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Serious Sauvignon Blanc Winemaking


I had to answer a question from Drinks Business magazine this week about how our Sauvignon Blanc winemaking style has evolved over the years. I thought it might be of interest to some of our international mates and supporters so have posted my reply here…

As a regional style, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has undergone some evolution since it emerged in the mid 80’s with changes driven by both wine growing & consumer preference.  Early wines were very much in the grassy spectrum often made from shaded fruit in dense canopies, after the wet 95 vintage the canopies where opened up and a more tropical style evolved – although this was driven partly by more sophisticated viticulture. The discovery of the volatile thiol compounds responsible for the pungent passionfruit/sweaty character saw an almost obsession with chasing this style in the 2000’s and they were well rewarded in the wine show circuit.  Often these wines tended to show ‘style’ over ‘substance’ & were ‘fattened’ up by leaving some residual sugar.  They looked great over summer but fell  over quite quickly.  I do now think the accumulated practical knowledge of the last 20-30 years along with the ground breaking research undertaken in the New Zealand Winegrowers sponsored Sauvignon Blanc project  is leading to a more complex, rounded wine style. Twenty years ago there used to be a saying that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was “picked, pressed & pissed before Christmas” but those days are long gone. 

From our own point of view we focus on making the best wine we can in a textural food-friendly style and ignoring changes in fashion or trend. I believe that is what serious wine lovers are looking for. The basic premise of Nautilus Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc remains unchanged – ie a fruit driven regional blend based on selected sites that offer a range of flavour aroma & flavour profiles, it is only natural that we continue to challenge what we do and look at how we can improve or evolve our wine style.  This of course happens both in the winery & vineyard.  We have always felt that Nautilus Sauvignon is better with a range of aromas & flavours – yes we want to see some of the pungent passionfruit, but we also want some of the fresh herb, basil, tomato leaf, red capsicum, gooseberry etc.  We achieve this range principally through careful site selection.  Each site is managed to produce a balanced crop & targets of course vary depending on the soil type – ie heavier soil in the lower Rapaura will produced a balanced crop at 5-6 kg per vine whereas the stonier end of Rapaura will be back at 4-5 kg per vine and our upper Awatere valley site is balanced at 3-4 kg per vine.  Vine management varies according to site and more Scott Henry has been used in recent years & is now our preferred training system.  We typically are picking Sauvignon Blanc over a 20-25 day period with some vineyards maturing early in the season & others taking the full season to ripen.  We have some sites we have been dealing with for up to 20 years now so we have a much better understanding of what each site delivers than say 10 years ago.

In the winery we are working on improving the texture of the wine.  We have always had a period of maturation on yeast lees and are also looking at fermentation temperature effects, higher solids content in ferments & different yeast strains – for example the use of non-saccharomyces species to start the fermentation.  We have recently purchased some large format French Oak Cuves and are doing a small amount of barrel fermentation – principally to add a layer of texture rather than any overt Oak flavours.  All these factors add interest and complexity to the wine without deviating too much from the basic fruit driven style.

What does this all mean in terms of wine style?  We find our wine is less brash with a more natural restraint and it now has a much longer drinking window.  Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc remains fresh and vibrant for a minimum of 2 years post bottling before starting to develop more toasty & citrus peel characters as it ages.  Our 2007 & 2010 are still drinking wonderfully (2 back vintages I have tried recently) and we don’t typically see the overt canned peas or asparagus associated with some aged SBs.

So we still want to make a wine that gives the consumer a ‘wow’ when they first encounter it, but our wine style now, & going into the future has taken on a more serious angle and offers more texture and longevity. The first impression remains a vibrant zingy wine that is unmistakeably ‘Marlborough’ but take and second look & scratch beneath the surface and you will uncover those other layers.  I look forward to the time when New Zealand presents a line up of Sauvignons with 3-5 year bottle age to show how far we have come – alongside food of course – lunch anyone?

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