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edited by Sue Courtney
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NZ's First Sauvignon Blanc

by Sue Courtney
(Based on an article published in the "Rodney Times" on February 11th, 1997)

Sauvignon Blanc is the grape variety that escalated New Zealand to prominence on the world wine map and when this grape is mentioned, Marlborough immediately springs to mind. But sauvignon blanc vines were not planted in Marlborough (by Montana) until 1973, several years after the first vines were trialed at Waimauku in the Rodney district, north of Auckland.

It was Ross Spence, of Matua Valley Wines Ltd, who pioneered this variety in New Zealand. Ross had attended the University of Fresno in California, where he tasted wines made from grape varieties unknown at home.

On his return he found one of the vines, a Sauvignon Blanc, at New Zealand's viticultural research station at Te Kauwhata. Although heavily virussed, he took cuttings and planted them anyway. It was 1969.

The grapes, with their distinctive flavours, looked promising.

The following year, government viticulturist Frank Berrysmith imported a number of vines from the University of California, Davis, amongst them sauvignon blanc from vine no. 6 in UCD's foundation vineyard F4. Cuttings from this new vine, affectionally known in New Zealand as UCD1, were planted by Corban's in their vineyard in Kumeu. Spence then obtained further cuttings from Corbans to bulk up his own trial to commercial levels. A trial wine was released in 1973, with the first commercial release in 1974*.

But this new grape variety was very hard to sell - no-one had heard of it before. The public were satisfied with drinking the fashionable wine of that era, Riesling Sylvaner, made from the grape variety Muller Thurgau.

The same difficulty selling Sauvignon Blanc had also been experienced in California. Robert Mondavi, the great Californian wine-maker, came up with the name "Fumé Blanc" so that his cold fermented, dry sauvignon blanc wine would not be confused with other, often sweeter, Sauternes style sauvignon blanc wines. He took the name "Fumé" from the French "Pouilly-Fumé", an appellation in the Loire Valley in France where the sauvignon blanc is made into a beautiful dry wine. "Blanc" came from the sauvignon blanc grape variety.

Fumé Blanc proved to be a hit with consumers in the U.S., so Matua Valley decided to use this name too. The wine started selling and other growers became interested. With further trials and a disease-resistance rootstock, the vines from Matua Valley's Waimauku vineyard have provided the source wood for all the early plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand. It is now the country's second most planted white wine grape variety after chardonnay, with 1140 hectares producing in 1996 (2508 hectares in 2001).

Matua Valley still produce from their original Waimauku Vineyard, although they no longer use Fumé Blanc on the label. The Matua Valley Reserve Sauvignon Blanc has had barrel fermentation and some malolactic fermentation to produce a soft elegant wine with a hint of oak. It will go well as an accompaniment to white meat and seafood dishes.

Matua also produce a Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blanc and the Shingle Peak label is their Marlborough wine. Compare these three wines to appreciate the influence the regional soil profiles, the climate and the different wine making techniques have on the same grape variety. The wines are available from the vineyard and should be widely available in retail outlets.

* Matua Valley released a '25th Anniversary' sauvignon blanc in 1999.

© Sue Courtney
updated February 2002

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