Desperately Seeking Sauvignon


We live in an on-demand society: watch that television program at a time that suits; stay on the couch and order groceries to arrive within minutes; don’t leave the house to collect your fast food. If only you could get grapes delivered. But farming doesn’t work like that, and New Zealand winemakers have been left hungry for fruit. With demand at an all-time high, the country’s wine producers cannot satisfy the global market. A small harvest has created a shortfall of 9 million cases and, with most consumers failing to realize that their favorite Kiwi Sauvignon is running low, a swath of Marlborough look-alikes from Chile and South Africa are happily plugging the gap. But for those who care where their wine comes from, it pays to seek out the 2021 vintage wines. A few words of advice: make it quick.

A particularly mild winter led to one of the earliest budbursts in Marlborough, which is a rightly worrying occurrence. The winter of 2020 was New Zealand’s warmest on record because of warmer sea surface temperatures, high pressure and warm winds caused by a developing La Niña pattern in the Pacific Ocean. Having endured a drought-affected summer and then a warm winter with below average rainfall, growers entered the 2021 season with very dry soils. The burgeoning buds made an early appearance during the last week of September, which happened to coincide with cold nights and several frosts. It was not the start Marlborough winemakers had been hoping for. Some blocks, including in the rarely frosted Dillon’s Point area, had their season ended before it began. But it wasn’t frost that would be the season’s major crop cutter. 

An early budburst meant an early flowering. Growers hope for sunny, settled weather to ensure the crop flowers and sets successfully. With flowering taking place as much as three weeks earlier than normal, it occurred in more unpredictable conditions. As a result, it was a protracted affair, with spring rain and cool temperatures blighting hopes for an abundant crop. The early varieties, including Pinot Noir, were most affected, with final yields down around 35% nationwide. Even the later-flowering Sauvignon Blanc had a rough time; the national crop fell by 18% despite an extra 500 hectares of vineyard in Marlborough compared to 2020. Spring rains weren’t just an issue for the vines. A state of emergency was declared in Napier in Hawke’s Bay after 242mm of rain fell in one day on November 9, causing power cuts, landslides, and evacuation of residents from their homes. On the plus side, rains in November and December gave the soils a much-needed drink before the dry summer kicked in.

The Brancott vineyard, home to Marlborough’s first Sauvignon Blanc vines in 1975.

Twenty twenty-one saw a warm, blue-sky Kiwi summer, Marlborough’s Wairau Valley living up to its Māori name of “the place with the hole in the cloud” (Kei puta te Wairau). Temperatures from January to March weren’t out of the ordinary, and there were no unusual spikes, but there was another dry spell. Kevin Judd of Greywacke in Marlborough explained: “After an indifferent flowering, and then very dry conditions, the low bunch numbers, and the low bunch weights added up to a small crop.” Statistics suggest that the important harvest month of March recorded 80mm of rain or 195% of the monthly average, but only 1.4mm of that rain fell between March 1 and 27, while most of the fruit was safely in the winery. As a result, ripening was even but early. The characteristics of the growing season combined with the small crop, meant, with no surprise, that many growers reported their earliest harvest ever.

But earlier starts and earlier finishes to the growing season seem to be an irreversible trend. In a 2021 report authored by Rob Agnew, Marlborough’s resident wine and weather scientist, data collected over a 17-year-period in a vineyard in the region’s Rapaura district, showed that budburst had advanced by 4.7 days and flowering by more than five days; veraison was two weeks earlier and a Brix level of 21.5 was achieved a week earlier.

It was perhaps a blessing that the crop wasn’t larger in 2021, as windy conditions accompanied the drought that was declared on March 11 across the whole of the North Island as well as Marlborough, Nelson and North Canterbury in the South Island. Matt Thomson of Blank Canvas said, “If we had had normal yields, there would have been more stress, but because yields were low, the drought didn’t stress the plants as much, and that was a savior of the harvest.” 

Despite the lack of wine, the quality of the 2021 Sauvignon Blancs is impressive across the board. Nature undertook its own crop-thinning, preventing the high-yielding vineyards from achieving their abundant goals. The much lighter crop load led to more balanced and interesting wines, even at entry level price points. The reduced yields resulted in higher concentration, riper fruit and fewer green flavors. While the month of March looked a touch warmer than average on paper, that was due to a warm first week; after that, things cooled down, which has also contributed to the freshness and balance that’s clearly seen in the young wines.

Stock allocation has involved many late nights with spreadsheets and difficult conversations, as well as an end to new business development. Several well-known, high-quality producers have been ruing decisions taken the previous year: after picking and pressing their 2020 Sauvignon in lockdown New Zealand, and fearing a potential downturn, some sold off a portion of their harvest as bulk. However, sales increased in many thirsty, locked-down markets and, with nature being far from bounteous in 2021, producers now faced an allocation headache. While tasting and interviewing winemakers throughout January 2022, I noted that most wineries no longer had any Sauvignon Blanc left in their cellars, and with another early harvest on the cards, many were expecting to be bottling earlier than ever to keep potential shortages to a minimum.

There is greater experimentation with fermentation vessels in New Zealand, as seen in the cellar at Chardonnay specialist Tony Bish Wines.

Tiki Tour

While Marlborough accounts for three-quarters of the national crop, to the west over the Richmond range, conditions were largely similar in Nelson, which saw frost in some rarely frosted areas and unsettled weather at flowering. A hailstorm further reduced the potential crop size. “‘Challenging and very, very small’ would describe it,” said Neudorf’s winemaker, Todd Stevens. While bunch numbers were healthy, small berries and low bunch weights led to a crop around one-third down. Andrew Greenhough said, “Yields were really low, but if we had had a lot more fruit, we would have been hanging on for it to ripen; we received quite a lot of rain in April and that wouldn’t have been good for quality.” A relatively dry and warm summer ensured disease pressure was low.

Heading south of Marlborough along the east coast down to the increasingly impressive North Canterbury region, the 2021 season ended before it began with some blocks 100% frosted after an early budburst was followed by below-freezing temperatures in September and early October. Hillside sites tended to fare better, but then came poor flowering, and, as if nature hadn’t already reduced quantities enough, dry, windy weather in February reduced and concentrated berries further. “Crops were small or non-existent,” says Master of Wine Steve Smith, explaining that the Pyramid Valley home vineyard, which is the source of Lion’s Tooth and Field of Fire Chardonnays as well as was the Pinot Noir Earth Smoke, was wiped out by frost. The parcel that makes the Pinot Noir Angel Flower had a tiny crop that may or may not yet be bottled as an individual wine. “But what we got was very high quality.” Inevitably, the small crop and warm, dry summer resulted in an early harvest.

In the world’s most southerly wine region, the first white releases from Central Otago are emerging, including Felton Road’s Rieslings. We won’t see the first Pinot Noir releases, which represent around three-quarters of the region’s vineyard area, for another year, when we will truly be able to assess the season, but it was one more region where small crops were the norm due to cool flowering conditions and a cool, wet start to summer – an unusual occurrence in this normally arid region. Compared to the cool 2020 vintage, harvest was relatively early but not out of the ordinary.

North Island

Heading across the Cook Strait to the North Island, the Martinborough region is just 130km from Marlborough as the crow flies and likewise suffered cool spring flowering, which halved crop levels before Christmas, and was then followed by dry, warm conditions. The result of the summer and small yields led to the earliest harvest on record, as Roger Parkinson of Nga Waka explained: “Over our first 20 vintages, not one harvest would have started by the date we finished picking this year.” When it comes to fine white wine in Hawke’s Bay, the focus is on Chardonnay, and thus the current wine releases are 2020.

A tour of the Cambridge Road vines with Lance Redgwell via Zoom.

Kiwi Kaizen

New Zealand wines seem to be getting better year after year. You could call it Kiwi kaizen (after the Japanese term referring to continuous improvement in business). In 2021, nature lent a hand – the poor weather at flowering led to small crops, resulting in concentrated wines with greater palate weight – but nature won’t always be on their side. New Zealand is a remote island in the middle of the South Pacific, subject to unsettled springs and tempestuous autumns, but all things being equal, recent tastings confirm that producers are currently releasing some of the most thoughtful and refined wines they’ve ever made, whether it’s Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling or even Viognier. 

First made in 1996, Cloudy Bay’s latest Te Koko release is its most sensitive to date. Producing a harmonious barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough, a region that has shown a propensity to make naturally exuberant Sauvignon, has often led to an ugly wrestling match between oak and fruit. While there are still many cuvées that continue to grapple with this style, Te Koko has hit its straps with the 2019 vintage. Having started life as an overtly oaky, full-malo Sauvignon, it saw slow and steady refinement over the next 20-odd years, and after two years off – the quality wasn’t deemed good enough in the wet and humid 2017 and 2018 vintages to make a Te Koko bottling – 2019 seems to suggest a new era for the wine. One of the keys to success in making a subtle barrel-fermented style is hand-harvesting and whole-bunch-pressing to reduce the flamboyant thiols; machine harvesting can increase thiols by as much as ten times compared with hand-harvesting. From full malolactic fermentation between 1996 and 2009, 52% of Te Koko 2019 underwent the conversion, while the percentage of new oak has fallen to just 8%, with larger format cuves of 6,000 liters coming into play. There’s also been a reliance on wild yeast in the past, and while the fermentation is now allowed to kick off naturally, the ferments are inoculated partway through to ensure that the wines achieve dryness, which hasn’t always been the case. In the cool climes of Marlborough, the naturally high acids are no friend to a fast, efficient fermentation. Ex–Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd has also offered a scintillating and sophisticated 2019 Sauvignon Wild, while Baron Edmond de Rothschild–owned Rimapere Vineyards also impressed with its second release of a barrel-fermented Marlborough 2021 Sauvignon Plot 101. You’d hope that a Bordeaux producer would know a thing or two about making textural, restrained Sauvignons, but they are lacking their classic blending partners: there’s a paucity of Sémillon in New Zealand, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much as a drop of Muscadelle, which might make for more complex blends. Similarly, a single clone, MS, dominates Sauvignon plantings, and it would be interesting to see more wines produced using Bordeaux clones. 

When it comes to Chardonnay, little has changed since my last white wine report in November, 2020. The variety continues to produce many of New Zealand’s finest whites across the key winemaking regions from Kumeu River in Greater Auckland all the way down to Felton Road in Central Otago, a distance of 1,500 kilometers. 

Greater precision in the vineyard and increasingly sensitive handling in the winery, along with a deeper appreciation of oak use through continuing barrel trials, results in more refined refreshment. There’s still plenty of Chardonnay that smells and tastes solely of struck matches (or worse), but there were thankfully fewer instances of reduction taken too far in this year’s report. Then again, there are currently fewer Chardonnays coming out of New Zealand. Chardonnay is an early-flowering variety and was affected by poor flowering in both 2019 and 2021, leading to lower crops. Having been the most important variety in New Zealand between 1996 and 2002, it now accounts for less than 7% of the national harvest.

Beyond Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Pinot Gris is the only other variety that you could call significant in terms of plantings. This non-aromatic grape continues to induce a yawn every time a sample turns up. The best examples typically come from the cooler South Island and Wairarapa region, where this early ripener can take its time in reaching maturity and preserve its acidity. While I understand that Pinot Gris sells well and makes good business sense, the majority of bottlings are bland and taste like a waste of good vineyard land. Riesling is certainly a harder variety to sell, but the consistently high quality in terms of aromatic purity, concentration of fruit, acid/sugar balance and careful handling of phenolics cannot be denied. My picks of the tasting include Felton Road Block 1 and Prophet’s Rock from Central Otago, while Martinborough’s Dry River and Kusuda continue to impress. They are wines to enjoy now as well as pop in your cellar and forget about for a decade, but with demand for the country’s wines on the rise, I suggest you write your shopping list and buy them sooner rather than later.

I tasted all of the wines in this report in my UK office in England in January and February 2022 during extensive online tastings with winemakers via Zoom.

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