It is fair to say that Sauvignon Blanc is the most recognisable wine ever, but Australian producers are doing their best to create a host of appealing new identities. We find out who is doing what to make drinkers swipe right.
I’ll come right out and say it. I quite like Sauvignon Blanc. That statement will probably earn me the ire of a few wine critics that I know, but I reckon it is a sassy and wondrous wine, and deserving of far more than the limited adulation we give it. I’d be as bold as to say it has been unfairly heaped with harsh criticism. There are a few reasons as to why Sauvignon Blanc is the kid the rest of the class picks on.
Firstly, Sauvignon Blanc is seen as a pretty simple wine – it really is a case of WYSIWYG – What You ‘Smell’ Is What You Get and Sauv Blanc has an unmistakable tropical aroma. No matter where it is grown, it will always smell like Sauv Blanc, and this leads to the second reason why it is ridiculed. Because it is so recognisable, it is the first wine that drinkers new to the game can accurately identify. And for the well-heeled wine critic, that is just so ho-hum.
Thirdly, it is popular, and we all know Australians hate anything that is popular. It is so well-liked for the two reasons given above. It is appealing for the novice wine drinker, particularly young women, as its simple tropical and punchy profile is not too dissimilar to the flavour of juices and fruit punches we enjoy drinking as teenagers.
And it is popular because the novice wine drinker can identify it. Not only does that give them a sense of assurance that the wine experience they are about to have is going to be an enjoyable one, but it also gives them a sense of pride about their burgeoning wine knowledge.
And finally, it is because New Zealand has had phenomenal success with the varietal and Aussies just can’t put that Trans Tasman rivalry to bed. It is a wonder we are still playing rugby given the dominance the All Blacks have had over us this millennium, and for the foreseeable future.
ANOTHER POINT OF VIEW
Having said all of that, Australian winemakers are a hardy bunch (even more so than the Wallaby scrum) and they have been busy creating a unique identity for Aussie Sauv Blanc that will have a point of difference from Kiwi SB and be just as popular, or even more popular.
“I think Australian Sauvignon Blanc tends to be leaner than NZ wines, lower in alcohol with less residual sugar,” says McWilliam’s winemaker Adrian Sparks, whose High Altitude Sauvignon Blanc from the Orange wine region topped our State of Play tasting.
“It is a crisper, more refreshing style of wine. This is what we try to achieve, but you want the wine to say where it is from.
“I would hate to see wines from Margaret River, Adelaide Hills and Orange all looking the same. Regional differences are important.”
Dan Berrigan, winemaker at Berrigan Wines and avid Sauv Blanc lover agrees.
“As an Aussie winemaker, I try to understand what makes the NZ Sauv Blanc so popular, and emulate those characters in my wine,” he explains. “I then weave in the regional Mt Benson personality, which is usually in the form of more fruit weight on the palate, and I feel that it’s this combination that drinkers really appreciate, and are drawn to as a point of difference.”
BETTER WITH AGE
Shane Harris, chief winemaker at Wines by Geoff Hardy in the Adelaide Hills makes another good point – we have only been growing and making Sauvignon Blanc for the last decade or two. After a slow start, we are growing better fruit and getting better at making good wine out of it.
“When the Sauv Blanc train came to town, lots of the industry was fixated on turning the volume up to 11 on the varietal character, but somewhere along the line, the focus on site was lost and replaced with maximising varietal character with picking times and yeast selection based on volume of varietal character more than reflection of site,” says Shane.
“More and more Australian winemakers are learning how to get the best out of the fruit sources they have available to them. Sauv Blanc has a great ability to show the site it comes from if you let it.”
“I love Australian wine due to the vast differences in climate and styles. We are so fortunate in that fact and more so than any other country,” adds Adrian.
“The altitude of Orange is the key, with its warm days and cool nights allowing the grapes to ripen slowly, retaining wonderful acidity and not tending to have full blown tropical fruit, rather a lovely combination of citrus, herbs and exotic notes.”
TINKERING THE TECHNIQUE
So what are some of the techniques winemakers are using and what result does it have on the wine? Overall, the answer seems to be to bring Sauv Blanc some complexity.
“Winemaking begins in the vineyard,” says Dan. “With the Berrigan Sauvignon Blanc this means managing the canopy to achieve fruit with a balance of tropical and grassy flavours.
“In the winery, you then need to extend the skin contact time of the must to ensure that those flavours you’ve worked hard for in the vineyard are extracted from the skins and into the juice. From there, it’s all about minimising the extraction of phenolics, while maximising flavour retention and balance in your wine without oak maturation, lees stirring or fining.”
“Oak with the right fruit works very well,” says Adrian conversely. “Lees contact providing texture and depth and some wild fermentation all are providing layers of complexity.”
“Sauv Blanc responds to as little to as much winemaking as you wish to give it. Whether that response is appropriate depends on the site and the intended style,” explains Shane.
“This doesn’t mean that just because you can do something that you should! A level of restraint is required to bring the subtle characters from your little patch of earth.
“For our site I find that some skin contact time, leaving the juice slightly cloudy, and yeast selection are the most important areas of my input. Some post primary fermentation lees contact also helps, but this varies vintage to vintage.
“The ability to change and adapt to vintage variation and change your approach is required to get the best out of the variety. Following what you did last year isn’t good enough if you want to get the best out of it this year.”
While critics predict the popularity of Sauvignon Blanc cannot last, our winemakers seem to believe it will be here for quite some time to come.
“The wine style is just so strong in its personality, and with the majority of Australians living in warm, sunny coastal regions, the freshness of Sauvignon Blanc will always have its place amongst our lifestyles,” says Dan.
It will always be popular as it’s such an easy drink and suited to Australia’s summer climate,” agrees Adrian.
“I hope as an industry we can move with the ebb and flow of consumer preferences and make moves to deliver a style that is relevant and current,” says Shane. “We have to learn to not flog the horse too hard and kill the market and burn the variety, we need to be more sensitive to changes in consumer preferences and move with it, not fight against it.
“Keep it fresh, keep it relevant.”
Top 20 Sauvignon Blanc 2016
McWilliam’s Wines High Altitude Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Orange)
Scotchmans Hill Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Geelong)
Henschke & Co Coralinga Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Adelaide Hills)
Berrigan Wines Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Mount Benson)
Taylors Wines Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Adelaide Hills)
Blue Pyrenees Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Pyrenees)
Redgate Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (Oak Matured) 2014 (Margaret River) Silkwood Wines The Walcott Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Pemberton)
Tamar Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Tamar Valley)
Dominique Portet Fontaine Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Yarra Valley)
Howard Park Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River)
Alkoomi Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Frankland River)
Dandelion Vineyards Wishing Clock Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Adelaide Hills)
Wangolina Station Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Mount Benson)
Geoff Hardy Wines K1 Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Adelaide Hills)
Cherubino Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Pemberton)
Eden Road Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Canberra District)
d’Arenberg The Broken Fishplate Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Adelaide Hills)
Lambrook Wines Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (Adelaide Hills)
Nannup Ridge Firetower Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Blackwood River)