Love it or hate it. That’s the general feeling around Sauvignon Blanc.
Its popularity and commercial success drives the sniffing classes to distraction. If the wine world was to have a moment of cancel culture, Sauvignon Blanc would be it.
But the white wine that can be one of the most over-dramatic, loudest, smelliest, out-there varieties – swinging from cat’s pee pungency and tart gooseberry, sweet and sour pineapple to lip-smacking citrus, fresh to rank tinned asparagus, green beans to tropical fruit salad – remains a consumer favourite.
It’s a wine biz phenomenon that has lasted more than 30 years in Australia and while its sales growth charts may be plateauing over time, as other more exotic varieties garner attention – and Riesling and Chardonnay have never been better – it’s still all the rage.
It can be fresh and zesty, without the complications of other worked-over white wines, and it also can be a fine wine with subtle oak and ferment characters. It can be straight and bent (in a so-called “natural” winemaking style with skin contact and funky flavours.) It ticks all the boxes.
At this time of the year, we start to see the new crop of “freshies”, the 2021s, appearing when perhaps we might think we want to be drinking richer and warming reds. But it’s also the time when oysters and other southern oceanic seafoods are at their finest and that fits right into the gastronomic zone for the variety.
Adelaide’s wine-hospo crew last week attended the annual Shaw+Smith Sauvignon Blanc release celebration, a yum-cha lunch at Gouger Street’s Concubine restaurant. The cuisine match is perfect, and it’s a favourite gathering for restaurant, hotel and bar managers who have championed the Adelaide Hills hero’s style leader.
You want to talk phenomenon? This is it. As popular as ever, and as delicious. Its market power in South Australia is undeniable. Consumer loyalty, Shaw+Smith co-founder and MW Michael Hill Smith says, is “exceptional”.
It has been that way virtually from its beginnings, the first vintage produced in 1990. When pundits talk about South Australian heritage items like frog cakes and Coopers beers and Penfolds Grange, Shaw+Smith Sauvignon Blanc must certainly also be knocking on that door. Its presence is equally powerful nationwide and it shines a bright light on the Adelaide Hills as a wine region and tourism mecca.
“It was the right wine at the right time,” Hill Smith says.
“We knew we wanted to be in the Adelaide Hills – we were wedded to that from the start, so Chardonnay was obvious but we were less sure about Sauvignon Blanc.
“But we realised we could make something that was fresh and vibrant, almost with an innate ‘wildness’ as well.”
At the time, New Zealand’s Marlborough region was the centre of all things “savvy” and inevitably there were comparisons, but much about the general Kiwi style didn’t click with Hill Smith and his co-founder cousin, winemaker Martin Shaw.
“We were never big fans of the slightly sweatier, slightly more herbaceous expressions, which is why we didn’t pick early and go after those characters,” Hill Smith says.
“One of the things over our 30-odd years has been this absolutely recognisable house style, an Adelaide Hills style which I define as pink grapefruit rather than herbaceous, with a bit more palate weight than you get with some Sauvignon Blancs, and a wonderful line of acidity and touch of edginess.
“What’s great about that now, whether it’s Adelaide Hills style or Shaw+Smith style, is that people understand the differences, and that’s terrific.”
It’s not the most intellectual wine that you’ll ever drink – but it’s bloody delicious
Speaking of which, it should be noted that there has been a reboot in the past year or so of what is known as fume blanc styles of Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a wine style matured for a short time in barrel to produce a flinty, almost smoky aromatic note with a textured mouthfeel, from winemaking techniques like skin contact, as well as ferment characters derived from spent yeast lees.
Winemakers can be pretty creative in using any or all of those methods, and what happens in the best of them is a drink with greater complexity and definite ageing potential.
This was exactly how vigneron Xavier Bizot envisaged the variety from his Wrattonbully vineyard in the state’s South-East.
“We wanted to make a fine wine out of Sauvignon Blanc and I realised also it could be made for ageing as well,” Bizot recalls.
He crafts two variations. One is fully in fume blanc style, the Terre a Terre Crayeres Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc fermented in older vessels, 600-litre demi-muids, then matured on all its lees for around eight months. It usually is released after a year in the bottle, when its complexities are better expressed.
The other, under the label Down to Earth, is a middle-road approach, with portions in wood and stainless steel, so it shows freshness along with complexity and texture.
The variety sits between Riesling and Chardonnay for Bizot, able to show the sharpness of the former and the texture of the latter.
“The Crayeres is a more interesting wine than simpler styles, more a fine wine,” Bizot says. “People will see that it’s not just about Chardonnay and Riesling for fine wine, and it can be Sauvignon Blanc as well.”
The cooler climates of the Adelaide Hills and areas of the Limestone Coast produce many of the better examples coming out of SA.
Katnook Estate in the Coonawarra has been a leading exponent of the partly oak-fermented and lees-aged style for close to 40 years. Its Sauvignon Blanc is clear proof that the variety, when treated like this, develops a sophisticated complexity over a decade and is, without question, a fine wine.
Now, also, excellent examples are coming out of the Mount Gambier and Mount Benson regions along the southern coastline, fresh and bright with the mix of herbaceous and wild fruit abandon that has brought so much popular attention to the variety.
The pinnacle remains, however, with Shaw+Smith. It has weathered all the criticism of the grape and set a benchmark for those following in its wake. Even with all its popularity, it has maintained its integrity in quality and style.
“It’s that kind of wine – people see it as the iconic Australian Sauvignon Blanc,” Hill Smith says.
“It’s not the most intellectual wine that you’ll ever drink – but it’s bloody delicious.”
Shaw+Smith Sauvignon Blanc 2021
Adelaide Hills / 12 % / $29.50
Even with this wine’s remarkable consistency over 30 years, it still shows vintage variation when coming from a cooler season such as the 2021, ripening slowly for heightened aromatics sitting somewhere between snow pea and citrus, including leaf, flower and fruit. The flavour senses bring all that together with peppery spice and a touch of sorrel, entertaining the palate with great, pithy grapefruit texture. In founder Martin Shaw’s words: “It’s as good a Sauvignon as we’ve put out in recent years. We’re thrilled.” And so they should be.
Terre a Terre Down to Earth Sauvignon Blanc 2020
Wrattonbully / 12.9% / $32
A midway style from vigneron Xavier Bizot out of his Crayeres vineyard in the Wrattonbully region just north of Coonawarra. A 39% portion was fermented in large French oak vessels known as foudres, the rest in stainless steel, the blended lot aged on its yeast lees for close to a year. Aromatically more subtle in approach with a suggestion of celeriac and delicate asparagus in a herbed cream sauce. The palate acidity sings in harmony and a citrus pithy texture adds length and salivating pleasure. Its sibling Crayeres Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the same year is a tad riper, the citrus feels suggesting tangelo with a slate/mineral texture. Barrel ferment and lees influences are promising further complexity over the next eight years.
Michael Hall Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2020
Adelaide Hills / 13% / $38
A fine example of pushing the boundaries with the variety while remaining true to its purest values. From Piccadilly Valley and Forreston source blocks, fermented in oak, a tiny portion on skins and matured for nine months in barrel. Sauvignon without the tropical nose punch, a subtle skins influence only, adding spice to its spectrum of apple flavours, and minerally texture more than anything. Good body shape and more serious structure and finish than most in the genre. A year resting in bottle can only help its fine wine credentials – it’ll be on sale in a month or so.
Katnook Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2019
Coonawarra / 13.5% / $25
From its earliest releases in the 1980s, this wine has always shown an elegance and sophistication derived from selected fruit parcels undergoing barrel fermentation, six months sitting on its spent yeast lees, and another year developing in the bottle before release. The aromatics and flavours have settled well into a lime and grapefruit zone with mouth-pleasing texture and coriander-like spice for extra enjoyment. Patience is a virtue here, the wine drinking with delightful freshness and early complexity now, and a track record to develop even further toasty characters over the next six-10 years.