Revolutions don’t normally happen at New Zealand House in London, but a small one happened on a February morning in 1985. British wine writers and merchants gathered to taste wines from a dozen different NZ wineries and were stunned by the range and quality of what they were tasting. Above all, they were astonished at the Sauvignon from Marlborough. It had that powerful gooseberry and fresh cut grass flavour, maybe elderflower and grapefruit, that we now recognise as uniquely Sauvignon. People who don’t like it say it tastes of cat’s pee. The tasters knew the wines from the upper Loire and from Bordeaux – all made with Sauvignon – but until then it had been thought of as a grape without much character, which only made good wine if the terroir contributed the character that the grape lacked. The power of Marlborough Sauvignon was especially surprising when you realise that the first vines were only planted in 1973. The most famous of the Marlborough vineyards, Cloudy Bay, only planted Sauvignon in 1986. Before that they bought their grapes from other vineyards.
And so started one of the great controversies in the wine world. In one corner sits Oz Clarke who maintains that the Marlborough Sauvignon is the classic Sauvignon; that until the 1980s no-one knew what Sauvignon should taste like. On the other hand, I remember staying at a hotel near the Loire and my wife asked for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The hotelier could not conceal his distress. “As it happens, Madame”, he said, “our local wine, Menetou-Salon, is made with the Sauvignon grape but its taste is uniquely Menetou-Salon.” So there, in the corner opposite Oz Clarke, sits the French wine world. Of course, their wines are second to none in complexity and character. They also have a vested interest in maintaining the supremacy of terroir because no-one can take that from them. Acknowledge that the grape is supreme and what is there to stop New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, even Moldova from dominating the Sauvignon world? It’s a foolish debate, of course. Sauvignon as grape juice is the real thing and it doesn’t taste of much at all. Wine is always an artefact. No one flavour is any more real than another.
Happily, there are signs of a meeting of minds. After a few years of in-your-face NZ Sauvignon some of us long for a little subtlety, some slight variation. And this is even happening in Marlborough, where it is now realised that terroir does play a part. The soil varies quite a lot, from clay to shingle and sand. Mixing the grapes from different soil types can produce more interesting flavours. Altering the temperature of fermentation also affects the pungency of the wine – cooler temperature, more pungency. And finally, the longer the grape juice is in contact with the skin, the more fruity the flavour. The first Cloudy Bay Sauvignon in 1985 wasn’t made in Marlborough but was ferried across the Cook Straits, then trucked up to Gisborne for fermentation. Maybe those 24 hours of skin contact played a greater part in producing the pungent flavour that shocked the world than anything else. Now, all these variables are being exploited to make more interesting wine.
Incidentally, there’s no need to add the word “Blanc” after “Sauvignon”. Sauvignon is always white. Cabernet Sauvignon is a different matter. It’s a hybrid of Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. So the once humble Sauvignon grape has made a double gift to humanity.