If all you knew about New Zealand came from this blog, first off I would tell you that you need to do a bit more outside reading. But second, I would apologize to you because my coverage of my neighbours across the Tasman has been pretty scant, and so far limited to two wines, both from Central Otago. Today I’m going to try to improve on that slightly, and for a change I’m not going for anything unusual or obscure. Instead I’m going for something of a benchmark, the Astrolabe Province Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011.
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is considered a classic by some, a cliché by others, but it’s indisputably one of if the best known wines of the New World. It is the wine that put New Zealand on the map, and love it or hate it, it’s not only widely enjoyed but increasingly emulated.
New Zealand has been making wine for almost 200 years, but it is only in the last 40 years that it has produced high quality wine for export. Vines were first planted in Marlborough only as recently as 1973, but it was in 1985 that Cloudy Bay brought the region and the country to the international stage with their Sauvignon Blanc, and now New Zealand has more Sauvignon Blanc planted than the Loire or Bordeaux, and many time more than Australia. The more fruit-forward style, combined with gooseberries, bell peppers, and to some palates, cat piss, took the world by storm and advanced New Zealand’s brand as a clean, pristine land producing excellent wines.
Of course wine is a fashion driven industry. As far as fashion, the world continues to consume no end of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but as a successful industry it has continued to grow and the premium it once commanded for brand New Zealand has been somewhat undermined by the huge increase in supply. While the wines of New Zealand can still command a premium, it’s not what it once was, and the minimum price you can pay for a bottle continues to drop.
However, I think it’s fair to put most of those concerns behind us for now as we look at Astrolabe, unquestionably one of the premium producers of Marlborough. Established in 1996 by a group of four friends, the name Astrolabe refers both to the ship of a 19th century French explorer who sailed through the Marlborough Sounds and to the navigational instrument for which it was named. The A motif on their label is a stylized representation of an actual astrolabe. Tragically, in October 2011 the company had 4000 cases of wine destined for Ireland on a container ship that was grounded on a reef that shares the company name.
They produce three main types of wines – Province based on regionality of Marlborough in general, Valleys based on subregions within Marlborough, and Vineyards based on single vineyards. (Until recently, the names for those ranges were Voyage, Discovery and Experience respectively.) While the majority of their wine is Sauvignon Blanc, they also produce Sauvignon Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. Their market is exclusively at the top end, meaning restaurant and fine wine trade.
Marlborough itself is worth a word in addition to its place in bringing New Zealand to the forefront with Sauvignon Blanc. Located at the north end of the South Island around Blenheim, Montana was the company who made a huge investment (and thus took a huge risk) and first planted vines in 1973. The area is a flat river valley with alluvial soils of silt and water smoothed stones. The climate is maritime, with dry summers and sometimes frosty winters. Irrigation is a must throughout most of the region. The explosion of wine production in the region was accompanied by a growth market in contract winemaking which encouraged many growers with no experience in winemaking to produce their own label wines. Raupara Vintners (once Vin Tech) is described as “the closest thing that New Zealand has to a co-operative winery.” While Sauvignon Blanc reigns supreme, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fight for distant second and third, and are sometimes both used in the production of sparkling wine.
So that’s the producer and region, which means I’m home and dry since I certainly have discussed the grape, Sauvignon Blanc, before. Except that I haven’t. This is not my first Sauvignon Blanc varietal in this blog, but the other one was a Saint-Bris, and the novelty of that overwhelmed my ability to stick to format. Therefore, on to the grape itself.
Sauvignon Blanc is a classic white grape, traditionally associated with both Bordeaux where it is typically found blended with Semillon for both dry and sweet wines, and the Loire where it is more commonly a dry varietal wine. It buds late but ripens early. Its character is determined to a large extent by climate, with high acidity and crisp flavours being pronounced in cooler climates, but with lower acidity and more tropical fruit characters being evident under warmer conditions. While likely French in origin, it has certainly emerged as an international variety, with plantings not only in Italy, Spain and parts of Eastern Europe, but especially throughout the New World, with California, Chile, South Africa, and Australia joining New Zealand.
In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, with pale lemon green colour and legs when swirled. On the nose it’s clean, youthful, with medium plus intensity, and notes of green pea, asparagus, lemon-lime, and green pepper (capsicum). On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus alcohol, medium plus flavour intensity, and notes of green pepper, lemon, sweet pea, and asparagus. It has a medium plus length and a clean finish.
This is a very good quality wine. It has some elements of complexity, particularly for such a young wine, but not a huge amount. What it does have though is intensity. It’s also well balanced, in that it’s fairly full on throughout. It’s also strong on typicity – you would not mistake this wine for another variety, nor would you think it was from any other part of the world.
Pin in the map is Blenheim – their office address is a post office box there and that’s the closest I can get for now.