We've all three of the 95-point Outstandings from the July edition's panel tasting of Oaked New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.
For some, it's a an irreverent, weird fish of a thing to do, putting NZSB in oak. For others, it's very much the best of both worlds, creating a wine of the utmost flavour and great complexity indeed. Even if you think/know oaked NZSB is not your your glass of wine, it's worth a look - the degree of oak influence in quite a few wines is vanishingly small.
It's tempting to say (with apologies), "if you like oak, and you like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (NZSB), you'll LOVE oaked New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc".
But we often find this not to be true.
That's two very strong flavours there and, for some, that would be like a ... er ... kipper vindaloo.
However, we also often find those who love NZSB but claim not to like oak (based often on bad events involving poor 90s oaked Chardonnay), and are very pleasantly surprised - and often fully wowed - when they run into a good oaked NZSB and all the flavour complexity that is the hallmark of this style.
We've even seen the most devout of white Burgundy aficionados - no fans, typically of the often-unhinged zinginess of NZSB - moved to significant purchase of a good oaked NZSB. Indeed, as the Decanter panel stress, "If you thought you knew NZSB and have previously dismissed it for being overly fruity, perhaps it's time to think again and try some of the alternative styles that Kiwi winemakers are now dishing up".
As the Decanter panel are at pains to point out, it's all about getting the oak/SB fruitiness balance just right and that's all about subtlety: the three Outstanding panel-toppers veered well away from too much of either. The oak effect is carefully muted/reined back using some combination of
It's also key to use SB grapes that are less "full-on"; that is, those with lower concentrations of heavily aromatic aroma/flavour compounds (mainly thiols, for you chemists out there). Some lees ageing, a bit of bâtonnage, too... these all help to get the flavours melded and integrated. Get these factors under control, give them a little time together and you have a fine specimen.
And then, where oaked NZSB really shines, as with many oaked wines, is with food; those strong, contasting fruit and oak flavours meld well with many meals, even lighter meat dishes.
Two of the three finest specimens from the review are no surprise (at all) to us: they, after all, are by-words for oaked NZSB.
The third, though, is a relative unknown and perhaps the most deserving of your time, especially at the price. Oaked NZSBs, after all, are seldom cheap: the average bottle price of the 3 Outstandings and 18 Highly Recommendeds was almost exactly £20.
1) Cloudy Bay's Te Koko is almost certainly the biggest name in the world in oaked Sauvi Blanc - Mondavi's To Kalon may run it close, as do a few old-school, top-end Pouilly-Fumés. The 2015 Te Koko scores 95 points here and lands much praise. It (like Cloudy Bay itself in NZSB generally) was the pioneer of the more complex NZSB style. It uses wild yeasts, 100% oak (but only 8% of it new) and no steel for fermentation and ageing. "Crisp and vivacious", "evolved beautifully", "zesty and bright palate", "lovely, lingering finish" and "perfectly pitched oak influence", said the panel. It's admittedly £38 a bottle (and quite a bit more elsewhere), but this is arguably THE oaked NZSB.
2) Almost as fabled, but ~60% of the price (£21.95) is the offering from Kevin Judd - he who famously splintered from Cloudy Bay - at Greywacke - their/his Wild Sauvignon Blanc 2016. This has many devout fans at Exel. This is very much about the use of wild yeasts (of course), entailing a very long, slow fermentation in 100% old oak, before time on the lees in steel. The judges were just as enthralled here: "highly floral expression", "fine and focussed throughout", "very pretty indeed", "elegant, seamless palate", "gentle, yet tastes expensive" (!), "impressive depth", "delightful balance" and "really well done". This is one to try, for sure.
3) It's been quite a week for the last - but definitely not the least - of the three. On Tuesday, te Pā's Oke 2017 secured a Gold medal at DWWA19 - one of few NZSBs to do so. Today, it lands an Outstanding from a different jury. "Hugely aromatic - reminiscent of ice cream cornets, nougat and vanilla", "beautifully textured and rounded palate", "plenty of concentration", "flowing beautifully on the palate", "stunning", "satisfying depth" and "long, attractive and well-honed", they said. Wild yeasts, old oak barrels (in the odd shape of a cigar to increase surface area) and an extended maturation are the story here.
The great upside of the Oke is the price - just £16.00 a bottle. That's because we're able to take it directly from te Pā and cut out a large chunk of cost. Do disregard the £12 cost reported in the Decanter review - we can see no basis at all for that (and we fully investigated; indeed, we take the wine with the help of the importer listed there!).
Beyond these three, there are very finely-crafted Highly Recommendeds from Craggy Range, Ata Rangi and Clos Henri. Some have only the lightest of oak touches (see individual product pages which detail this), and are more "standard" NZSB in nature, albeit with just a touch more body and complexity. That's particularly true of the Mt Difficulty Bannockburn SB, which we particularly rate/recommend at £15.75 (NB: the 2018 scores 92, but is not yet into the UK; we offer the excellent 2017). This is particularly delicious - it has a wealth of stone fruit, a creamy texture, a light vanilla edge and a superb finish - especially for those requring a 'gateway' wine to transition to oaked NZSB...