New Zealand’s most successful grape variety, sauvignon blanc, has spread successfully into retail markets around the world. These wines are associated in the consumer’s mind with grassy aromas, zingy acid levels, and fresh citrus fruit flavors.
As much as I like these wines, it is nice to know that New Zealand can achieve other expressions of this versatile grape. My prior discoveries along these lines have been confined to Cloudy Bay’s Te Koko and Nobilo’s Icon. It was my good fortune, therefore, that Simon Waghorn, owner and winemaker of Astrolabe Wines, invited me to taste his portfolio. I can now confirm that no winery that I know of in New Zealand is doing more to innovate with sauvignon blanc. The results are not one but three whole lines of singular and impressive wines. Little wonder, when Waghorn is a self-declared sauvignon blanc fanatic — a rare breed, even among winemakers.
Waghorn and his wife founded Astrolabe in 1996 in Marlborough, located on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. He sees terroir as crucial in determining the character of the wine produced — something that he demonstrates forcefully in his current range. His first level of wines carries the designation “Province.” Then, zeroing in, comes the designation “Valley.”At the most micro level is his “Vineyard” line. Interestingly, in Waghorn’s thinking, a more specific geographical designation does not necessarily imply a better wine, just a different one. Hence, a single-vineyard wine may be less expensive than a Valley bottling. There is nothing official about this classification; it just works for him.
We started our tasting with his flagship Province wine: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2015. It is very much in the reference style for New Zealand sauvignon blanc. It has a herbaceous nose with citrus notes and bright acidity on the palate with the citrus coming through. It is great for just quaffing but will also go splendidly with fish, noodle dishes, or poultry. It is not as acidic as some New Zealand sauvignon blancs because Waghorn takes the view that acid is there to support the fruit and should not be the main event. This wine is also not as much “in your face” as some of its counterparts. Waghorn says that he has moved on from trying to pack as much power as possible into every wine.
Narrowing our focus, Simon opened a Valley-designated wine, the Awatere Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2015. In contrast to the preceding wine, this one exhibited lime and dried herbs on its fragrant nose and a firm minerality on the palate. Just the zing of above-average acidity betrayed its New Zealand lineage.
Another Valley wine, the Kekerengu Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2013, was an altogether more concentrated thing. The nose revealed notes of lime and grapefruit. The mouthfeel was weightier than that of the earlier wines, with above-average acidity, and there were peach notes and tropical fruit in the nose. Pair this wine with oysters, ceviche, lobster, or salmon.
The final white we tasted was the Taihoa Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013, a representative of Astrolabe’s Vineyard line. It was really rather exotic. The nose was full of tropical fruit (guava), the mouthfeel was more substantial, the flavors more complex. Waghorn confirms that this is a wine that will likely improve with age. He reveals that the Vineyard line is where he engages in more experimentation, including wild ferments and barrel-aging.
Although sauvignon blanc is the best example of Waghorn’s terroir-driven approach, Astrolabe is by no means a single varietal producer. As well as respectable pinot grigio and chenin blanc, Waghorn has notably delved into pinot noir. His Marlborough Pinot Noir 2014 is full of bright red fruit with lively acidity. The tannins exhibit what Waghorn calls “plushness.” He believes that the secret with pinot noir in New Zealand is to allow the fruit to ripen beyond the herbaceous stage, and to drop fruit, even in thin years. He does an early thinning and then a vendange verte just before veraison (the beginning of ripening). He says undisciplined growers will not thin their crop and depend too much on ripeness, making for pruny wines.
Though Astrolabe is new in the U.S., its wines set a standard for presenting the diversity of sauvignon blanc — and pinot noir — from this island on the other side of the world. The wines are receiving wider distribution in major markets with each vintage, and a search for them in your market, or online, is recommended.