike in cases of the virus right in the middle of harvest. Winemakers had some particularly stressful decisions to make – not least how to keep themselves healthy.

It’s too early to know precisely how much 2022 Marlborough Sauvignon was made in total but Sauvignon Blanc is widely planted all over the world so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find alternatives. And because of the success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, some producers on the other side of the world, even in the Loire Valley, home to the classic (but generally more expensive) Sauvignons of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, have deliberately copied the pungent, aromatic style pioneered in Marlborough.

One of the best-value regions for brilliantly crisp (but not anodyne) Sauvignon Blanc is Touraine, the vineyards round the Loire city of Tours. I was especially impressed recently by the 2020 from Bonnigal-Bodet, imported into the UK by H2Vin with a suggested retail price of £12.50. It’s widely available in France from €9.30.

Sauvignon Blanc is the dominant white wine grape of Bordeaux, where it’s increasingly easy to find interesting, well-priced examples such as Dourthe No 1, whose 2020 vintage is currently on offer at The Wine Society for just £8.50.

Another established source of fine Sauvignon in the northern hemisphere is southern Styria, or Südsteiermark, in south-eastern Austria on the border with Slovenia. Polz, Sattlerhof, Tement are reliable names, the wines here being sleek with some blossomy notes. And the German region of Pfalz is cooking up quite a reputation for its smoky Sauvignons too, with Oliver Zeter’s examples not too difficult to find in the UK for under £20, about the same price as the Styrians.

Interesting Sauvignons pop up in the most unlikely places. I was impressed by the tense but not austere Tetramythos, Natur 2021 from the Greek mainland, though it’s £24 from The Sourcing Table. Romania and Moldova have large tracts of land planted to Sauvignon Blanc. Laithwaite’s are currently selling Babele 2021 at £8.99, made by Cramele Recaş in Romania (whose owner reports a 65% rise in the cost of bottles since January thanks to the war’s effects on glass factories in Ukraine and Russia).

The southern hemisphere can offer quite a range of good-value Sauvignon Blancs, especially South Africa, and Chile, where Sauvignon Blanc is the most-planted white wine grape by far. The Chilean giant Concha y Toro recently launched Casillero del Diablo, Reserva Especial 2021, from an exposed vineyard in Colchagua not too far from the ocean, specifically to fill the gap left by the short harvest of Marlborough Sauvignon in 2021 – although funnily enough the wine reminded me more of a Sancerre than a Kiwi example. At £9 chez Tesco and £10 at Ocado, it’s definitely worth trying.

Unoaked Sauvignon Blanc’s attributes are an almost rudely forceful aroma, breezy fruit and relatively high acidity. If it gets too ripe, it loses these, so it needs a cooler site than, say, Chardonnay. The best Chilean Sauvignons come from vineyards cooled by the Pacific, with Casablanca Valley a prime source. Casas del Bosque’s Casablanca Sauvignons are generally better than most and the Reserva 2021 on offer from De Burgh Wine Merchants in Scotland at just £9.99 would be a safe bet.

Ignacio Recabarren and Morandé are other reliable producers of well-priced Casablanca Sauvignon Blanc, with long experience of this valley just south of Valparaiso. Coastal San Antonio and its enclave Leyda are also cool enough to produce seriously refreshing Sauvignon Blanc too.

But I tend to find just a little more interest in the better South African Sauvignon Blancs. I presented a tasting of wines I considered under-appreciated to members of the new 67 Pall Mall wine club in Singapore recently and the favourite of the group by far was also the cheapest: Lismore’s Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2018. (It was competing for favour with a stunning Palo Cortado sherry, a Domaine Roulot Aligoté, a fine Languedoc red from Domaine de Cébène and two fully mature 2008 reds: Niepoort Batuta and Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon from Tasmania.) This seriously gorgeous and gorgeously serious wine has the texture of a fine white burgundy and is less than £20 a bottle from Fintry Wines in Essex.

Two Cape specialists in superior Sauvignon Blanc are Klein Constantia on the outskirts of Cape Town and Iona in chilly Elgin on the south coast (see Tuesday’s tasting article). Iona’s 2021 Sauvignon was also fermented in barrel and yet is being sold in the UK for under £15 a bottle – a bargain considering its quality and ageability. I recently tasted the first vintage of Iona Sauvignon ever, 2001, a 21-year-old wine that was still very much alive and kicking. Klein Constantia’s winemaker Matt Day is devoted to Sauvignon Blanc, having trained with the innovative Pascal Jolivet in Sancerre. He makes some very special bottlings, generally with oak involved.

But more typical South African Sauvignon Blancs are unoaked and therefore less expensive. De Grendel’s 2021 from vineyards around Cape Town is worth seeking out – and is £11.99 at Waitrose.

Much of Australia is too hot to produce sufficiently zesty Sauvignon Blanc but there are still parts of Adelaide Hills that can deliver precise Sauvignon. Shaw + Smith is a prominent and reliable producer with the 2020 vintage particularly promising, apparently unaffected by the fires that afflicted this usually relatively cool wine region that year. It’s widely available and costs from £15.30 in the UK. Murdoch Hill’s 2021, also from Adelaide Hills, is another success – although Australian wines in the UK look relatively expensive at the moment. Perhaps this reflects the reduced size of the 2020 crop

An exception to the ‘Australia is too hot for Sauvignon’ rule can also be made for Tasmania. Coincidentally, one of my favourite Sauvignons of all was made by Peter Althaus, founder of Domaine A (producer of the Cabernet referred to above). He has recently sold his distinctive Tasmanian wine estate but I hope the new regime will continue to make the delicately oaked, long-lived Lady A Sauvignon Blanc. Lady A is delightfully svelte; plumpness is not generally a desirable attribute in a Sauvignon.

This means that California can struggle to produce Sauvignons with real nerve. But at the top end, Sauvignons from the likes of Eisele Vineyard and Rudd Estate have an impressive track record – at a price.

All in all there is a wide choice of alternatives to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, although the prototype is becoming more interesting and complex with every vintage, however trying that vintage may have been for producers.

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