95-pt NZ Sauvignon Blancs, 2020 harvest - April 2021

The April 2021 Decanter features a good many Outstanding wines (95 points or more) from one of the very most popular categories we sell.

No, not Rioja - that was last month.

Rather, we speak of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (NZSB).

There's an article we've been most excited by since we got a glimpse of it a few weeks ago.

We were hearing - from the middle of last year - of the Marlborough Sauvi Blanc 2020 conditions and harvest being/having been exceptional. NZ producers, buyers, importers...  all spoke in hushed and reverential tones of what we might see here in early 2021 (and it does take that long for 2020 wines from NZ to reach the UK market - Beaujolais Nouveau's lightning run, it is not).

That excellence is the central theme of an excellent article by Cameron Douglas MS, namely New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc - 20 Top Buys From 2020. As he write there:

and as the magazine more generally expresses it:

I particularly liked this snippet:

‘It’s a Goldilocks vintage,’ says Anna Flowerday, winemaker at Te Whare Ra in Marlborough. ‘Not too cold, not too hot – just right. Favourable conditions during flowering led to a nice, even set and moderate crops.’

Of course, this is all good if you like NZSB. For some, it's become a category of ubiquity and lack of variation. There was definitely a time when I saw it that way, too. Over time, I've fallen back in love with NZSB - the better bottles, at any rate - recognising that it provides amazing consistency, quality of winemaking and an intensity of flavour that is almost unmatched in white wine. It may never have the grandeur, cachet and gravitas of Loire Sauvignon Blanc, but, for many (and I declare myself back among their ranks), it remains amazing value and hard to beat. It's hard to imagine wines of a comparable quality emerging at the same prices from the Old World. That popularity and ubiquity aren't based on nothing, after all.

What's more, NZSB is changing. As the article makes clear, the producers of Marlborough are working hard to add extra layers of interest to a wine that has been hitherto - almost invariably - about sheer fruit hit. The author notes, "Style-wise, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is evolving. In this tasting, I noted more texture and layering from lees contact. Producers are leaving grape skins in contact with the juice for longer, and using older barrels of varying sizes for fermentation, ageing or both". And this becomes relevant when we look at the top wines that emerge here.

The review, as you'd expect, draws out a choice twenty bottles representing the author's top picks from the vintage (and he's one of NZ's leading wine reviewers/writers). The wines span from 92 points to four wines scoring 95 points. We offer three of the 95-pointers, plus a couple of notable (slightly) lower scorers. Of course, being the 2020 vintage - and some of our very first wines from that year - there are more still incoming and availability is mainly driven by which ships have so far reached the UK and which importers are allowing the new vintage to be released before their 2019s are depleted (a more significant issue than you may believe). I

One of those 95-point top scorers is no surprise to us ... and probably won't be to Exel customers, either. It's an NZSB we've championed for many years and now stands as of one of the icons of Marlborough SB. It's that of Greywacke, the brainchild and property of Kevin Judd, the first winemaker at Cloudy Bay (see also below; their 2020 features), those pioneers of this brave new world of Sauv Blanc. For a couple of excellent articles on him and the Greywacke project, take a look here and here. The label - pronouned Grey-wacky (no German intonation is required, however tempting it may look) is famously named after the distinctive mineral sandstone deposits on which the vineyard sits, and which account for the more mineral nature of this particular NZSB.

Here's what the review had to say on the new 2020 vintage; it's hard to read it badly.

Of course, we do a little more homework here, too. I was in touch with Kevin Judd only yesterday, and asked him if all the fuss about the 2020 vintage was more hype than reality. One could see him as having an element of bias, but he was pretty clear. His concise words: "the SB 2020s are excellent … one of the best Greywacke SBs to date, for sure".

And then we tasted it.

Here's our video tasting.

For those that prefer to read, rather than watch, here's the main points:

- it is not a NZSB of unhinged power and intensity, as some can be. Rather, it shows an elegant restraint (and, to be clear, that's not a euphemism for "weak and thin"). This allows some of the other complexities of the wine to penetrate through the rich fruit flavours;

- I consider a spectrum of fruit flavours in NZSB from the greener. citric end (esp grapefruit) to the richer, riper, tropical end (esp passion fruit) and try to assess where a wine sits on that scale (I think similarly of a Chardonnay spectrum from Chablis to Napa, passing through Burgundy just before mid-way). Where does the Greywacke sit? The initial reaction is that it sits at the more citric end - the grapefruit is strong in this one. However, that has much to do with the acidity (see next point), and a few more sips moves you to somewhere rather riper (I find a little air to the wine helps);

Acidity is a major factor here. SB generally - and NZSB is no exception - trades on its acidity, 'bite' and refreshment value. It may not have quite the full mouth-pucker value of a Riesling or Albarino, but the acidity is key and makes NZSB a fine food wine. The Greywacke has a fine and powerful acid profile, carrying more zip than many a NZSB; it's quite a 'hit' on the first sip but draws you in - somehat addictively - on the next. That comes into its own with food: it beautifully offset a fish-finger-and-spinach sandwich in the taste test here. 

- There is markedly more complexity than is typical of NZSB - that's what you're paying that bit extra for. A portion of the wine is fermented in used oak barrels and it shows: there's a broader texture and denser mouthfeel here than in most NZSBs (which makes that acidity work all the better). And, as the review says, that minerality/salinity is a marked feature of the wine; there is a flinty element of flavour here that has more in common with Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume than it does with Marlborough. 

The Greywacke is currently is in stock. We offer it at a market-leading £16.60.


The most enticing of the write-ups/reviews of our 95-pointers bedecks the Babich Black Label 2020. You can see what we mean here:

This wine has been an impressively good SB for many years: quite some notch better than Babich's everyday offering. It's traditionally been at the more tropically-fruited end of the NZSB flavour spectrum, and the 2020 is no exception. It is, as the review states, markedly more complex than the average NZSB, primarily from the lees contact/ageing, and also from a small portion of the wine undergoing malolactic fermentation (MLF, quite rare among NZSBs); these imbue it with a palpably greater (thicker) texture.

From tasting it ourselves here, it is a stunner. Personally, I can't think of a NZSB I've tried that I have preferred to this. I must, I feel, declare that I am into the tropicals: if I want to drink more citric SB, I personally see no reason to go to NZ for it; where NZSB scores, for me, is in offering those flavours that you don't/can't find elsewhere.

This is Big Tropical - passion fruit, mango, guava, nectarine - and is rich and soft on the palate. Typically, I expect that to be offset by lower acidity and lower bite/refreshment value. The beauty of what Babich have here is that there is no marked concession of zing (it is very slight, perhaps as a result of the MLF mentioned above). There is a known trick in NZ to achieve this fine combination of tropicals-with-acidity, which is to blend grapes (or blending wines therefrom) from the sunny side of the vines/rows/vineyard with those from the shady side. Whether that's what Babich have done here, I don't know (and have been unable to find out), but it is one impressive flavour and finish - indeed - that that they created.

The Babich is now in stock.


Completing a NZSB triptych, we're delighted to be able to offer the Zephyr, That's this one, at £13.95:

For those given to such things, it's an organic wine (for the first time in this vintage). It's also a single-vineyard wine (no cross-vineyard or cross-region blending here; that's rare at the price). It typically sits towards the more tropical end of the NZSB spectrum...

... but our own taste test here said not so in the 2020 vintage.

Of the three panel-toppers, this is the zingiest (ie most vibrantly acidic), the driest and the leanest. Fruitwise, its profile is citric (grapefruit), but it does quite closely mimic South African and even French/Loire Sauvignon Blancs in having a cut-grass, nettle and elderflower hit to both the nose and palate. I'm really not a fan of the much-used concept/term of 'minerality'; I personally regard it as something of another - and quite misleading - way of expressing the feel of very dry wines (eg Savennieres, Chablis etc). After all, nobody ever uses the term for wines with more than a gram or so of residual sugar. However, to the extent that it can or should be used, it's true here; there is a dry, stony feel to this wine (I'm not personally a huge fan of this effect in NZSB, but some people will be). The sharpness and crackle of this wine - regard me as mad if you will - have something of an Italian-ness about them - it an effect that would not be out of place with a Verdicchio or a Soave. For sure, it is one clean, dry NZSB, and quite an unusual (and less purely fruit-driven) take on the category.

The Zephyr is now in good stock at Exel. 


We highlight three other wines in the review for reasons of style and pricing:

- there's Cloudy Bay 2020, of course, that NZSB icon. It scores 94 points and s particularly on-song in 2020. There's always plenty to say on Cloudy Bay and the way it divides opinion. On both CB 2020 and Greywacke in general, this article from The Buyer tells us a lot more. We have it a daftly good £20.95, but not for very long (an importer special is in full flow).

for fans of the (really quite) tropical style, we offer the Left Field Sauvignon Blanc. Admittedly, the 2020 has yet to arrive; we're not badging this as a New Vintage wine but we are offering the 2019 at a superb £10.75 a bottle. Of the new 2020, the 93-point review states, "Layered, complex aromas of pineapple, lemon, pear, sage and wet stones. Crisp, mouthwatering acidity plus flavours of citrus and tropical fruits. Well made and balanced with a satin texture and a long finish". If we were to write a tasting note of the 2019, it wouldn't diverge much from that.

for bargain hunters - a Holy Grail of NZSBs is to find a really good one for under a tenner for that go-to case under the stairs. We can help, We're huge fans of the work of Gordon Russell and Esk Valley, and the Esk Valley Marlborough SB is a staple and ultra-reliable offering from us.  The arriving-here-today, new 2020 vintage spans the full flavour spectrum (it's traditionally more at the citrus/grapefruit end) and is described by the Decanter article: "classic Sauvignon Blanc bouquet of tropical fruit, fresh herbs, ripe apple and citrus, and a wet stone-like mineral complexity. The flavours mirror the nose, while plenty of acidity gives the palate a crunchy, refreshing texture, leading to a satisfying salivating finish". Perhaps as importantly, we offer it at a market-leading £9.95; it's in stock.


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