Michael Hall Wines.

Thanks to the wild success of our friends in Marlborough, in some wine regions, sauvignon blanc is about as popular as a pub with no beer. There are plenty of people in the wine trade – and even the odd highly respected wine writer – who will stick the boot into sauvignon blanc of any kind given the slightest opening. There is a view that somehow it is not one of the ‘noble’ grape varieties, as if sauvignon blanc never moves past the old cat pee in a gooseberry bush, or something similar. It’s no more than a crisp fruit bomb, with a little herbal edge, they say.

It’s all a bit sad really. The wines from Marlborough almost single handedly, in the early years at least, put New Zealand on the map. If you look around the world, the average price of Australian wine is well below that from our friends across the ditch, so they are clearly doing something right and have convinced the world that Kiwi sauvignon blanc is a premium wine. And you don’t have to look far to find a fair amount of evidence to back that up.

Our own sauvignon blanc miracle was the original Margaret River blend with semillon, which was for many older consumers their first taste of not only Margaret River but also just how good sauvignon blanc can be. Shaw & Smith then ran with it in the Adelaide Hills and helped to firmly establish that region’s status as one of the country’s best for this variety. 

But, despite that, in Australia, there is still a sneaking suspicion by many that sauvignon blanc is a bit of fun and not much else. The fact is, however, that while sauvignon blanc is a bit fussy, not unlike pinot noir, given the right patch of dirt and winemaking to match, it can make some of the greatest wines in the world, bar none.

Rick Kinzbrunner at Giaconda may be a great ally for the grape.

Central Loire Valley

This region is the original home to great sauvignon blanc and still a world leader, with the twin towns of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé turning out wines that combine superb purity and fruit focus thanks to a cool, continental climate, and a mix of clay, flint and limestone soils. Unoaked or generally lightly oaked, there is an elegance and subtlety to the sauvignon blanc here that is rarely found elsewhere.

Bordeaux

Much like Margaret River, Bordeaux is capable of not only creating simple and fresh examples of sauvignon but also highly complex versions. In the subregion of Pessac-Léognan, when fermented and matured in high-quality French oak, sauvignon blanc blended with semillon can create wines that challenge the best from Burgundy in both complexity and ageing potential.

Over the past decade, Australian sauvignon blanc has jumped ahead in leaps and bounds as winemakers have been working to get more from the variety through a range of winemaking techniques, including an increasingly confident use of oak. They have recognised that sauvignon blanc is not only a grape capable of making serious wines in Australia but is also one that reacts well to different winemaking techniques.

Will Gilbert is experimenting with different techniques.

Again like pinot noir, sauvignon blanc allows winemakers to show their more creative side and make wines with detail. Will Gilbert, from Orange, is a good example, with a variety of treatments to different parcels within his regional blend drawn from the foothills around Mount Canobolas. Wild ferments in oak and lees stirring are just the start, with Gilbert also using ferments on skin and partial ferments at higher temperatures to reduce a reliance on obvious primary fruit while adding savoury elements and textural richness.

What has also been interesting is the increasing number of regions putting their hand up with this variety. Perhaps, in the past, Australian winemakers were put off from making a concerted effort with the grape as nowhere in this country could match the climate of Marlborough, where sauvignon blanc was doing so well. However, while the grape does flourish in a cool climate, it is somewhat flexible, finding success in some warmer parts of California, if in a richer and oakier style.

Unsurprisingly, in Australia, Tasmania offers good potential but over time, it has become clear that areas such as the Yarra Valley, Wrattonbully, Margaret River and Great Southern are also in the mix and able to produce delicious wines with genuine texture, complexity and appeal.  

Wines to Try

2021 Gilbert Family Wines Sauvignon Blanc, Orange, A$28
The cool vineyards around the town of Orange have long made sauvignon blanc one of the region’s top varieties and Will Gilbert is working hard to refine the style. There is some classic but reserved guava, citrus and snow pea fruit aromas lifted by oak and lees with an attractive phenolic grip to finish.

2020 Vignerons Schmölzer and Brown Weide Sauvignon Blanc, Yarra Valley, A$32 
From the renowned Willow Lake vineyard comes a modern Australian style thanks to a natural ferment in oak and long lees ageing. It opens with a fair dose of smoky solids, funky aromas well supported by exotic guava fruits. It is then full-flavoured and well balanced with crisp acidity amply supported by skin tannins thanks to foot stomping. 

2020 Stefano Lubiana Sauvignon Blanc, Tasmania, A$33
A more traditional style of Aussie sav blanc done well with purity of fruit and a subtle oak influence. It is a little shy aromatically showing honeydew melon, guava and citrus aromas. A precise palate follows underpinned by crystalline acidity that draws out a long and fine finish.

2020 Terre à Terre Crayères Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Wrattonbully, A$50
A highly successful but full-throttle wine. Powerful fruit with piquant guava and dried herbs plus savoury barrel ferment wrapped up in a thick cloak of high-quality French oak. The palate is compact and precise supported by firm acidity that drives an incredibly long finish.