I told a winemaker friend of mine I was writing about New Zealand sauvignon blanc this week and his response was not uncommon: “Cat pee on a gooseberry.” But don’t let that turn you off or make you turn the page.
Sauvignon blanc is the grape that put New Zealand on the wine map. Other varietals like pinot noir have staked a claim, especially in the coldest areas, but sauvignon blanc still accounts for more than half of all vineyard space. Officially, this grape is celebrating its 40th year on New Zealand’s soil.
First planted in the Marlborough region on the south island, it spread to Hawkes Bay on the north island and has been grown in a number of spots for decades, now accounting for more than half of the wine production.
Given its popularity, there has to be something beyond its notable “herbaceousness” that keeps wine drinkers coming back for more.
New Zealand sauvignon blanc has an abundance of fruit. Formed from a series of volcanoes, the country’s soil is excellent for agriculture and lends a unique mineral quality to the wines that is somewhere between wet pavement, rust and coffee beans.
Hawkes Bay, which is more temperate than Marlborough and the south island, tends to make softer, less herbaceous sauvignon blanc while Marlborough iterations in particular usually have bracing acidity and are not as fruit-driven.
No matter which part of the country it comes from, New Zealand sauvignon blanc really needs to be paired with food, and this is where you can see the wines truly shine. They are excellent with goat cheese; take a shine to many types of seafood, from raw oysters to grilled mahi mahi; and put up a good challenge to reds when paired with duck leg confit.
While prices have risen, there are still a few that hover in the $15 range that show quality and typicity, reflecting the true splendor of the varietal.
These wines can be found through Coit Liquor, Falletti Foods, Polk and Clay Liquor, JJ Buckley Fine Wines, The Jug Shop, Whole Foods-Oakland, Zain’s Liquor and Deli, Andy’s Market, Bounty Hunter, Ludwig’s Fine Wine and Spirits, Good Earth, Global Wine Group and K&L Wine Merchants.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.