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New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs Go Wild

Meet the originators behind Marlborough’s latest wine trend

Joelle Thomson By September 28, 2021
photo of Curious sheep grazing in autumn vineyard in New Zealand
Curious sheep grazing in autumn vineyard in New Zealand. Photo by PatrikStedrak/iStock.

Three words sum up the world’s most popular aromatic white wine right now and they are: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. There is, however, another word that describes its new wave. That word is complex. 

Somewhat ironically, perhaps, it’s the oldest hands in the region that are creating the newest styles of Sauvignon Blanc and triggering a trend that is catching on like the proverbial wildfire.

Three men have made their mark with Sauvignon in New Zealand more than any others. They are Ivan Sutherland and James Healy of Dog Point Vineyard and Kevin Judd from Greywacke. All three cut their teeth on Sauvignon when working together at Cloudy Bay, and all three have since departed. 

Going wild

It’s as if Judd swallowed the book about naming conventions when he coined the name of his most famous wine, Wild Sauvignon, which he has since trademarked. It’s a play on the derivation of the word Sauvignon, which is thought to come from the French word “sauvage, which means wild, and refers to the shape of Sauvignon Blanc’s leaves because they resemble those of wild grapevines. 

Judd’s love affair with the purity of Sauvignon Blanc led him to emigrate to New Zealand from Australia to take up the mantle of winemaker at Cloudy Bay Vineyards in 1985. It took another six to seven years before he dove down the wild yeast rabbit hole, when James Healy began at Cloudy Bay. 

“It was James who steered me in the direction of wild yeasts. In 1991 at Cloudy Bay, he started pestering me to make some wild yeast fermented Chardonnay and he eventually got under my skin so I agreed,” says Judd. “I thought it was going to be a write-off. The winery stank of sulfides and I still remember thinking, ‘This is a waste of time,’ but nine months later we were thinking ‘This is quite good.’”

The next year, Judd made a wild yeast fermented Sauvignon Blanc, labelling it Cloudy Bay Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc. Judd admits it was initially a challenge because he was passionate about the purity of fruit he achieved with temperature controlled, stainless steel fermentation. But the team continued and produced Te Koko, Cloudy Bay’s take on a wild yeast, barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc. 

Since then, all three have left Cloudy Bay. Sutherland and Healy began their own Dog Point Vineyards where Section 94, a 100% wild yeast, barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc, is their flagship wine. And Judd created Greywacke, where Wild Sauvignon is the top wine. 

“It’s our interpretation of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and it is pretty out of left field, but it’s a style that I personally think is pretty tasty,” says Judd.

All of the grapes in his Wild Sauvignon are 100% barrel fermented with wild yeasts. Two thirds get malolactic fermentation to soften the acidity. It spends 11 months in barrel and another six in tanks for bâtonnage, the stirring of the decomposing yeast cells known as lees. New oak is 10% or less.

The widespread global accolades for Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, Cloudy Bay Te Koko, and Dog Point Section 94 is seeing a wave of lesser-known brands begin to experiment. This is good news for a country so heavily dependent on a single grape variety. Over 85% of New Zealand’s wine exports are Sauvignon Blanc, the majority from Marlborough, which has 70,000 acres of New Zealand’s national total of 100,000 acres. 

4 new wave wines from Marlborough try:

bottle of Giesen Dealcoholized New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Giesen 0% New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc ($13)

Giesen Wines is leading the charge of zero alcohol wine in New Zealand and its winemaker, Duncan Shouler, says the challenge in making zero alcohol wine is to produce a good quality wine to begin with. He uses a spinning cone to remove alcohol, adding aroma back in. This is varietally pure Sauvignon Blanc in a lighter style. 

bottle of Whitehaven Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Whitehaven Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($16)

Flavors of pristine purity and ripe tropical fruit are balanced by refreshing acidity and a zesty finish, thanks to a portion of grapes from the Awatere Valley, a cooler, windier area. There is also a top tier Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc called Greg, which is 100% Awatere Valley

bottle of Greywacke Marlborough Wild Sauvignon Blanc 2018

Greywacke Marlborough Wild Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($30)

Greywacke Wild Sauvignon is now internationally regarded as one of New Zealand’s best whites, and it all comes down to the wild yeast fermentation for 100% of the grapes, all of which are fermented in oak barrels, with about 70% malolactic fermentation to soften the acidity and add smooth textural qualities. The wine spends about 11 months in barrel and another six months maturing on lees in stainless steel, pre-release. It drinks well now with its supple mouth feel and can age superbly for up to a decade.

bottle of Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($30)

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc was an irrepressible jack-in-the-box when it burst out of New Zealand’s wine scene in 1986. It was immediately likeable and immediately recognizable with intense grassy, green apple and complex tropical fruit flavors. Temperature controlled fermentation in stainless steel tanks was the driving force of the winemaking in its early days, and, as now, the wine benefitted from thoughtfully grown raw material from Ivan Sutherland. The wine also contains about 4% of barrel fermented grapes to add softness, spice, and complexity.