Like most grape varieties, sauvignon blanc’s distribution was originally limited, in its case to the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. Even in the latter it appeared largely in blends with semillon. Australia’s only sauvignon blanc was for a while a fortified wine from Hardys, in McLaren Vale, while in California it had only limited success until Robert Mondavi made an alternative to chardonnay he cheekily called Fumé Blanc. How times have changed!

The Spence brothers at Matua Valley in Auckland and then Montana (now Brancott) in Marlborough could hardly have dreamt what they were to start. Then in 1986 Ernie Hunter won The Sunday Times Vintage Festival in the UK on behalf of his NZ Hunter Estate, and the wine world was never the same again.

Sauvignon blanc is now the world’s third most widely planted white wine grape, based on area. It’s hardly surprising, then, that its rise to prominence in New Zealand, USA, Chile, South Africa and Australia would have given producers in the Loire a distinct fright. It certainly prompted winemakers in Bordeaux to bottle more sauvignon blanc unblended, particularly for competitively priced wines.

A major reason for sauvignon blanc’s success, particularly from Marlborough, is that the flavours are so immediately attractive, recognisable and consistent. There has been a slow evolution from the intensely grassy, herbaceous and often lean wines of the 1980s to more generous wines with passionfruit, lychee and citrus flavours. Nevertheless, what’s consistent can become commonplace and, in Australia at least, pinot gris/grigio has already usurped some of sauvignon blanc’s fortune.

Our previous tasting of sav blanc was in 2013; it covered wines from NZ, France and Australia and brought some intriguing results. NZ was the best performer – no surprise. Australia did moderately well, with representatives from several cool regions but some high-profile wines showed poor examples. Many Loire wines performed poorly, perhaps not entirely surprising as almost all those we didn’t like were from the difficult 2011 vintage.

Domaine de Ladoucette’s Pouilly-Fumé claimed the top spot in our sauvignon blanc tasting.
Domaine de Ladoucette’s Pouilly-Fumé claimed the top spot in our sauvignon blanc tasting.

For this look, however, we decided to ignore the “everyday” wines by concentrating on the movers in the quality stakes and the more innovative producers. We sought advice from Bob Campbell MW on the New Zealand wines to include and, once again, added a selection of wines from the Loire Valley.

The panel included a broad representation from branches of the industry. Sommeliers Simon Curkovic and Stuart Knox, and educator Andrea Pritzker MW joined the regulars Peter Bourne, Huon Hooke and Nick Bulleid MW. We tasted the wines youngest to oldest in flights of about 10, with the regions grouped but not identified until each flight was revealed.

I found the tasting quite an eye-opener. Most wines had moved beyond the traditional grassy, herbaceous aromas and showed riper characters – sometimes stone fruits, sometimes tropical and often, in the Loire wines, citrus. There was also sensitive use of oak and subtle complexity from reduction (sulphides).

While varietal identities were crystal clear, there was a great range of varietal expression across the regions, ages and the wines as a whole, and frankly excitement. Even the wines that didn’t quite make our rating for reviews offered attractive drinking, so the variety maintained its reputation for consistent delivery.

For me, and hopefully many others, it’s time to re-evaluate sauvignon blanc.

Australia

2016 Domaine Naturaliste Sauvage, Margaret River (A$30) appealed strongly to Curkovic. “Very positive development and high intensity,” he began. “Rich tropical and orchard fruits. Citrus, oak and baking spices. Some honey complexity and a long finish.” I thought the wine youthful, with hints of garden herbs, oak spice and vanilla adding to the above characters. The overall structure is balanced and deftly done.

2016 Flowstone, Margaret River (A$36) revealed herbaceous characters to Hooke. “Very attractive crushed herb, intense and savoury palate,” he wrote. “Not grapey/fruity, but fine and linear, dry and long. Some reduction/oak character adds a note of ginger.” I saw the wine differently, with my notes emphasising citrus characters like lemon zest, lemon curd and orange. Knox thought the reduction and oak lent some smokiness.

2018 Gilbert Sur Lie, Orange (A$28) appealed strongly to Bourne. “Amazingly bright aromas of nashi pear, white pepper and fresh stone fruit,” he said. “Multilayered palate with oatmeal-like texture, the finish refreshed by acid-etched palate.” I found the nose and flavours more subtle, but liked the wine’s lemon freshness and crisp balance.

2018 Jericho Fumé Blanc, Adelaide Hills (A$27) shows plenty of ripeness, with stone-fruit and tropical aromas, plus a little toast. The palate’s medium bodied and soft, with generosity and balance, both assisted with some weight from alcohol. Knox thought the heat intruded, but Bourne had no doubts. “Bold bouquet of toffee apple, guava and kiwi fruit with a whiff of wild honey,” he suggested. “Mouth-filling flavours that echo the nose, with some textural intrigue. The finish is restrained by a thrust of rapier-sharp acidity.”

2018 Leeuwin Estate Art Series, Margaret River (A$30) ticked all the boxes for me. The nose is fine and fresh, with delicate lemon and grassy aromas. There’s excellent drive through the palate, with intense lemongrass, crisp acidity and excellent length. Bourne agreed: “The nose is clean, light and bright with aromas of passionfruit, pink grapefruit and lemon verbena. The palate is pure and persistent with a gentle seam of lemony acidity driving the finish to a long and satisfying conclusion.”

2018 Michael Hall Piccadilly, Adelaide Hills (A$38) gained strong points from Hooke.
“An attractive fragrance of spice, straw/hay with a gentle oak-nutty character,” he began. “Light and soft and fruity but dry finishing. Cured hay rather than green grass. Good varietal fruit, but subtle and understated. Bright. Nervy acidity. Lovely food wine.” I found hints of garden herbs, too, and a lovely savoury texture.

2018 Mitchell Harris Sauvignon Blanc Fumé, Pyrenees (A$28) grew on us as it evolved in the glass. “A complex bouquet of grilled toast, roasted cashew, hint of vanilla,” noted Pritzker. “It’s fresh and bright, showing a core of white nectarine with toasty vanillin notes. Shows excellent length and line, and needs just a little more time in bottle for the oak to fully integrate.” The varietal lemongrass flavour shines through, and there’s good texture. It’s unusual to find a fumé with both weight and delicacy.

2017 Oakridge Vineyard Series Willowlake Sauvignon, Yarra Valley (A$28) has a complex nose of lemon rind and a little oak. That rind aroma suggests texture, of which there’s plenty, accompanied by lively flavours, a good middle and well-judged balance. “A lift of lemon and coriander seeds on nose,” noted Knox. “Crunchy acid line with lithe lemon pith. Vibrant and fresh. Good drive and palate length. Incredibly fresh.”

There was much excitement from  the panel about  the range of wines on taste.
There was much excitement from the panel about the range of wines on taste.

2018 Philip Shaw No. 19, Orange (A$28) is also fresh and aromatic, with citrus flavours and good balance. Pritzker saw more: “It opens with an array of tropical fruit; pineapple, guava, melon and passionfruit. Fresh, bright and vibrant displaying excellent intensity and drive leading to a long, persistent finish.”

2019 Shaw + Smith, Adelaide Hills (A$29) has a fine, perfumed nose with wild flowers and slight grassiness. There’s a touch of sweetness on entry, although the wine is effectively dry. The palate is soft and round, with beautiful freshness. “Well balanced, with floral, pyrazine (grassy) characters, citrus and a little rose,” noted Curkovic. “Elevated acidity, with flesh, balance and harmony.” This is so easy to drink.

2018 Singlefile Single Vineyard Fumé Blanc, Pemberton (A$35) found Knox enthusiastic. “Lemon marmalade nose, touch of funk,” he wrote. “Palate shows some smoky complexity, hints of sea brine with lime curd. Good line and length with fruit weight and intensity, acid keeping focus but still good mid-palate shape and texture.” I also liked the hints of box hedge in the aromas and the savoury edge to the flavours.

2018 Stefano Lubiana, Tasmania (A$33) shows subtle lemon aromas with hints of ripe nectarine. These continue onto the palate, to be accompanied by a nicely textured grip. It also appealed to Knox. “Bright lemon curd, some seashell character,” he began. “Good drive across middle palate with phenolic crunch and high-toned acid. Very fresh and vibrant. A real flow across the palate.”

2017 Terre à Terre Crayères Vineyard, Wrattonbully (A$40) has a nice touch of development adding to its preserved lemon aroma. The palate starts quite softly, with hints of barrel-ferment complexity, yet remains delicate. “A fragrant bouquet of nettle, lemongrass and white peach,” noted Pritzker. “Bright and fresh, with subtle toasty complexity and rounded mouthfeel and texture. Elegant and refined with lovely line
and length.”

2019 Tomfoolery Tally-ho, Adelaide Hills (A$25) shows intense passionfruit and grass aromas with a little reduction, which did not intrude. Pritzker was an admirer. “Overt aromas of fresh-cut grass, nettle and verbena,” she wrote. “Fresh and lively showing excellent intensity, displaying notes of white nectarine and lemon blossom with attractive herbal overtones, leading to a long, persistent finish.”

France

2018 Alphonse Mellot La Moussière Sancerre, Loire Valley, France (A$77) gained top points from Curkovic. “Taut and true,” he enthused. “Beautiful citrus development. Lime and orange, with apple/pear and lily. A hint of herbaceousness. The alcohol’s restrained and the acidity holds the palate.” I loved its fresh lemon flavour, crispness and delicate texture. The sweet touch from alcohol effortlessly balances the acidity.

2017 Domaine de Ladoucette Comte Lafond Sancerre, Loire Valley, France (A$63) shows a similarly subtle lemon aroma, but is altogether fuller in the mouth, with lemon-rind texture and more body. “Lots of intrigue on the nose,” he began, “coriander seeds, verbena, ruby grapefruit and hints of crushed rocks. The palate is quite ethereal with a wonderfully chalky texture and hi-toned finale.” The crunch of acidity completes a delicious package.

2018 Daniel Crochet Sancerre, Loire Valley, France (A$49) appealed strongly to Knox. “Feijoa on nose, the same fruit on palate,” he noted. “Good line and length; persistent and flowing. Excellent carry through a long palate. Good balance of acid and phenolic structures. Purity!”

2017 Domaine Christian Salmon Clos Les Criots Pouilly- Fumé, Loire Valley, France (A$40) spoke strongly to Knox. “Lemon skin, with some green herb notes over candied lemon zest. A little hint of honeyed wax. Good mid-palate texture with flow over onto back palate. Concentration and presence.” The palate’s true to its appellation, with a fuller body than its Sancerre neighbours and hints of stone fruits. It’s brimming with flavour.

Citrus was a defining feature of the Sancerres.
Citrus was a defining feature of the Sancerres.

2017 Domaine de Ladoucette Pouilly-Fumé, Loire Valley, France (A$63) received universal approval. “A fresh, clean herb aroma, bright and crisp,” Hooke told us. “Ripely varietal and delightfully fragrant. Very good intensity and palate line. Long and charming. An excellent example of the straight, uncomplicated savvy style. Seamless and driving through the palate.”

2018 Domaine Vincent Delaporte Chavignol Sancerre, Loire Valley, France (A$42) offers plenty of flavour, with lemon marmalade and fruit salad to the fore. There’s also some toasty development beginning. “A wonderfully rich and inviting nose with lots of lemon pith and nectarine aromas,” wrote Bourne. “Hints of custard apple in the background. Surprisingly complex palate with plenty of texture and substance. A big finish.”

2017 Eric Louis Sauvignon, France (A$28) is the sole representative here of the Vins de France, in this case from vineyards near Sancerre. “High aroma intensity; citrus and gooseberry,” Curkovic told us. “A chalky feel with very high acidity, but the alcohol balances it well. Very complete.”

2017 Gerard Boulay Sancerre Tradition, Loire Valley, France (A$65) opened with a rich nose, to me suggesting a little botrytis. “A fragrant bouquet of lemon myrtle,” noted Pritzker. “Good intensity and vibrant lively acidity with subtle toasty complexity and an attractive textural finish.” While the finish is quite dry, the palate weight supports it well.

2016 Henri Bourgeois Sancerre La Vigne Blanche, Loire Valley, France (A$47) brought mixed opinions, but Bourne was a supporter. “A surprisingly youthful bouquet of fresh sea spray, lemon zest and dill,” he wrote. “The palate is crisp and zesty with the flavours fully resolved. A wonderful wine, ready to drink now.” Hooke, on the other hand, thought it, “non-varietal, ungenerous”.

2017 Vincent Pinard Sancerre Florès, Loire Valley, France (A$50) gained all-round support. “Expressive bouquet of honeysuckle, toast and lemon,” said Pritzker. “Lively and crisp displaying vibrant lemon zest notes with a hint of toast. Finishes long.” Bottle age is adding some lemon curd notes to the fresh lemon/lime aromas, boosting the complexity.

It’s time to re-evaluate sauvignon blanc.
It’s time to re-evaluate sauvignon blanc.

New Zealand

2018 Ara Resolute, Marlborough (A$38) has a perfumed nose showing fresh lemons. There’s a soft, even balance with delicate fruit and good length. Knox approved: “Honeyed lemon nose, some fruit weight and barrel work giving mid-palate weight. Acid holds the line with good drive and intensity. Lovely integration.”

2018 Ata Rangi Raranga, Martinborough (A$30/NZ$24) revealed “fabulous aromatics” to Curkovic. “Lemon verbena, stone fruits and lime,” he added. “Very fresh, with chamomile, honey and wonderful acidity.” The wine delivers finesse as well as flavour, while a hint of development adds further interest. There’s very good length, too.

2017 Clos Henri, Marlborough (A$43) excited Pritzker. “Aromas of rockmelon, passionfruit and blood orange are echoed on the palate,” she began. “Fresh, vibrant and youthful, displaying attractive tropical fruit intensity supported by crisp acidity driving through to a long, flavourful finish.”

2019 Cloudy Bay, Marlborough (A$38/NZ$40) is quite full bodied, with a portion of barrel-fermented wine increasing the complexity and texture but, importantly, maintaining balance. “A touch reduction on nose with stone fruits underlying,” noted Knox. “A more worked style. Quite rich palate entry with some smoky notes over lime curd and a touch of pastry. Deep drive across palate, filling the mouth and yet acidity keeps the wine focused.”

Naturally Marlborough was the NZ region with the most wines in our top sauvignon blancs.
Naturally Marlborough was the NZ region with the most wines in our top sauvignon blancs.

2015 Cloudy Bay Te Koko, Marlborough (A$72/NZ$60) has tamed its pungent, in-your-face complexity of the early years and now has greater finesse, albeit still with the added weight of barrel fermentation. “Bold tropical fruit bouquet – custard apple, feijoa and cantaloupe,” said Bourne. “The palate is both shaped and supported by oak but the lush flavours predominate. Harmony is the watchword with a gently persistent finish.”

2018 Craggy Range Te Muna, Martinborough (A$31/NZ$27) starts with a fresh, intense lemon aroma and moves to a finely structured, sweet-fruited palate that has crisp acidity, balance and length. “Herbal and sweetly fragrant lemon/lime aromas,” wrote Hooke. “The palate crisp and fresh, suave and subtle, but has nice intensity and length. Really lovely fruit, expressing great fragrance and style. Intense and lively.”

2016 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, Marlborough (A$45/NZ$40) lives up to its name, with plenty of sulphide funk on the nose. “Matchstick nose over candied peel,” wrote Knox. “Bright savoury complexities framed with fresh acid and lemon/lime splice flavours. Great drive and intensity. Very powerful!” For all its complexity, the rich citrus flavours are clear and the texture well balanced. The antithesis of the cheapie Marlborough savvy, it’s a wine to ponder over flavoursome food.

2018 Lawson’s Dry Hills, Marlborough (A$22/NZ$20) has a highly complex nose, with distinct funky reduction from barrel fermentation. The palate has savoury flavours and good texture. Curkovic found a different emphasis. “Lemon, lime and orange blossom,” were the aromas he listed. “Juicy and fruit-driven, with some herbal notes. Excellent balance and acidity. I liked the smoky reduction.”

New Zealand wines dominated the sav blanc tasting.
New Zealand wines dominated the sav blanc tasting.

2017 Saint Clair Wairau Reserve, Marlborough (A$40) appealed to Curkovic. “High intensity aromatics – citrus, apple/pear, gooseberry; chamomile and honey flavours,” he told us. “Acidity balances the fruit. Very youthful and lovely length!” I also noted lychee and lemon verbena amongst its sweet-fruit flavours.

2015 Spy Valley Envoy Johnson Vineyard, Marlborough (A$36/NZ$35) is the company’s take on barrel-fermented savvy. “Opens with struck-match, flinty complexity,” said Pritzker. “Fresh and lively, displaying lemon curd, grilled toast intensity driving through to a long, persistent, gently toasty finish with lemony vibrancy.” I found a brilliant combination of roasted nuts, preserved lemons and garden herbs. Oak spices appear on the palate, which is medium bodied with light texture and freshness.

2018 Staete Landt Annabel, Marlborough (NZ$22) had “a pungent passionfruit/tropical aroma”, according to Hooke. “A sweetish entry and fruity middle palate. Clean and balanced and seamlessly textured. Excellent wine, and it’s not strident in the mouth, but balanced and very drinkable.” I found preserved lemon with hints of grass and green bean, too.

2018 Te Mata Cape Crest, Hawke’s Bay (A$38/NZ$32) is a complex, yet delicate wine displaying sensitive use of barrel fermentation. “A bouquet of grilled hazelnuts, toast and hints of vanilla and spearmint,” noted Pritzker. “Round and full, showing lovely toasty complexity and creamy mid-palate texture leading to a long, flavoursome finish. Elegant, poised and beautifully balanced.” I noted hints of verbena and other herbs, reminding me of green Chartreuse. Lovely texture and acidity complete an excellent package.  

Top Sauvignon Blanc

5 STARS
96 2017 Domaine de Ladoucette Pouilly-Fumé, Loire Valley, A$63
95 2017 Clos Henri, Marlborough, A$43
95 2018 Craggy Range Te Muna, Martinborough, A$31/NZ$27
95 2016 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, Marlborough, A$45/NZ$40
95 2018 Te Mata Cape Crest, Hawke’s Bay, A$38/NZ$32

4 STARS
94 2018 Ata Rangi Raranga, Martinborough, A$30/NZ$24
94 2015 Cloudy Bay Te Koko, Marlborough, A$72/NZ$60
94 2018 Michael Hall Piccadilly, Adelaide Hills, A$38
94 2015 Spy Valley Envoy Johnson Vineyard, Marlborough, A$36/NZ$35
94 2018 Staete Landt Annabel, Marlborough, NZ$22
94 2018 Stefano Lubiana, Tasmania, A$33
93 2016 Domaine Naturaliste Sauvage, Margaret River, A$30
93 2017 Oakridge Vineyard Series Willowlake Sauvignon, Yarra Valley, A$28
93 2017 Vincent Pinard Sancerre Florès, Loire Valley, A$50
92 2018 Ara Resolute, Marlborough, A$38
92 2018 Daniel Crochet Sancerre, Loire Valley, A$49
92 2017 Saint Clair Wairau Reserve, Marlborough, A$40
92 2019 Shaw + Smith, Adelaide Hills, A$29
91 2018 Alphonse Mellot La Moussière Sancerre, Loire Valley, A$77
91 2019 Cloudy Bay, Marlborough, A$38/NZ$40
91 2017 Domaine de Ladoucette Comte Lafond Sancerre, Loire Valley, A$52
91 2018 Gilbert Sur Lie, Orange, A$28
91 2018 Lawson’s Dry Hills, Marlborough, A$22/NZ$20
91 2018 Leeuwin Estate Art Series, Margaret River, A$30
91 2018 Singlefile Single Vineyard Fumé Blanc, Pemberton, A$35
91 2017 Terre à Terre Crayères Vineyard, Wrattonbully, A$40
91 2019 Tomfoolery Tally-ho, Adelaide Hills, A$25
90 2018 Mitchell Harris Sauvignon Blanc Fumé, Pyrenees, A$28

3 STARS
89 2018 Domaine Vincent Delaporte Chavignol Sancerre, Loire Valley, A$42
89 2017 Domaine Christian Salmon Clos Les Criots Pouilly-Fumé, Loire Valley, A$40
89 2017 Eric Louis Sauvignon, France, A$28
89 2016 Flowstone, Margaret River, A$36
89 2017 Gerard Boulay Sancerre Tradition, Loire Valley, A$65
89 2016 Henri Bourgeois Sancerre La Vigne Blanche, Loire Valley, A$47
89 2018 Jericho Fumé Blanc, Adelaide Hills, A$27
89 2018 Philip Shaw No. 19, Orange, A$28