Saturday, April 14, 2012

Budget Wine Review 8: New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs

I usually prefer French Sauvignon Blancs to American but have discovered some outstanding California Sauvignon Blancs by Peirson Meyer, Kelly Fleming, and Marston Family.  New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are quite different from either French or American, with their emphasis on tropical fruit.  They almost seem like a different varietal than the French Sauvignon Blancs that tend to be dry and flinty with brisk acid and subtlety.  But New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs with bursting fruit can be very pleasant when properly balanced.

So for something different, I decided to try some Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs at the lower end of the price range, namely under $20. All of these Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs were drinkable, with none being too fruit forward, overly sweet, unbalanced or having too much grassiness or off flavors.  In a SB, I’m usually looking for some aroma (Some have a very pronounced nose that can be picked up from several feet away from the glass.) but mainly for some lively citrus or tropical fruit flavors, with good acid, possibly some minerality, all well integrated with a decent finish, even if it is short.  A flabby or insipid SB is a real turnoff for me. Some Sauvignon Blancs lack balance.  More often, though, California SBs simply do not come together very well.  They lack integration, with the various components going off in different directions.  It is not so much a balance problem as one of harmony.

Most Sauvignon Blancs are given little or no oak (usually aged in stainless steel) and are often do not undergo malolactic conversion.  I prefer no oak with Sauvignon Blancs, unless it is very subtle.  Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs are different from Californian, French, South African, Chilean, etc. Their fruit is often described as gooseberry like. They also have more tropical fruit (passion fruit, guava, etc.) than lemon or grapefruit.  (Some years back I went to great effort to obtain some gooseberries so I could understand the reference.)

Some Sauvignon Blancs are said to smell or taste like cat pee or "pee pee le chat", as the French call it.  I've had cats most of my life and really do know what cat pee smells like and have never smelled a wine that was similar to cat pee.  At worst I have smelled and tasted SBs that were rather vegetal, maybe broccoli or green pepper like and certainly some that are too grassy.  I don't care much for this.  Some fresh grassiness is sometimes okay. I'm sure pee pee la chat would be undesirable for me, although, unlike "wet dog" which is always a fault, there are some wine drinkers who actually like pee pee le chat and seem to think of it in a positive way, such as the desirable petrol like taste that is in some aged Rieselings.  Others disagree and think pee pee le chat is a fault.  For a discussion of this please see Steve Heimoff's article, "Who Let the Cat Out?"   Heimoff's Article

In New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, I do often taste more tropical fruits like lychee, guava and passion fruit rather than the grapefruit, lime or lemon that is encountered in many other Sauvignon Blancs.  California SBs often have a distinct grapefruit nose and palate. French seem less fruit oriented and more subtle.  Perceived fruit aromas or flavors are not always due to overactive imaginations.  The gooseberry-like flavor comes from methoxypyrazines and the passion fruit and riper fruit flavors from thiol concentration.  Perhaps some day you will be able to dial in whatever flavor compounds you like and have a wine tailored to your individual preferences.  This will be especially helpful for those who prefer pee pee le chat.  For now, you have to depend on the winemaker to do this for you. 

These are listed in order of increasing regular price.  Be sure to note that some are occasionally offered at sales prices so that my favorite, the Villa Maria, was on sale for only $11.99.  That is only $5 more than the least expensive Kiwi SB reviewed here but a major step up in quality.

Sauvignon Republic 2011 Sauvignon Blanc-$6.99 Trader Joes.  Grapefruit aroma. Distinct herbaceousness with grapefruit on the palate. Balanced with short finish.  It is okay, but I’d recommend spending more.

Picton Bay 2011 Sauvignon Blanc-$7.99 Trader Joes.  Seems to sell for $12.99 on the Internet. The Sauvignon Blanc varietal comes through and it definitely tastes like a SB from New Zealand.  That is certainly a plus in this price range. Pale yellow in color with a bit of lemon and lime on the nose, it has fairly decent fruit (lemon/lime rather than grapefruit), and good acidity.  The finish is short and tart. It could be more complex and better balanced but that is asking a lot at this price level. This is the second bottle of this wine I have tried.  It is fairly good at this price, but I’d rather pay more for something better.

Kono Marlborough 2011 Sauvignon Blanc-$7.99 Trader Joes.  Light nose with an very smooth palate but little body.  I think some people will like this wine because it is so simple and easy to drink.  For me it lacks the citrus or tropical fruit that I associate with a Sauvignon Blanc and is simply too one-dimensional. It is unlikely to offend anybody, and I know others like it, but for me it is uninteresting. Even my wife, who likes lighter Sauvignon Blancs, found the Kono to be too light bodied for her taste and preferred the Picton Bay. I tried two bottles of each. Either one is decent for the money. but you can do much better for a little more expense.

Seismic Marlborough 2010 Sauvignon Blanc-$7.99 Trader Joes.  More balanced than the Picton Bay with more fruit and acid than the Kono. On the flip side, it is not as balanced as the Kono and does not have the fruit or acid of the Picton Bay. Yet I prefer both of the others because this one lacks interest.  This is not bad for the money but, as with the Republic, Kono and Picton Bay, I just don’t enjoy drinking them. On a hot day, if the wine was chilled enough, it would be fine.  But for a few dollars more, you get much more in a Kiwi SB.

Starborough Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011-$9.99 Safeway-Decent nose with citrus and tropical fruits on the palate, possibly passion fruit and guava.  Clean and refreshing yet softer than some.  Nicely balanced and easy to like.  Mildly recommended at this price.

Clifford Bay 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough-$10.99 Safeway-This is lighter bodied than the Villa Maria with more herbaceousness but certainly not lacking in fruit.  Light aroma with mostly grapefruit and lemon on the palate.  Some minerality.  Very well balanced and easy to drink.  Mildly recommended at this price.

Marlborough Sun 2010 Sauvignon Blanc-$11.99/10.79 sale Cost Plus.  Light Granny Smith apple on the nose with lemon and lime on the palate.  It seemed slightly spritzig or bubbly, which was a pleasant touch.  Acid and fruit were both fairly good, with a little more sweetness than most SB.  Easy to drink but not one-dimensional.  Mildly recommended at this price level.

Nobilo Regional Collection Marlborough 2011 Sauvignon Blanc-$13.59/$9.99 sale Safeway.  Light lime nose.  Smooth and well balance with white grapefruit and lemon on the palate and a hint of guava.  Good acid.  Long lemon finish.  Moderately recommended at this price.

Oyster Bay 3011 Sauvignon Blanc-$14.99/$9.99 sale Safeway. Pleasant nose.  Grapefruit on palate with great balance.  Long finish.  I tried two bottles of this.  One of the more readily available Kiwi SBs. Moderately recommended at this price.

Kim Crawford 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough-$14.99 Trader Joes.  This is very easy to drink.  Some nose with decent acid and fruit, mostly grapefruit with some herbaceousness.  A bit light on the fruit but very well balanced.  This is as easy to drink as the Kono but much more interesting.  I think it is a very nice SB for the price. Moderately recommended at this price level.
Addendum 5/13/13:  I've had some of the Kim Crawford 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough which was $12.98 from Safeway and liked it even better than the 2011.
Highly recommended at this price level.

Villa Maria 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Private Bin Marlborough- $17.99 to $11.99 when on sale at Safeway.  Aroma of lemon with a hint of grass.  Bursting with fruits, apple, grapefruit, and lemon with exotic fruit undertones.  Some herbaceousness and minerality. Really well balanced, with a very slight hint of sweetness and good acid. Good crisp finish.  Very easy to drink but interesting and complex. Classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  Really delightful!  Enthusiastically recommended!  This is a great bargain and a really good wine for the regular price.  At the sales price of $12 it is an unbelievable bargain.  My favorite of the lot.  This seems to be the price point at which you get the most for your dollar.  I have not found any SB from any other country that is this good in this price range. I tried several bottles of this.  Very highly recommended at this price. 
Addendum: (I later tried the Villa Maria 2011 Sauvignon Blanc which was on sale for only $9.99 at Safeway. It, too was very good, but not as bursting with tropical fruit as the 2010 which remains my favorite New Zealand SB for under $20.)

Whitehaven 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough-$21.99/$15.99 sale Safeway.  Aromatic. Slightly herbaceous with a hint of minerality.  Good tropical fruit but not fruit forward.  Fairly dry and well balanced.  A lighter style but certainly not insipid, more like the Kim Crawford than the Villa Maria. Clean finish. I like this a lot although the bursting fruit in the Villa Maria wins me over in the end. Highly recommended at this price.

Addition 5/13/12:
Cupcake 2011 Sauvignon Blanc: $12.49/$8.99 sale Safeway.  From New Zealand grapes. I have seen this wine frequently in stores but did not want to try a wine named cupcake so never bothered, thinking it couldn’t possibly be a serious wine.  One of the wine staff at a store told me it was popular wine so I grabbed a bottle on sale.  Light straw in color.  Light nose.  Lots of Meyers lemon and good acid on the palate.  (We recently compared the aromas of different lemons and Meyers is different than others.  We often practice smelling different fruits, herbs, etc. so we can better identify and describe aromas.)  Well balanced.  Short finish.  I don’t get much of the usual Kiwi tropical fruit but I do get plenty of crisp lemon and lime.  This is not one of your overly thin or unbalanced inexpensive SBs.  I think this one would pair well with food such as oysters, lobster, or other seafood.  Mildly recommended at this price level despite its name.
Babich 2011 Sauvignon Blanc: $14.99/$10.99 sale Safeway. Very pale straw color.  I found the aroma to be light but my wife (who has a much better sniffer than I do) thought it had a pronounced aroma.  Medium body.  Good but not intense tropical fruit with a touch of lemon on the palate.  Well balanced.  No herbaceousness.  Medium finish.   Moderately recommended at this price.


  1. I have been enjoying Nobilo Savignon Blanc 2008. I just opened one from 2012. It is pretty well undrinkable, smells just like a wet dog. To me, this is one of the worst smells on earth..

  2. Hi Sharon,
    Thanks for the heads up. Sounds dreadful and I never heard of anybody who liked the smell of wet dog in a wine although some report liking the smell of cat pee in Sauvignon Blancs, something utterly beyond my understanding. I wonder if all the 2012 Nobilos are this way or if the bottle was mishandled. I've only had the 2011. Cheers, TJ


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.