Opened a couple of bottles of sauv blanc on Friday night to have with gurnard fillets pan-fried in butter with freshly squeezed lime juice and copious amounts of chopped fresh coriander (cilantro). But I was surprised, when I tasted the wines, to find they both had oak. Later when I looked at the back labels, only one of the wines mentioned it.
There seems to be an increasing number of savvies that are being produced with oak and/or wild / natural / indigenous yeasts. These additions do seem to add complexity, but sometimes they detract from the natural vibrancy of the sauvignon blanc grape. When I open a bottle of wine labelled 'Sauvignon Blanc' I want to taste the grape - I want my taste buds assaulted with fruit - so I'm thinking if oak and/or natural yeasts are used the identity of the grape should be preserved, not overpowered by these winemaker additions.
Some producers can do it well, but other wines are downright disappointing. Why? I'm not sure but I would surmise that it all comes down to
a. the quality of the fruit in the first place;
b. the experience of the winemaker - for example if natural yeasts in the winery start off the ferment, the winemaker should be vigilant in stepping in and rescuing the ferment with a cultured yeast if things start to go awry;
c. the flavour of the oak that is introduced.
Oak aged sauvignon blanc is not new. Matua Valley, New Zealand's first producer of sauvignon blanc, experimented with oak aging in the late 1970's and still make an oak-aged variant today.
Hunters led the way in Marlborough with oak aged savvies in the 1980's.
Oak-aging seemed to go out of vogue in the early 1990's but in 1992, within the walls of the Cloudy Bay winery, the true 'alternative' style of New Zealand sauvignon blanc was being ushered in. Fermented in older oak with wild yeasts, this would turn out to be a trail blazing style, although it would take a while for the trail to be set alight. The first wine labelled 'Te Koko' came from the 1996 vintage. And in 2007, we see the 2004 being released.
Cloudy Te Koko is New Zealand's most famous alternative style of sauvigon blanc and as I taste the 2004 I think, gee, it's done well. Because, despite the initial rich, powerful flavours from the wild yeasts followed on by the mellow French oak with a touch of caramel, there is no doubt to the variety. The distinctive savvy flavours fill the palate and linger with a delicious pungency. In the fruit department there's pineapple, melon, peach and strawberry imparting a lovely fruit sweetness the texture is creamy and the aftertaste is savoury, almost salty. Even the teenagers loved it - pity they can't afford it. It costs about $44 a bottle it has 13.8% alcohol and is sealed with a screwcap.
That wine was tasted a few weeks ago but the wines that we had with the fish on Friday night were as follows.
Isabel Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006
A subdued, warm, rich style with a mealy, caramel influence, definitely not what I expected. It's not herbaceous either and in fact sends out warning bells with the herbaceousness of the coriander in the accompanying meal. On the other hand, it loved the lime flavours that infused the fish. The wine is a soft, funky style, a departure from the typically high acid, tropical fruit, punchy, green-edged wines from Marlborough. It definitely tastes like it has a component of older oak and wild yeast adding richness to the melon and stonefruit flavours and there's a wee burst of apple acidity on the slightly grainy finish. I'm in two minds about this wine but Neil liked it.
Looking at the Isabel Estate website I find winemaker Patricia Miranda thought 2006 was a year to 'play around' with. There was a 'little' pre-ferment cold soak and while most of the juice was cool stainless tank fermented, a portion was pressed directly into barrel where slow spontaneous, fermentation and later, malolactic fermentation took place. The wine has 13% alcohol, it's sealed with a screwcap and costs about $23.
Morton Estate 'The Marchioness of Morton' Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006
Now here's a bright, mouthfilling, sweet and savoury style with distinctive summer herbs, tropical fruit, melon and a bright citrussy tang. There's a touch of lightly honeyed toasty oak playing in the background but it does not detract from the vibrancy of the fruit in this full-bodied, tasty, wine that is a superb match with the fish in lime and coriander. Tasted again later, without food, there's a tight graininess to the wine, which is superbly structured and made to age. And the mellow oak characters express themselves beautifully on the pungent, broad-flavoured finish. I like it.
The back label says "created using methods similar to the whites produced from Graves and Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux France. It exhibits subtle oak characters…".
The Morton Estate website fills in further details saying it was stainless steel fermented with maturation in oak for 9 months on lees. It has 13% alcohol, it's sealed with a screwcap and costs about $26. I think it is the screechingly high acidity, 9.7 grams per litre according to the website, that preserves the sauvignon blanc distinctiveness, even with the oak.
It is made from first crop fruit from the Kuranui Vineyard near Seddon, which is in the Awatere Valley.
The 'Marchioness of Morton' was such a delicious, tasty wine, it just has to be my Wine of the Week. It's that first crop fruit that so often produces such scintillating wines, I'm sure. But who is the Marchioness of Morton? That's something I'll just have to find out.
© Sue Courtney
8 Jul 2007