Serious Grape: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Under $17


Sauvignon Blanc is big business in New Zealand—it has been estimated that Sauvignon Blanc-based wines made up more than eighty percent of volume of the country's wine exports in 2009. Recently, the government-funded New Zealand Foundation for Research Science and Technology pledged $12 million of new funding to support research in Sauvignon Blanc. According to a press release from the Plant and Food Research Institute, the project aims

to deliver knowledge and tools for manipulating the flavour of Sauvignon Blanc to create distinct wines that excite wine drinkers' palates...The integrated nature of the Sauvignon Blanc Programme is designed to exploit opportunities at all stages of the wine production pathway - from grape growing to winemaking. Areas of research include the interactions between environmental factors (site, canopy, nutrition) and grape harvest maturity; developing new means of predicting the flavour potential of grapes and juice; and developing pre and post-harvest treatments, including NZ-derived yeasts, to deliver new flavours.

As Vinography blogger Alder Yarrow writes, it's one thing to try different methods of grape growing, or different grape clones in a given location, a new type of barrel, or different fermentation temperatures—and some of the funding will go toward that sort of experiment. But should "new flavours" be a focus? What's wrong with the current flavors, the signature style of New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc wines? We'd prefer to let New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc be what it wants to be: zingy and fresh, tart and tangy, a consistently good value in white wine.

We recently tasted ten New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs that sell for $10 to $17, and were pleased with the results. (For even cheaper options, check out our low-end roundup.) For the most part these wines are enjoyable, with bright, refreshing flavors that are perfect for summer. They're a great accompaniment to grilled shrimp or rich curries, or just a giant bowl of chips and guacamole.


Our Top Picks

We were seduced by Woollaston Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from Nelson, New Zealand. It has a heady aroma of ripe cantaloupe, tropical flowers, and even white chocolate—it's quite lush and supple, balanced out by a tingle of acidity at the back of the palate. It's laced with minerals; a sip is a bit like standing under a rushing waterfall. Less tangy and more mellow than some (though without being flabby) this Sauvignon Blanc is rich enough to handle a plate of lobster ravioli. Find this wine, $15-17.

Kim Crawford's Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (2009) is a classic example of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and a wine worth returning to again and again, like a pair of jeans that fits just right. It's concentrated and juicy with honey and flowers on the nose, flavors of tart green apple with a squeeze of lime. It's well balanced, compact, and bright, perfect for serving with grilled shrimp and an avocado salad dressed with lemon. At around $14, it's not a bottom-shelf party wine, but this wine is noticeably more refined than our cheaper picks. Find this wine, around $14.

More Good Choices

Starting around $11, The Crossings Awatere Valley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (2009) is a good value, with a punch of tangy green fruit and refreshing acidity. This wine is soft and drinkable, with more flinty mineral notes than most of the others. We'd be happy to have this one in our fridge all summer long. Find this wine, $11-14.

The grassy Whitehaven Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc reminded some tasters of rainwater—it's very green and a little earthy, with hints of chives and lime zest, golden delicious apple, and a splash of acidity. This fragrant and focused wine wasn't the favorite of our taste test, but it's a solid choice. Find this wine, around $14.

Another easy-drinking option is the light-bodied Starborough Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (2008), which is simple and juicy up front, with hints of lilies and mandarin orange. We'd serve it with Thai curries or noodles, or just sip it on the balcony on a muggy afternoon. Find this wine, $12-14.

Recommended with Reservations

With delicate notes of brine and soy sauce on the nose, the Spy Valley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (2009) made us immediately think of sushi, though we'd also pair this wine with steamed clams. This wine is tropical and ripe, with notes of apricot, lime, cucumber, and mango nectar. It's smooth and a bit unusual; definitely one to pair with food. Find this wine, $12-14.

The 2008 Wild Rock Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc had a delicate lavender scent but followed it with a tangy tartness that Marlborough fans love. Green apple, lime, and kiwi flavors are followed by grassy olive oil notes and a delicate smokiness. We'd drink this with shrimp tacos, but it's not quite as smooth and well integrated as some others we tried. Find this wine, $13-16.

Rich and velvety, the Mohua Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (2009) may not be quite what you're expecting from New Zealand. Mouthwatering pink-grapefruity tartness pops at first, but opens up into notes of hay and kaffir lime leaves, guava, and passion fruit. Nice, though not a perfect wine—some tasters found the alcohol sticking out a bit. Find this wine, around $13.

Not Recommended

We weren't huge fans of the Nobilo Regional Collection 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, which had an appealing yuzu and lemon frosting scent, but an intense boozy flavor we couldn't get past. Delicate honeydew and bright lemon notes didn't quite balance the alcohol flavor. We had similar trouble with The Seeker 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, which tasted a bit like underripe nectarine and slightly-fermented pineapple. Though it would be fine in sangria, this wine was a little harsh for drinking on its own.

Disclosure: All wines were review samples.