JANCIS Robinson, the doyenne of wine writers, is rarely wrong. But in a book published in 1986, she wrote: “Sauvignon Blanc looks set to fall out of favour.”
At the time of writing I suspect she had not yet tasted a new wine that would show just how wonderful Sauvignon Blanc from the vineyards of Marlborough, New Zealand could be. That wine was Cloudy Bay.
David Hohnen, Cloudy Bay’s first owner had the inspiration to appoint a young English-born, Australian-trained winemaker called Kevin Judd. Kevin had made very good Sauvignon Blanc for Selak’s, another New Zealand winery, but Cloudy Bay was in a different class and took the world by storm.
Sauvignon Blanc is New Zealand’s flagship variety, and Marlborough has become not only the world’s biggest Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, but many people would say, the best.
After 25 years at Cloudy Bay, Kevin Judd left, but he was soon hard at work making a new Sauvignon Blanc for himself. Greywacke (pronounced ‘grey-whacky’) is named after the grey sandstone layered with mudstone common in many parts of New Zealand. The project is a considerable success, the wines have received hugely enthusiastic reviews, and Kevin himself comments drily that “it’s keeping me busy”.
I talked with him late last month in Edinburgh, at a tasting organised by his UK agents, Liberty Wines.
He’s modest almost to the point of diffidence, but was generous with his time and patient with my questions.
He buys fruit bought from a number of fine vineyards in Marlborough’s Central Wairau Plains and Southern Valleys and makes his wine at Dog Point Winery, which is owned by old friends.
He produces two very different styles of Sauvignon Blanc, both available locally from Carruthers & Kent and The Wine Chambers.
The first is stocked by Majestic. It’s very much in the classic Cloudy Bay mould with plenty of zesty, juicy, ripe fruit, yet real complexity and a long savoury, mineral finish.
“This style is about fruit. I’m looking for ripeness and texture and moderate acidity that’s not in your face,” he told me. 90% of the wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks using a standard commercial yeast. 10% is fermented by wild yeasts in old oak barrels, which adds an extra degree of complexity to the wine.
The 2012 is delicious, with lovely, ripe, passion fruit and wild herbs aromas, and has the long, fine, flinty finish Kevin looks for.
His second style, called ‘Wild Sauvignon’, is very different. The fruit is exactly the same, but is fermented with the help of wild, air-born yeasts, and in oak casks, all but seven percent of which have previously been used for other wines. This fermentation takes much longer to complete.
“It tends to drag and then stop in winter, leaving about 30 grams per lire of sugar, and then begins again in spring,” Kevin explained.
Every month, in each barrel, he stirs up the fine lees deposit formed by the dead yeast cells, which helps to “homogenise the barrels, and to keep the fermentation going.”
Many people say lees stirring improves the texture of the wine, but Kevin told me he had never done a trial to test this out. He does, however, allow about two-thirds of the wine to undergo a malo-lactic fermentation, which is a way of making its acidity more creamy. Lactic bacteria converts the crisper malic acid, the acid found in apples but also in grapes, into lactic acid, as found in yoghurt. All of this makes it a wee bit more expensive at £24.99.
The finished article is rich, concentrated and very savoury. The 2011 is a remarkable wine. Kevin’s own description ranges from pear and peach pie with vanilla custard to herbs and grapefruit.
Those who love the fruit-first, fresh, unoaked style of Marlborough Sauvignon can be non-plussed. Ben Chambers of the Wine Chambers thinks of it as a Marmite kind of wine. You either love it or hate it.
I think I could love it. But I’d like to drink more of it before making my mind up definitively.
Kevin has no doubts: “Even in the small harvest of 2012 I maintained the production of Wild Ferment. For me offering something a bit different is a bit of a no-brainer. If there wasn’t the commercial necessity to make the straight style, I’d just make Wild Ferment.”
He also makes a delightful, perfumed Pinot Noir and much smaller quantities of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay – the last three are all available at both Carruthers & Kent and The Wine Chambers. There’s a Gewurztraminer and late harvest Riesling too. I’m sad that the Pinot Noir is not yet in the shops locally, but Ben Chambers for one, might be willing to have his arm twisted.
If producing world-class wines were not enough, Kevin has built a formidable reputation as New Zealand’s finest photographer of all things related to wine and has published two books of his work: The Colour of Wine and The Landscape of New Zealand Wine.
He gave us permission to reprint some of his photographs here in The Journal. His images also grace the labels of each of his wines. Do, please, try one of his wines.
WINE OF THE WEEKMalbec 2011, Tomero £10.99 Carruthers & Kent
This rich, full-bodied, red wine from Argentina has a sweetly ripe smell of damsons and black fruits with a hint of chocolate, and a texture underpinned by silky tannins and juicy acidity. Try it with toad in the hole.
Malbec has made its mark in Argentina, but comes from Southwest France where Cahors has the proudest tradition of wines made from it.
One of the very best is Château de Chambert. The 2008, made from organically-grown grapes is superb, with lots of brightly sweet, plummy, brambly, slightly herby fruit, very juicy acidity, firm chunky tannins and the spice of new oak. It's £16.50 from Carruthers & Kent.
They also stock a cheaper, rather less concentrated, but still very good Malbec from the far south of France – Mont Rocher, Malbec Vieilles Vignes 2011 (£7.99) and a revelatory Malbec from South Africa. Signatures of Doolhoof, Malbec 2009 (£15.99) is densely coloured and powerful, with layers of big, sweet, slightly smoky black fruit, but again tempered by fresh, juicy acidity and firm tannins. I love it.