15 June 2016
WILD SAUVIGNON FROM GREYWACKE
Snow on the Blackbirch Range, Brancott Valley, Marlborough New Zealand ... photo©Kevin Judd, whose exquisite photography equals his winemaking
by PHILIP WHITE
Bacchus only knows the vile vocabulary I've tipped on Sauvignon blanc over the years. Few wine grapes have drawn such derision from this bitter pen. Lawn clippings, battery acid, cat piss - combinations of the three ... I've pointed the whole damn arsenal at it.
Combine these aromas and flavours with the grape's naturally high levels of the harsh, metallic malic acid and the methoxypyrazines the vine produces to deter predators until its seeds are ready to germinate, and you have, well, hardly what I'd call a food.
Once those seeds are ready to germinate, ideally in the warm gut of a fox or bird, the vine magically turns this deterrent Pea-Beau stuff off and becomes really stupidly dumbo sweet like a simple lolly to allure any empty predator that happens to saunter past. An entire vineyard can change from cat piss to blonde Coke on a particularly hot summer morn.
The gastronomically-intelligent winemaker's job is to harvest the fruit at that tricky balancing point between these extremes, when the right amount of that grassy edge remains to provide appetising stimulation before the sugar, or its resultant alcohol, is all that's left.
Some are really good at this. Many however simply send the machines through when they remember the holidays are over so it must be time to manufacture high tonnages of succinic lipstick solvent which seem to provide the salt'n'pepper squid brigade with something to counterbalance that fat that launched a thousand chips, with all its disgusting butylated hydroxyanisole and whatnot.
You'll find the lovers of this sort of Savvy-B tied to little white fluffball dogs at conspicuous tables along the dining routes. While the wealthiest ones - try Hyde Park or Double Bay - often look very sour, they will not be voting Green if you get my drift. Rarely happy, the rich. They seem averse to spending anything more than $10 or $12 per bottle, a price bracket where modest ripeness and luxurious comfort scarcely reside. They seem to prefer the sour, thin and bitter life.
All of which is unfair to the poor old Sauvignon blanc grape. It is after all, a very clever plant to have so evolved. Serendipitously, in developing this clever deterrent/attractant mechanism to ensure its survival, it has trained certain humans to plant it all over the world in search of the very deterrent it built into its physiology. It no longer even needs seeds - humans grow it from cuttings in order to have endless volumes of the methoxypyrazine deterrent on their tables.
Sensibly, few of them want ripe Sauvignon, like at the point where it attracts other beasties. That tastes only of yellow sugar. Watch out where the huskies go!
Kevin Judd (above) has been a key part of the New Zealand Sauvignon blanc phenomenon since it began under his stewardship at Cloudy Bay at its launch in 1985. A decade later he was pushing ahead with his own brand, Greywacke - rhymes with 'wacky' - named after a common Kiwi geology. Right from the start he was keen to work up a style of Sauvignon with more of that luxury and comfort than his lower-priced rivals mechanically produce.
He does this by taking risks. Measured risks. Rather than make his top Sauvignon like all the rest, using sanitary stainless steel and dead safe commercial yeast, he fastidiously selects his fruit from favourite vineyards in and around the Marlborough region, presses it lightly, and lets it ferment in old French barrels with whatever yeasts happen to have grown naturally in the vineyard, or care to waft into the winery on the breeze.
Then he leaves the wine to tick away at its own sweet pace, stirring it now and then to extract the most character from those random feral yeasts and his forensically-selected fruit.
While he still makes a more conventional Sauvignon at around $24, a very good one - Kevin's true pride and joy is this Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, which is about a tenner extra. For an embittered Savvy cynic, it's hard to explain the joy I felt to open his recent delivery of five vintages - 2009 to 2013 - of this delicious wild one.
self-portrait ... photo©Kevin Judd
Before we proceed, take my word that this is not 'natural' or 'orange' wine. It is not a desultory hippy accident with the shelf life of unpasteurised milk. Kevin knows all too well that the most natural wine is vinegar, and can be trusted to ensure that with his masterly attention and intelligence he'll deliver a wine that balances all these disparate influences in a stable and delicious form.
Wild yeasts can play a very clever game with the Sauvignon. Some produce higher levels of the attractive aromatic terpenoids, like citronellol, farnesol, geraniol, linalool, and nerolidol, in place of the aldehydes and acetates that can make wine smell and taste like paint factories or hairdressing salons. These terpenes are the essential oils in natural essential oils - they are a critical part of the blood of all plants, and make the premium perfume industry possible.
Each one has distinctive medicinal efficacy. Linalool, for example, gives lavendar, laurel, citrus, birch and rosewood their bouquets. It's a sedative, calmitive compound that soothes insomnia, convulsions and anxiety. Research the others and you'll find many similar surprises.
Kevin lets a fair percentage of his barrels undergo malo-lactic fermentation, in which bacteria, not yeast, convert that harsh malic acid of Sauvignon to the softer, creamier lactic acid of mother's milk. Lactones are comforting and fruity, and come in many aromas from coconut milk to peach.
Extended contact with the dying and dead yeasts gives the wine other fascinating natural aspects, like thickening glycerols, comforting fatty acids, and glutamates which enhance the human's sensory capacities to enjoy all good flavours more intensely.
Poke the nose into the 2009 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon (13% alcohol; screw cap) and you get a handy assortment of all the above in one smooth and utterly satisfying form. Sure, it has the trademark spring meadow grassiness of the variety, but wrapped in gentle peachy flesh. It has hints of ripe pears and potato peel, and the dust of freshly-crushed greywacke stone. At the grand old age of seven, it also has some comforting butter. It's stunning.
The 2010 (14% alcohol; screw cap) is a touch leaner, and more lemon-and-limy, with the pith of these fruits as much as their juice. Supporting that stony dust you find the aroma and flavour of hemp, as in burlap sacking. It's finer, and seems drier, like fumé blanc from the Loire Valley. Of course it has no bubbles, but I've tasted lovely Champagnes with flavour form like this.
2011 (14% alcohol; screw cap) is even more steely and taut to sniff. Lemons, gooseberries, starfruit, juniper berries and carambola all lie chopped fresh before you, beneath that waft of quarry and dusty hessian and that sexy reek of brinewet surfers with fresh sweat and sand and board wax; even a faint waft of the dimethyl sulphide which the seaspume exudes: enough to brace but never brutalise.
2012 (13.5% alcohol; screw cap) is like a blend of those three preceding vintages in its way, with the perfect aromatic balance of dry acrid dustiness and sweet peach, with all the citrus in between, and for its first appearance, a delightful whoosh of white-petal florals from jasmine to magnolia. Its only shortfall is its youth: while it's the most impressive model yet - it's ravishing - I'd love to try it at seven to ten years, once it's swapped some of this handsome brashness for measured wisdom.
Which brings us to the current release, the Greywacke Wild Sauvignon 2013 (14% alcohol; screw cap). Its focus is relentless; its determined gaze into the future something that feels like it'll outlive the Sphinx. It's fine and dry and complex and stony, and makes me realise very brightly why Kevin has bothered to send me these past years: he's proven his point. This is dead serious wine for the collector who has no intention of being dead for a very long time.
It has no fluffball malteaser on the end of its taut string. Forget everything you thought you knew about Marlborough Sauvignon blanc and deliver a six-pack into the very far corner of your dungeon.
If you promise to call me when it's ready I'll try to stay alive.