By Celia Strong
Our wine this week will take us half way around the world, half way down into the Southern Hemisphere. Made from a husband and wife team, The Better Half is wholly enjoyable, and there is a whole lot to learn about this Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.
In this country that neighbors Australia, the wines of any given vintage are six months older than California wines from the same vintage — so they are six months older than any Northern Hemisphere wine. They harvest in March while we harvest in September and October.
The very first vineyard in New Zealand was established by the Catholic Church, in 1851, in Hawkes Bay on the North Island. The growth of the wine industry in New Zealand was slow because they had more emphasis on protein and dairy products for many years. It was not until the 1960’s and 1970’s, with trade regulations changing when Britain entered the European Economic Community, that New Zealanders could opt for more profitable products like wine.
I know we’ve heard this before, but I for one only remember it occasionally, like when we do another New Zealand wine. The 1960’s also saw the end of the “six o’clock swill.” Pubs went from being open for only one hour after a work day to more hours. And, restaurants started letting customers bring in their own bottles of wine for dinner. And, young New Zealanders, having traveled outside their own country, learned to like wine and thought it worth making a part of their lives when they returned home. Talk about lifestyle changes.
With all of this, the 1970’s saw the first vintage wine produced in New Zealand. The first Sauvignon Blanc, the core of their wine industry, was made in 1977. In the 1980’s, wineries, mostly in Marlborough on the northern end of the South Island of New Zealand, started making Sauvignon Blancs that were highly touted. New Zealand Sauvignon took over as the “best in the world.”
Most of the vineyards of New Zealand have soil that is alluvial. This is based on local sandstone (sandy soil over slate shingles) — it drains well and is not overly fertile so the vines are forced to “work.” Surrounded by water, the climate is maritime — cooler summers, mild winters (all six months off from ours), and cool nights even in the hottest summers. All this comes together in a long growing season and consistently grows grapes that have high acidity. On the South Island, no vineyard is more than 80 miles from the coast.
Now, when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, wine drinkers either like this grape or they don’t. And, of those who do like it, they either like or don’t like New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc. This is the widely planted variety in New Zealand. This grape is known for its refreshing, fruity acidity. Although, if it is picked too late, it loses both its acidity and its leafy pungency.
Most Sauvignon Blanc is fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel tanks to preserve its youthful fruitiness. And most Sauvignon Blancs are drunk younger, again, because they taste fresher with their acidity at full force.
The most classical European Sauvignon Blancs come from France’s Loire Valley, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, with less expensive but still good versions coming from other towns in the middle of the valley. These wines have more minerality, a major distinction when compared to New Zealand’s. In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with Semillon, and sometimes some Muscadelle. In the United States, meaning mostly California, many vineyards are too warm for Sauvignon Blanc. But necessity is the mother of adapting, and California has developed its own style for this variety that is more full-bodied, slightly sweet-ish, often oaked, and sometimes called Fumé Blanc.
In New Zealand, wines from Sauvignon Blanc are extravagantly forceful, with a fruity style. Marlborough is the benchmark; these wines have bold flavors. And, get this, some scientists think the development of these distinctive flavors are encouraged by the holes in the ozone layer in that part of the world. Vigorous Sauvignon Blanc vines do very well in dry, gravelly vineyards. Some growers, to enhance different characteristics in their grapes, harvest them at different intervals. At their most unripe, the grapes are high in malic acid — the biting acid of a Granny Smith apple. A bit more ripe and the grapes tend to red and green bell pepper flavors, and more balanced sugars. In Marlborough vineyards, different tracts of grapes are always ripening at different speeds. Blending all the grapes together gives the wines their distinct flavor profile. Citrus, including grapefruit and lime, guava, black currant, green grass, tart apple are all typical New Zealand flavors.
Most winemakers in New Zealand prefer to ferment their grapes in stainless steel to maintain the sharp focus and flavor intensity in their wines.
This week’s wine is called The Better Half Sauvignon Blanc. Is that a great name or what? There is a good reason for the name that came from winemaker, and instigator, George Elworthy. George worked as a winemaker for many years but he got tired of it and sort of quit. His wife, Jules Taylor, is a well-known winemaker. She is a Marlborough girl who makes superb Sauvignon Blancs on her own. George got talked into making wine again, though, and decided to call his the Better Half — because he believes he is Jules’ better half.
His Sauvignon Blanc has aromas of lime, melon and guava along with black currant and gooseberries. The flavors are tropical with citrus notes, guava and melon, all with a backbone of linear acidity — that’s how George describes the wine.
Like most New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, the Better Half goes well with shellfish; seafood; goat cheeses, especially Feta; herbs such as thyme, basil, tarragon, parsley; most vegetables whether grilled, baked, sautéed or fried; and salads of all kinds.
More than most grapes, Sauvignon Blanc makes a food wine. For some of us, trying it with food is a way to start liking it. Then, pretty soon, you just like it. And, that is the Better Half! A then you can have a whole glass because that’s way better than a half.
You can find this wine for only $12.99 at Bill’s Liquors on Lady’s Island. Enjoy.