Another grape that typifies Australia’s seemingly limitless capacity for variation on a varietal theme is Sauvignon Blanc.
One of the great things about Australia as a wine producing nation is not only its ability to craft outstanding wines from a number of vines, but the way it can produce amazing variations from those grapes. Shiraz for example, can range the ripe, full-bodied behemoths that hail from the Barossa to the refined, elegant and high toned examples that are produced in cooler climates such as the Adelaide Hills. Another grape that typifies Australia’s seemingly limitless capacity for variation on a varietal theme is Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most popular yet maligned wine grapes – people either love it or hate it. Pungent, tart, aromatic and with a flavour profile ranging from gooseberry to citrus, asparagus, cut grass, pineapple and capsicum to green bean, tropical fruit and even cat’s pee, it’s not for the faint-of-glass and the one reaction it is unlikely to garner is ambivalence.
Sauvignon Blanc: ancient and noble origins
Originating in France’s Loire Valley, Sauvignon Blanc is related to Cabernet Sauvignon (which makes sense when you think of the similarities in the herbaceous, blackcurrant-like characters found in both varietals), with genetic links to Savagnin and Chenin Blanc.
Sauvignon’s rise: a challenge from across the ditch
The story of Sauvignon Blanc in Australia is inextricably linked to the rise in popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, mainly with the success of wines like Cloudy Bay from Marlborough. The wave that spread across the world from New Zealand was formative in changing consumers’ tastes and perception of Sauvignon Blanc, while also increasing expectations about flavour, profile and price. With the massive influx of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in the first decade of the new millennium, it was feared that oversupply would flood the market. Although Sauvignon Blanc prices dropped for several years due to excess supply, instead of destroying Australia’s market, the interest and buzz generated by New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc had a positive effect here. Plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in Australia increased as consumers sought wines from regions other than Marlborough.
Sauvignon: a malleable variety
The vineyard conditions under which Sauvignon is grown - including the combination of climate, controlled light exposure, vine vigour, ripening time and bunch thinning – will all influence the concentration of methoxypyrazines in the grapes, the chemical compounds responsible for distinctive herbaceous and grassy aromas and flavours. With the right balance, these compounds give Sauvignon Blanc the signature that sets it apart from other white wines. The longer Sauvignon Blanc grapes ripen so the less vegetal character will show in the finished wine. Winemakers will often blend portions of fruit picked at different ripeness to achieve the required levels of green, herbaceous characters alongside ripe fruit flavours. From a winemaker’s perspective, Sauvignon has everything going for it. The vine grows vigorously and the wine is relatively simple to make: crush the grapes, gently press the juice, transfer to an inert vessel (usually stainless steel), ferment with cultured yeasts protected from oxygen at a low temperature, bottle it, label it and send it to market. Easy. And since most Sauvignon is made in a drink-now style, accountants and retailers love it too. Sauvignon Blanc stocks largely sell out in time ready to be followed by the next vintage. No back-vintages in the winery or on retail shelves results in lower storage and handling costs. But simplicity can be a tempting canvas, and there are ways that winemakers can add a touch of individuality to Sauvignon: clone and yeast selection, yield management, selective harvest timing, fermentation in oak, malolactic fermentation, lees stirring and blending can all add distinctive characteristics.
Winemakers going back to ancient techniques
In a move away from the clean, sterile winemaking that creates the majority of Sauvignon, a band of winemakers are applying techniques that add their own signature to the wines: fermenting with wild yeasts or on skins, in ceramic eggs or amphorae and with little or no use of sulphur. Skin contact can enhance tannins and phenolics, adding grip and astringency with savoury, slightly bitter notes. Barrel fermentation adds complexity and depth to Sauvignon otherwise pristine characters, while malolactic fermentation contributes textural notes and creamy, honeyed butterscotch hints. Some of the producers making barrel fermented Sauvignon with striking results include Rosily, Forester Estate, Cape Mentelle, Voyager Estate, Si Vintners, Ten Minutes by Tractor and Telera (Mornington Peninsula), Out of Step (Yarra Valley), Sidewood and Barratt (Adelaide Hills), Clyde Park and Bannockburn (Geelong). While most unoaked Sauvignon Blanc is made to be consumed young, oak aged or oak fermented Sauvignon Blanc can benefit from short- to mid-term cellaring. And the natural winemaking approach adds layers of complexity, texture and flavour that bring a touch of excitement to the wines. At Lucy Margaux vineyards in the Adelaide Hills, winemaker Anton Von Klopper is part of a wine movement called Natural Selection Theory, forging a path with natural, biodynamic winemaking that pushes traditions and creates unique wines with a new energy. Klopper’s Domaine Lucci M Cuvee Close Saint Anna Sauvignon Blanc stands apart from others in the Adelaide Hills, with ancient winemaking techniques revealing complex characters of citrus, melon, herbs and minerality over a complex, layered palate. Also part of Natural Selection Theory, winemaker Tom Shobbrook flies the flag for natural wines. He creates the spicy, savoury Shobbrook Wines Giallo from Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc fermented on skins, pressed then left in casks before bottling. Just a few minutes outside Margaret River, Brad Wehr at Amato Vino creates artisan, small-batch wines that reflect their place and varietal character through a natural approach. Wehr barrel ferments his Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc to add complexity, texture and a creamy character over the usual tropical passionfruit and pineapple fruit notes.
Sauvignon Blanc: keep cool and carry on
Sauvignon Blanc is a wine grape that has a chameleon-like quality, changing its character in response to where it’s grown. Sauvignon loves a cold climate. If grown somewhere too warm and it can become bland, creating wines with an unpleasant oily character. Warm to hot Australian regions, like the Riverland or Murray River, grow large quantities of Sauvignon Blanc mainly for blending into low-cost bulk commercial wines, often generically labelled with little or no varietal identification. Those wines won’t give you the true character of Sauvignon, to find that, you need to head south to where the temperatures drop.
Australia’s Sauvignon Blanc hot spots
Two regions in Australia can easily lay claim to producing the country’s best Sauvignon: Adelaide Hills in South Australia and Margaret River in Western Australia. This is where you’ll find Sauvignon that reflects clear varietal definition with impeccable balance between fruit and acidity. I n the Adelaide Hills, Shaw + Smith, established by Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith in 1989, is renowned as one of the leading producers of Sauvignon, famed for its precision, clarity and balance. A few other notable Sauvignon Blanc producers from Adelaide Hills include Lenswood, Pike & Joyce, Deviation Road, Chain of Ponds, Bird in Hand, Hahndorf Hill, K1 by Geoff Hardy, Nepenthe, Petaluma, O’Leary Walker and Tapanappa. In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is nearly always blended with Semillon and sometimes a touch of Muscadelle. The style is echoed (minus Muscadelle) to great effect in Western Australia, home to some of the country’s most varietally pure, flavoursome and well-balanced Sauvignons. Margaret River is at the head of the pack flying the flag with its Sauvignon-Semillon blends. Blending with Semillon gives a lift in aroma and acidity adding a touch of weight to Sauvignon mid-palate. Also demonstrating Western Australia’s affinity with Sauvignon Blanc, the regions of Great Southern, Pemberton and Geographe produce noteworthy wines, albeit at a much smaller output than the powerhouse that is the Margaret River. South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula, incorporating McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and Currency Creek, can produce respectable Sauvignon Blanc from the coolest sites, with the wines slightly less herbaceous and pungent overall. Meanwhile the rolling slopes of the Yarra Valley produce exceptional Sauvignon Blancs from the likes of Gembrook Hill, Dominique Portet, Coldstream Hills and Thick as Thieves. And the pristine environment of Tasmania is home to stunning Sauvignon, with notable producers including Domaine A, Josef Chromy, Moorilla Estate and Stefano Lubiana and Bay of Fires.
The future of Australian Sauvignon Blanc
The market has responded to this traditional approach to Sauvignon Banc winemaking with consumers eager to try new styles made with natural techniques that go against the textbook style. It’s a refreshing take on the varietal that’s helping bring Sauvignon Blanc to a new audience, but at the same time there will always be a demand for the classically crisp, clear and ready-to-drink Sauvignon Blancs from the coolest regions, and it’s those that will sustain the market and allow winemakers to experiment and push the boundaries in years to come.
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