It has been a very long time since we first started working with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, way back in the mid-80s with a brand called Cloudy Bay. Yes that Cloudy Bay. It was an impressive vanguard for a category that was at the time virtually non-existent, and certainly made an impression on anyone who tried it. It didn’t seem all that long before Cloudy became the standard of a category that pretty much exploded. These days Kiwi Sauvignons are a significant group of wines in the marketplace and there are certainly scores if not hundreds of brands to choose from.
It would be fair to say that not every example is compelling. Some are a bit vegetal, others a bit sweetish, and there is a wide range of styles in between. It is also fair to say that there are plenty of pleasing choices to be had, to the point where consumers have a bit of confidence in the genre and buy them regularly. That is more than can be said for some categories (like South Africa) that consistently need a push. As difficult as we can be, we still find a wide variety of Kiwi efforts that we can recommend. You want a good to very good, tasty, brisk, lively New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? We usually have several.
However while “good to very good” is no problem, ‘great’ is another matter entirely. The great ones are not that hard to remember because, frankly, we haven’t had many that have performed at the highest level. Some of those first Cloudy Bays were memorable enough to create a category where none existed before. There has been the occasional Villa Maria specialty bottling that has played above the crowd. One of our favorite memories in the category was the first Mount Nelson from the esteemed Marchese Lodovico Antinori of Ornellaia. Considering we’ve been working with these wines for three decades, the list of superstars is pretty short.
Our first encounter with the Paddy Borthwick Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from the Gladstone area of Wairarapa (southern end of the north island near the east coast) was one of those rare magical moments. Paddy Borthwick came from a ranching family and went looking for a place to diversify their farming interests by growing premium wine grapes. He got a degree from Australia’s Roseworthy College in 1985 and then, as they describe it, “embarked on a career spanning five countries and three continents before settling back into the Wairarapa.” He and his father planted this vineyard in 1996.
The vines, now 8-16 years old, sit in deep, stony alluvial soils in a place that is one of the warmest areas of New Zealand (though still pretty cool) with the least rainfall. The grapes are harvested and quickly moved to tank where they are slowed fermented with about five months of lees stirring. Sustainable practices and minimal intervention (as you would expect with Sauvignon Blanc) are the watchwords here. It probably didn’t hurt that 2017 was a ‘cracker’ of a vintage.
The intensely flavored palate shows pink grapefruit, melon, tropical and ripe passion fruit with an underlying hint of gooseberry, guava and lychee. This is a wine with great balance, structure and intensity, with the kind of balance and power rare for the breed. There were some nice notes from Wine Advocate’s Joe Czerwinski (91 points… ‘Nicely done’), but we suspect 3-4 months in the bottle or more (the notes are from Feb, 2018 but we have no idea when it was tasted) probably allowed more nuance to poke out. We’re not just praising this one vis-à-vis other New Zealand Sauvignons, but truly believe this one can play in any arena. That is not something we say about Kiwi Sauvignons very often, but this one is very special. At under $17 it’s a pretty smoking deal as well.