Sauvignon blanc still jewel of New Zealand’s soil

MIke Koozmin/The S.f. ExaminerElly Hartshorn works the muddy soil of the urban vineyard at Alemany Farm in Bernal Heights.

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.

  • Yealands Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 (Marlborough): Peter Yealands, a noted agriculture entrepreneur, set out to make environmentally conscious wine when he opened Yealands Estate in 2008. To that end, it practices strict sustainable viticulture, was constructed in accordance with the Green Drafting Code and has been carbon-neutral since its inception. Made from a single block on the Seaview Vineyard — a dry, windy spot in Awatere Valley — it has loads of gooseberry but also a ton of pink grapefruit and black currant running through its core, plus an underlying minerality. Suggested retail: $15
  • Man O’ War Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 (Waiheke Island): Man O’ War is on the eastern end of Waiheke Island off the coast of Auckland. The first grapes sprouted on the hillsides in 1993. Made with 15 percent semillon, this is a deliciously complete wine with pleasant coffee bean and grapefruit aromas; pure citrus and pineapple notes; and a clean, long finish. Suggested retail: $16
  • Mount Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc, North Canterbury, 2011 (North Canterbury): Proprietor David Teece is a business professor at UC Berkeley and heads Berkeley Research Group LLC. The idea for the winery was hatched by his wife, Leigh, a Californian, who saw an opportunity to make wine in David’s childhood homeland, North Canterbury. Fragrant with loads of guava, passionfruit, grapefruit, some gooseberry and a racy undercurrent, it clearly has a luscious fruit quality underscored by bright, lively acidity. Suggested retail: $16

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.

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