For starters, the tasting notes are seemingly never-ending, and include flavours like passionfruit, pineapple, tropical fruits, herbs, cut grass, capsicum, green pepper, snows peas, asparagus and one type of fruit that’s becoming the bane of my wine-tasting existence – gooseberry. The reason? I’ve never smelt a gooseberry, let alone eaten one. Yet, it’s probably the most referred-to character in Sauvignon. Therefore, I can only assume that any Sauvignon character that I can’t suss has to be gooseberry. Or, should I assume that gooseberry smells and tastes like Sauvignon?
Whatever, that’s how I’ll roll. But you also come across unthinkable characters, for instance some refer to Sauvignon also smelling like sweaty armpits. Then there’s British wine critic Jancis Robinson referring to Sauvignon from New Zealand’s Marlborough region as “smelling of cats pea on a gooseberry bush”. Whether this comment was meant to be a swipe or a term of endearment I don’t know, but I suspect the latter. Regardless, it’s these seemingly disgusting characters that might actually prove to be quite tasty.
As a style of wine, Sauvignon is commonly identified as a crispy quaff that’s high in acid, pungent aromas and fresh fruit flavours. That description is indicative of the style found in New Zealand’s South Island region of Marlborough and is usually best drunk within the first twenty-four months. However, fuller-bodied styles of Sauvignon are emerging which are often fermented in oak (new or old) barrels. These styles can be radically different from the popular, fresher quaff, offering enhanced fruit flavours leading to characters like dried figs, cloves and hay, whilst also offering a creamy texture, softer acid and more age-worthiness in the cellar. This style is often labelled as Fume Blanc; Fume being French for smoke, a character that can be imparted from the oak. These are wines that the frequent Sauvignon drinker won’t necessarily relate to and are often best drunk with food.
Apart from New Zealand, other countries in which Sauvignon is commonly found are France’s Loire Valley (Sancerre and Pouilly Fume), Chile, South Africa and California. And for those who don’t know already, Australia also grows terrific, albeit different Sauvignon Blanc, with some great examples found in Tasmania, the Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley, Margaret River (often blended with Semillon) and of course, Orange.
Sauvignon, like most other aromatic varieties (such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris/Grigio) favours a cool growing environment, so it’s little surprise that it is grown in Orange. In fact, Sauvignon has been identified as Orange’s flagship variety. I’ve previously suggested that due to Orange’s varying altitude and soil types it’s very limiting to be highlighting so-called hero varieties, let alone just one.
Despite this, there is little doubt that Sauvignon is an exciting variety for the region. A big factor is altitude. While most Sauvignon is planted at an altitude of over 800 metres, there are smaller plantings grown as low as 600 to 750 metres. At this lower altitude, the mean January temperature is approximately 21.5°C. Flavours commonly found in these Sauvignon plantings are typically passionfruit and tropical fruits. When the altitude starts to climb, the temperature drops about 0.6°C with each 100 metre rise and the cooler temperature leads to later pickings. Once you reach 800 to 900 metres, Sauvignon starts to take on grassy and herbal characters. Then, if you can brave the cold further and climb to over 900 metres, you’ll start getting citrus, green pepper, capsicum and asparagus flavours.
As a result, I think Orange is not only the most diverse Sauvignon growing region in Australia but, providing the flavour balance is right, yields some of the most exciting Sauvignon on the planet.
Now, time to taste some of this excitement.
First vintage, a 2010 ‘Gnoo Blas’ Sauvignon Blanc by Faisan Estate, which is a very small and very boutique, family-owned wine company in the Borenore sub-region, is made by rookie winemaker Michael Walker who takes over the wine-making reigns from his father Col. This is one of the region’s most unique interpretations. The wine still has the freshness you would expect in a Sauvignon but, due to it being fermented in old oak, the texture is softer and more creamy, without having any wood flavours as a Chardonnay would. As for flavours, I get figs, citrus and small hints of hay. There is also a bit of that Sauvignon character that I so often fail to identify; so, as I was saying, I’ll assume it’s gooseberry. This is very much a food wine and would pair nicely with white sauce pasta or a cheese plate, providing it had plenty of vintage cheddar.
Over to the second vintage, a 2012 by Orange Mountain Wines, made by one of my favourite winemaking personalities, Terry Dolle, a wine-maker who loves what he does and is always teaching himself new tricks. He also feels that he’s never quite made his best wine, hence is always returning to the drawing board, which makes me wait with bated breath to taste each new release. His style of winemaking (at least from my perspective) is about producing wines that reflect the strengths and purity of the fruit. So in his Sauvignon, I get aromas of grapefruit, small amounts of capsicum, maybe gooseberry and a fresh palate bursting with lime and guava flavours. Tailor-made for summertime, this wine drinks well on its own and would pair beautifully with prawns, scallops, barbecued octopus and any sort of spicy Thai or sweet-and-sour Chinese dish. Or, if you want to keep it simple, vintage cheddar and crackers will also do.
For the final vintage, I’d suggest a 2013 by Cargo Road Wines, made by James Sweetapple, one of the region’s most passionate and colourful personalities. The fruit is grown at his estate vineyard, which is one of the oldest in the region. This is currently my favourite of 2013 and embodies everything I love in a crisp Sauvignon – pungent smells of grapefruit, passionfruit, a sprinkle of green pepper, that unidentifiable Sauvignon goodness (again, maybe it’s gooseberry) and a super-fresh palate loaded with lemon/lime flavours and even a hint of orange. As for the finish, it’s very fresh, while also being a little soft with a few more sprinkles of green pepper added for kicks. It would be hard to find a more clean and varietal Sauvignon in the country and like the Orange Mountain 2012, this is a great summertime drink on its own, or with seafood. I’m thinking fish and chips, or spicy Asian dishes. If anyone likes Korean food, bring a bottle to your next coal-fuelled barbeque. When tasting this wine, I shared a bottle over some grape tomatoes, dukkah and macadamia oil. Food for thought for a Christmas hamper.
Given that imported Sauvignon has so much saturation in Australia, it’s a wine I was starting to find boring. But after tasting Sauvignon’s with such uniqueness and depth, I now fail to see how my tastebuds could ever tire of such wines. But don’t take my word for it. Go out there and taste it and remember, if you’re not quite sure what you’re tasting, it may be gooseberry – but I just call it Sauvignon.