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edited by Sue Courtney
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Wine of the Week for week ending 30 November 2003
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Matua Valley 'Paretai' Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003
Marlborough, New Zealand

What is it about New Zealand that makes out Sauvignon Blanc so successful?

This is a question that many have asked and desperately want to know the answer to. There are many theories but esteemed researcher and winemaker, Professor Denis Dubourdieu (pictured) of the University of Bordeaux, has some answers. "Light, water and nitrogen", he said at a University of Auckland Wine Conference last week. Of course there are other factors such as the growing season, viticultural practises, the maturity of the grapes at harvest and the methods of vinification including the types of yeasts used. But light, water and nitrogen play such an important part.

When it comes to light there is no doubt that the light that shines on New Zealand is more intense than in many other parts of the world. Even explorers and early artists recorded the brilliance and radiance that the light of New Zealand emitted and tourists and first time visitors to our country comment on its clarity. Good light is essential for good grapes.

When it comes to water many sauvignon blanc vineyards, especially in Marlborough, are planted in river valleys close to rivers and even on old river beds. Soils composed of river gravels make it easy for roots to penetrate to the water table and proximity to rivers allows viticulturists to draw off water or to sink wells to provide the water for irrigation. The secret with water is how much and when.

However the amount of nitrogen in the soil seems to be the real key for our zippy, zingy, vibrant flavours. Nitrogen affects the levels of the precursors for the aromatics that we associate with distinctive sauvignon blanc. Aromas such as capsicum, herbs, grass, cats pee (or boxwood as it is commonly referred to in the Northern Hemisphere), passionfruit, grapefruit, citrus zest, smoke and ever so rarely, truffles, for example. It seems the higher the nitrogen in the soil, the more these characters will be pronounced when the sauvignon blanc grapes are made into wine. While this is good for Sauvignon Blanc, it is bad news for its close cousin Cabernet Sauvignon, which perhaps explains why Cabernet Sauvignon does not produce good wine from Marlborough.

Our best Sauvignon Blanc vineyards are rich in nitrogen perhaps because New Zealand has an historic farming background with little history of grape growing. Vineyards were developed and are still being developed on virgin grape land, land that was once clover-rich pasture abounding with nitrogen. If nitrogen is needed to develop the Sauvignon Blanc aroma precursors, there seems to be no shortage of it. No wonder that Sauvignon Blanc does so well. And it seems to explain why first crop Sauvignon Blanc grapes seem to produce wines with an exuberance of flavour that grab you with their intensity.

It seems appropriate to acknowledge a Matua Valley sauvignon blanc, after all if it wasn't for Matua Valley's Ross Spence making New Zealand's first sauvignon blanc wine (for the story click here), who knows if and when the discovery would have been made?

Matua Valley 'Paretai' Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 is a new wine for Matua Valley harvested from first crop vines on the northern banks of the Wairau River in the Wairau Valley with the addition of grapes from the Awatere further south. It's a terrific debut for this new premium in Matua's 'estate' series and displays the attributes of great New Zealand sauvignon blanc from the characteristic aromas to the intense and lingering finish.

It's zesty and spicy with some prickly melon, nettles and herbs and a lovely lift to the finish where there's a touch of grapefruit zest too. Then the mouth fills with fruit - apples, gooseberry, melons, grapefruit and a touch of tropical fruit. It's rich, ripe and multi-layered, bright and punchy with an awesome lingering finish. Everything you'd expect from a good sauvignon blanc. It's well balanced with good acidity, 3.3gL residual sugar and 12.5% alcohol by volume. I think it's absolutely terrific and it's in my Top 10 this year. You'll find it in retail from about $23 to $26 depending where you buy. It's also available at the Matua Valley cellar door. More information from www.matua.co.nz.

Matua Valley 'Paretai' Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2003 is also an excellent example of 'retro-olfaction' sensation, to use a new term that I learnt at the conference. The initial flavour in the mouth is relatively subdued but about some seconds after swallowing the strong flavours are suddenly perceived. It happens when eating passionfruit too.

If you are technically minded and want to find out more about the research on the aromas of sauvignon blanc at the University of Bordeaux, I suggest you look at this prize winning paper by Takatoshi Tominaga, who studied under Professor Dubourdieu. It's a PDF file and written in French.

They haven't yet found a precursor for the 'sweaty' character in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as it does not appear in the wines of France, but now that a Wine Industry Research Institute has been established at the University of Auckland, we are sure to find out soon.

© Sue Courtney
24 November 2003


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E-mail me: winetaster@clear.net.nz