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Deep Dive:
Australia’s Best Alternative Sauvignon Blanc

Wines Of Now
29 April 2021. Words by YGOW.

There are few varieties that are as adored and reviled as sauvignon blanc. With the local market awash with passionfruit-scented wines from across the Tasman, wine professionals learnt to despise the stuff, while consumers fell head over heels for its fragrant charms. But the worm is slowly turning, with imports declining and local wines stepping out of the shadows with expressions that are making their own distinctive mark. From varying degrees of oak, both old and new, to employing skin contact, a little or a whole lot, Australian sauvignon blanc is not easy to categorise, with the sheer diversity of styles taking an alternative approach dazzling in its scope and quite thrilling for its quality. So much so that a Deep Dive was required. We gathered eight of the finest palates – winemakers, sommeliers, wholesalers/importers, retailers – to give us their take on what makes today’s Australian sauvignon blanc tick.

Our panel: Tom Brushfield, Retail Manager Union Street Wine; Yu Kurosawa, Sommelier Edwin Wine Bar; Sarah Fagan, winemaker De Bortoli Wines; Dr Ray Nadeson, winemaker/owner Lethbridge Estate; Neil Hawkins, winemaker/owner The Wine Farm; Sophie Carbonneau, National Sales Manager Bibendum Wine Co.; Abby Moret, owner Atlas Vinifera; Dave Verheul, owner/chef Lesa and Embla. All wines were tasted blind.

We gathered every “alternative” sauvignon blanc we could find and set our expert panel the tasks of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the wines that made the panellists’ top six from the tasting.

The Top Alternative Sauvignon Blanc in Australia

2017 Mount Mary ‘Réflexion’ Fumé Blanc, Yarra Valley

This was singled out as the top wine for both Fagan and Hawkins, while Brushfield had it just one spot back. “There are dried herbs and hints of Persian clover flowers on a restrained and tight nose,” wrote Hawkins. “Good balance, freshness, drive and acidity, with a lovely phenolic texture. The wine is floral and has intrigue and asks you to search for more.” Fagan noted, “slate, wet stones and some oyster shell character” on the nose. “Plenty of interest, and not overtly varietal – seemed to be more depth to the character of the wine, rather than straightforward fruit influence.” Brushfield wrote: “Very fresh and youthful nose, layered green apples and white florals, one of the more delicate wines of the tasting, but I really liked its purity while delivering character. The palate is quite intense and crisp, with a more lean and linear expression, capturing mineral notes, fresh green herbs, raw fennel, yellow grapefruit. Although still tightly wound, it is very balanced and the drive and power of the fruit is there. It will unfold in time to become an excellent, albeit precise, expression of sauvignon.”

 

2018 Moonlit Forest Sauvignon Blanc, Gippsland $30 RRP

“The nose is smoky and flinty, with lemon juice, saline, grapefruit and passionfruit notes,” wrote Moret, picking this as her top wine of the tasting. “Interesting mouthfeel, quite creamy on the back palate. Great length and depth of flavour. Lovely and balanced. Icy pole, vanilla, mango with a sprinkling of aromatic herbs. Clever and balanced oak usage, touch of oxidative handling maybe, well balanced with nice warm length.” Fagan had this as a very close tie with her top wine, eventually just shading this to second spot. “Clean, with slate and wet stone notes on the nose,” she wrote. “Plenty of texture, probably drawn from barrel fermentation or ageing. Saline notes and oyster shell aromas. Charming.” Carbonneau also had this amongst her top six. “The nose was initially quite subdued but then opened up on delicate notes of fresh, white-fleshed fruits and fine mineral undertones,” she wrote. “Once the wine warmed up, it opened up nice oyster shell, wet stone, chamomile and fresh grass notes. A wine for which patience and air proved very good.”

 

2017 Squitchy Lane Fumé Blanc, Yarra Valley $28 RRP

This was Carbonneau’s top wine of the tasting. “Lovely aromatics on the nose with enticing white flowers and ripe white nectarine,” she wrote. “The wine is vibrant and driven with an impressive mouthfeel. There are layers of complexity with notes of elderflower, green apple, and feijoa. It’s intense but balanced. A very good wine.” It also took top spot for Brushfield. “A riper style on the nose, with pure guava woven with passionfruit, a heady perfume with floral notes coming through in a vibrant way, not at all artificial or confected,” he wrote. “There are no green or herbal edges, suggesting they are picking later to avoid these varietal signatures… The palate brings some nice cheesy lees character, balancing the excellent tension and power of the fruit. The palate is much more yellow grapefruit than the aromatics would lead you to expect. Overall, a very crowd-pleasing and punter-friendly style.” Nadeson also had this in his top six. “An appealing style if you like purity,” he noted. “Greengage plum and citrus notes combine well with a palate which is both persistent and flowing. Excellent balance of acid and phenolic structures. Well-made and effortless.”

 

2019 Gilbert ‘Sur Lie’ Sauvignon Blanc, Orange

This just missed out on Moret’s top placing. “Richly concentrated nose, perfumed oak, tropical notes, icy poles, a little smoky/cedary,” she wrote. “Lovely texture, silky with depth and concentration – a great core of fruit. Great oak balance with lovely length and fullness on the back palate.” Carbonneau had this in the top half of her picks. “The nose is super pure and fragrant, displaying perceptible oak that adds a touch of complexity rather than overwhelms the aromas,” she noted. “The palate is super racy, with attractive honeysuckle, chamomile, and green pear characters. The mouthfeel is long, and the flavours keep opening up as the wine evolves in the glass. One to go back for more for sure.” Fagan also had this in her top six: “Aromas of slate and wet stone. Fresh rain. A saline line through the palate which is refreshing. Also, a textured palate, giving character and drinkability.”

 

2019 Freycinet Wineglass Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Tasmania

This was Kurosawa’s top wine of the tasting. “Clear pale lemon in appearance,” she wrote. “The aroma gives a blast of tropical fruits. There is guava, pineapple, mango and a bit of melon. The palate also displays a generous amount of tropical fruits. Rich in fruit weight, coating mouthfeel, finishing with a bit of tickling spice. The flavour dances in the mouth for a while and skips away. A glass of tropical fruit juice in the glass. Breakfast sauvignon blanc!” Nadeson had this in the top half of his selections. “A style that will polarise,” he noted. “Intense aromatics of gooseberry, lantana and tomato leaf. Possibly a bit too much for some… My thoughts are these overt characteristics are balanced by great palate weight and oodles of minerality. Turbo charged for sure but super interesting, nonetheless.”

 

2018 Brackenwood Fumé Blanc, Adelaide Hills

Hawkins had this just out of top spot on his top-six list. “This is a richer style of sauvignon blanc, with dried herbs and a slight soapiness. It is subdued but balanced, with some glycerol richness on the palate. This has good length on the palate, and it feels like there is well-integrated oak.” Fagan had this in the top half of her selections. “A textured wine, but a driven wine, also. There are lees and barrel work characters, which gives the mid-palate some nice weight. Some cordite characters float through the mix of aromas. There’s a nice use of phenolics, which also aid in the texture and grip of the wine, and this has nice length.”

 

2019 Sidewood ‘Mappinga’ Fumé Blanc, Adelaide Hills $35 RRP

Carbonneau had this second on her top-six list. “The nose is restrained and delicate, with pretty, herbal and wild fern characters,” she wrote. “The wine is solid, with excellent balance, good flavour intensity and refreshing acidity. Just like the nose, the palate is reminiscent of fresh hay, chamomile and wild rose. An impressive example.” Brushfield had this in the top half of his selections. “Another fresh and bright wine, with oak, perhaps some portion of it new,” he wrote. “The aromas are lovely and pure with a more orchard fruit spectrum of apple and ripe pears, with seasoning spice from the oak. The palate is really bright and juicy, but perfect acidity keeps things really balanced and not sweet. One of the features that elevated this wine for me was the phenolics, extending the length of the wine and giving it more texture and mouthfeel. A riper frame of sauvignon but more about concentration of flavour in very healthy grapes, which enabled the winemaker to be more creative without overpowering the essence of the fruit.”

 

2020 Pyren Little Rara ‘Roopa’ Sauvignon Blanc, Pyrenees

Verheul had this second on his top-six list. “This has a very floral nose with pleasant dryness,” he wrote. “I loved the tannic almost oxidised apples and quince notes.” Nadeson also ranked it among his top wines of the day. “I will start with a disclaimer,” he noted. “I really enjoy skin-contact whites, but there has to be more to them than just ‘skinsy-ness’ and faulty wines are a no-no. The wines that compel me to come back, show aspects of fruit as well as controlled textural grip from extended time on skins. This skin-contact sauvignon blanc has many of the components I look for. Lovely aromatics of dried apricot, orange and lemon florals. On the palate, there’s a beautiful spicy note that morphs into nervy acidity, which counters the rich fruitiness very well.”

 

2020 Crittenden Estate Fumé Blanc, Mornington Peninsula $34 RRP

This appeared on the top-six lists of three of the panellists. “Mineral, clean and fresh, with no blatant sauvignon blanc character,” wrote Hawkins. “Grassy, citrus, slight grapefruit character. Softly textured with a subtle midpalate.” Brushfield called it, “A quirky and adventurous wine. On the nose, beer nuts, yeasty lees and a wild but intriguing array of citrussy lemon-like fruits but dominated by that nutty character. The palate is impressive, with obvious power and concentration, loads of ripe fleshy red apple and juicy pears, perfect phenolic grip – an intense but very good wine.” Carbonneau also included this on her top six-list: “The nose is very much riesling-like, with a strong lemon/lime aroma profile, underpinned by some lovely briny/stony and elderflower characters. On the palate, there is a nice mouthfeel with excellent weight and balance. Here we are on rose petal, white flower and citrus notes, leaning on the grapefruit side. Refreshing and thirst-quenching.”

 

2020 Dormilona ‘Skinnie’ Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River

This skin-contact amphora-raised sauvignon blanc was Verheul’s top wine of the tasting. “Incredibly aromatic gooseberries with a gentle oyster shell saltiness to it,” he wrote. “For me, this wine felt like I was sitting beside the beach on a sunny spring day, bowls of clams with basil on the table.”

 

2019 Moonlit Forest ’Storm Bird’ Sauvignon Blanc, Gippsland $30 RRP

Kurosawa had this in second place. “Clear and pale appearance,” she wrote. “The nose has got a bit of jackfruit, saline, and a quite delicate floral tone. The wine presents a super-structured texture, which may come from extended skin contact, and crisp Granny Smith acidity. The acidity is quite high, but the generosity of fruit balances the wine.” Moret also picked this amongst her wines of the day: “Frozen fruit juice/icy pole, lemon juice, flint, burnt timber/pine. Really bright acidity, fleshy texture. Great length, mineral and elegant. Feels more French than Australian with its restraint but power. Quite classic.”

 

2017 The Pawn ‘Jeu de Fin’ Fumé Blanc, Adelaide Hills

This was Nadeson’s top wine of the tasting. “A compelling reason to try sauvignon blanc again,” he wrote. “The wine is vibrant and fresh, with complex aromas of grapefruit, lemon pith, nettle and flint. The palate is long and taut with lovely weight and persistence. There is a noticeable textural grip which adds to the enjoyment. Reminds me of the flintiness of sucking on a pebble.”

 

2018 Flowstone Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River $32 RRP

This just missed out on Nadeson’s top spot. “Subtle but confident is what I thought when I tried this wine,” he wrote. “Aromas of lemon and lime flowers and a touch of herbaceous blackcurrant bud. This is persistent, showing poised acidity and evenness across the whole palate.”

 

2015 Helen’s Hill ‘Evolution’ Fumé Blanc, Yarra Valley

“Clear deep golden,” wrote Kurosawa. “Very pronounced rich honey on the nose and a bit of fresh lemon peel. The palate displays very ripe rich generous fruits. It’s got yellow peach and gooseberry consistent with the fresh finish, with red-apple-like acidity, leaving a subtle custard note on the palate. It is an oak-influenced wine, but it still holds the sauvignon acidity without becoming too buttery, and it has gooseberry and a bit of grassiness which identifies the variety.” Fagan wrote: “Quite a pure wine without being boring and straight forward. Aromas of slate and wet stone, chalk. Waxy in a textural way that coats the palate. Plenty of citrus and lime notes carry on the palate.”

 

2019 Bobar ‘Fanny Finch’, Yarra Valley

This was in the top half of Moret’s selections. “At first, I wrote this off. However, the nose is wildly complex, with olive brine notes and citrus pith. There’s vibrant acidity on the palate with a balanced citrus and herbaceous flavour profile. Excellent balance with a foot in each camp, with chamomile tea and black tea tannins from skin contact.”

 

2019 Gilbert ‘Skin Contact’ Sauvignon Blanc, Orange

“Mineral, some richness from the alcohol, feels like there could be some skin contact in this wine,” wrote Hawkins, placing it in the top half of his top-six list. “If so, it’s well done and not too evident. It’s an interesting expression of the variety, with hints of dried herbs on the nose, and even white pepper notes on the palate.”

 

2020 Clyde Park ‘Estate’ Sauvignon Blanc, Geelong

“Clear and pale on the appearance,” wrote Kurosawa, placing this in the top half of her selections. “The aroma has a fresh lift of citrus blossom, honeysuckle and gooseberry. The palate carries the generous amount of stone fruits such as white peach and fresh white nectarine. It is a pretty, light-bodied wine with high acidity but the structured and delightful fruit character persists on the palate.”

 

2020 Chalari ‘Fumé’ Sauvignon Blanc, Pemberton

“For me, this wine’s almost smoky minerality and bright direct acidity really stood out,” wrote Verheul, giving it a place amongst his top-six wines of the tasting, and unsurprisingly pairing it with a dish. “This would be amazing paired with a grilled piece of swordfish with pine nuts, lemon and parmesan.”

 

2020 Minimum Short Runs ‘The Colossus of Harry’ Skin Contact Sauvignon Blanc, Goulburn Valley $32 RRP

“A unique and rather exotic aroma profile on the nose, with notes of nashi pear, feijoa, pink flowers, and perhaps even lychee,” wrote Carbonneau, placing this in her top six. “The palate is quite lovely, with an excellent fruit weight and poise. Just like the nose, the palate showcased powerful flavours of exotic fruits, pungent flowers, all nicely wrapped up around a citrusy acidity. Very good.” Verheul also included this in his selections: “I loved the floral vibrancy of this wine, like marigolds in the sun. Very soft and buttery with a very clean acid line.”

 

2018 Kate Hill Sauvignon Blanc, Tasmania

Kurosawa ranked this amongst her top six. “Very inviting aroma of golden Gala apple with underlining toffee character,” she wrote. “Crisp and fresh. The palate provides crisp bright acidity, but at the same time, gives caramelly apple tarte-tatin-like flavour, finishing with warm spices, such as cinnamon and nutmeg. The wine also has nice texture and length in the mouth. A fun wine.”

 

2020 Lust for Life Fumé Blanc, Adelaide Hills $30 RRP

This made Verheul’s list for the top wines of the tasting “This wine made my mouth water,” he wrote, “so balanced and complex, with a pleasantly soft old-oak character.” And, naturally, food was not far from his thoughts. “This wine made me crave a chunk of old cheddar and some green olives.”

 

2020 Amato Vino ‘Skinnydip!’ Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River

“Left-of-centre and very interesting wine,” wrote Moret, adding this to her top selections. “Lemonade, candied, sarsaparilla, cloves, lemon peel, bergamot, black tea, radler, warm spices. Doesn’t smell like sauvignon blanc. Grippy tannins, again very tea like in their structure. Really unique take, great for a skin contact/natty wine.”

 

2018 Wines of Merritt Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River $29 RRP

“This wine was right on the edge for me!” wrote Brushfield. “From the start with its notably un-fined appearance showing a slight haze, suggesting it be more in the lo-fi camp, but the super-fragrant nose was loaded with just-ripe green aromas of green capsicum, jalapeño and asparagus. Obviously, a cooler climate style, but maintaining the pure green pears and lime zest fruitfulness into a long and linear palate, seemingly effortless. Loads of tangy lime fruits and fine phenolic grip. Really long finish. It’s good, and its unusual, but I really like it.”

 

2019 Six Parallels South Sauvignon Blanc, Yarra Valley

This wine, which also happens to be Kosher and vegan friendly, made the top-six list of Verheul. “This wine felt effortless, balanced and incredibly elegant,” he wrote. “The mellow older gooseberry notes and the wine’s body would drink beautifully next to something like a nettle risotto.”

 

2020 Clairault ‘Cellar Release’ Skin Soaked Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River $26 RRP

“For me, a classic style showing classy oak handled well,” wrote Nadeson, including it in his top six. “Aromatics of crushed Italian herb, intense and savoury with fruit flavours of lemon curd and lime leaf. The palate is fine, linear, dry and long. The oak character adds a note of ginger and smoke without being overpowering.”

 

2020 Terre à Terre ‘Down to Earth’ Sauvignon Blanc, Wrattonbully

Moret included this amongst her top-six wines of the tasting. “Smells like Marlborough, river water and riverstones, passionfruit. Fresh acidity with fine tannin and nice grip. Lively and pretty, great minerality and length. Looks extremely food friendly as a whole wine, quite classic but very refined.”

 

2020 Mulline Sutherlands Creek Fumé Blanc $50 RRP

Hawkins placed this amongst his top wines of the tasting. “This is clean, with no funky business or overt sauvignon blanc character,” he wrote. “Green, herbal and stalky, with citrus and lemon notes. The palate is soft and round with a fresh finish.”

 

2019 Stefano Lubiana Wines Sauvignon Blanc, Tasmania $33 RRP

“Bursting out of the glass with lemonade, river stone minerality, white florals, white nectarine and gentle green herbs, but very balanced,” wrote Brushfied, placing this in his top six. “Pure nose not shaded by oak or lees. Palate is juicy and ripe, mostly tasting of green pears but again very balanced with natural acidity and long length. Texture is enhanced by perhaps a bit of skin contact, judged perfectly, and a slight CO2 prickle. Very good.”

 

2020 Mitchell Harris Sauvignon Blanc Fumé, Pyrenees

Fagan included this in her top six, noting that it stood out from her other selections for being different in style. “Almost saline in character,” she wrote, “with aromas of sea spray and oyster shell. There’s plenty of texture and grip giving the wine interest and a point of difference, rather than just pure fruit.”

 

2020 Terre à Terre ‘Crayères Vineyard’ Sauvignon Blanc, Wrattonbully $50 RRP

Kurosawa included this amongst her top six. “The aroma provides juicy honeydew melon and a hint of smokiness,” she wrote. “The palate is rich in white peach character with a subtle spice and ginger-like tingle. The finish gives a bit of confectionery feel, and it is persistent in the mouth.”

 

2018 Moorilla ‘Muse’ Sauvignon Blanc, Tasmania

“If I had to choose one wine that was ‘typical’ sauvignon blanc, this would be it,” wrote Hawkins, including this in his top six. “While ‘varietal’ on the nose of ripe gooseberries, it’s not overt. The palate is softly textured with a sweetness of fruit to finish. A gentle appetiser of a wine.”

Alternative Sauvignon Blanc – The Backstory

Sauvignon blanc has certainly cemented its place in this country, with the grape now responsible for around 12 per cent of white grapes made into wine, being the second most planted variety. It’s well behind chardonnay, which sits at around 45 per cent, but still with its head in front of semillon, pinot gris and riesling, in declining order of volume.

But it’s when you factor in imported wine that Australia’s love affair with sauvignon blanc really snaps into focus. New Zealand accounts for around 56 percent of wine imported into the country, from a peak of closer to 59 per cent in 2016–17, and it’s no secret that sauvignon blanc, and Marlborough sauvignon blanc specifically, make up the lion’s share of wine shipped across the Tasman.

Overall, factoring in imported wine, too, sauvignon blanc has twice the value of retail sales of chardonnay in this country (we export a lot), making it the most popular white wine, and equal with shiraz. That’s even more extraordinary when you consider that there aren’t many expensive bottles of sauvignon on the shelves, making for an awful lot of volume.

The Marlborough wine region in New Zealand. Ground zero for the Sauvalanche.
Above: sauvignon blanc grapes at harvest. Opposite: Tom Shobbrook – his skin contact 2010 ‘Giallo’ was a revelatory Australian expression of sauvignon blanc.

What caused the Sauvalanche

The total plantings of sauvignon blanc in New Zealand make up nearly 65 per cent of the total wine produced, with Marlborough accounting for an astonishingly large amount of Kiwi wine, nearly 80 per cent, in fact. That’s quite a dominance, and one that was fuelled by a global love affair that was spawned by a style of wine that the region pioneered.

That style was one on the front foot for flavour, with zippy acidity and often a smidge of sugar to soften the mid-palate without being apparently sweet. It came as a bit of a revelation to a wine drinking public less keen on subtle detail but somewhat keener on flavour.

It was democratising in a way, unlike the alienating nuanced descriptions of wines from afficionados, Kiwi sauvignon blanc was a breath of fresh air, tasting identifiably of something for even the most novice of tasters. And it delivered that flavour in spades. It was also remarkably consistent, with variations in style and quality somewhat less impactful than the overarching style. At the same time, that style also managed to alienate wine professionals, who were, and still are, somewhat keen on all that nuanced detail and less so on the overt brashness.

Too much flavour

The flavour descriptors for this type of sauvignon blanc is a pungent set of words, with passionfruit, cut grass, capsicum, tomato vine, gooseberry (an arguably overused term, especially given how uncommon they are – here at least), tinned asparagus, blackcurrant – fruit and leaf – and the ever-so endearing ‘cat’s piss’ (cat’s urine and blackcurrant share a key molecule, which smells like cassis at lower concentrations, and is less pleasing at higher ones – fun fact). At the leaner end, the grassy aromatics dominate, while at the riper end, tropical aromas really explode, with guava, pawpaw, and the like, quite common.

What was already a huge export industry for New Zealand around the start of the 21st century exploded as a grape glut became apparent in 2009, with endless containers of the fragrant stuff being hauled across the seas and sold at a price that was never viable for local makers to compete with. Additionally, Australia could never quite emulate the Kiwi style – which was the style for so long – although some makers certainly established benchmark wines that have consistently sold at a premium when compared to the cut-priced Kiwi bottlings.

The Adelaide Hills’ Shaw + Smith best exemplifies this, with a style of wine in a fragrant fruit-forward mode, made in very much the same way as those across the ditch, with juice fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures. That kind of success was rare, though. So, producers tacked, turning to adding savoury layers to their sauvignons, typically by fermenting all or part in oak to make a style known as ‘fumé blanc’.

“We’ve got expressions in here that look like oaked chardonnay. We’ve got green, crystalline expressions that look like riesling. There are wines with overtly fruity guava and passionfruit notes that would satisfy people who like peachy pinot gris… It’s a cop out to say you don’t like sauvignon, because we’ve got so many different expressions.”

Fumé Blanc

The term fumé blanc was coined by the late great California vigneron Robert Mondavi in 1968. His aim was to differentiate his dry style of sauvignon from the sweet wine production that sauvignon had typically been used for in America. The term was a nod to Pouilly-Fumé, the companion appellation to Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley, where dry sauvignon reaches its greatest heights. It was rebranding on a large scale, with Mondavi apparently not attempting to trademark the name to encourage industry-wide use.

Mondavi aged his wines in oak, adding another point of difference, though this maturation process was apparently never meant to be the defining character of a fumé blanc. Whatever his intent, the reality is that the term is intrinsically connected with barrel ageing, and the term on a wine label will invariably point to a detectable degree of oak, whether new or old, and in varying proportions.

In Australia, the arch example of that style was pioneered by Peter Althaus in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley. Althaus searched the world for a site to make wine that would rival the great wines of Europe, with the Swiss businessman (a former IBM executive based in Zurich) buying the already mature Stoney Vineyard in Campania in 1978, naming his label Domaine A.

What followed was a robust swim against the current, with the commanding Althaus championing Bordeaux varieties where they had been steadily abandoned (though he made notable pinot noir, too), fashioning classic styles from red grapes and a powerful fumé blanc called ‘Lady A’ (apparently a vinous love letter to his wife), which debuted in 1996. It’s a wine that sees only new French oak, with 12 months in cask, then at least two years in bottle before release. It was a landmark statement.

Above: Peter Althaus pioneered barrel fermented sauvignon blanc in Australia. Opposite: Californian Robert Mondavi, who coined the term fumé blanc.

Australian Alternatives

Winemakers have certainly toyed with oak, but few have dived in so deeply as Althaus. For many, it was a means of toning down the aromatic extremes of the variety, rather than adding an overt oak character, with many makers somewhat disillusioned with the grape from the public displays of affection for fruity styles. It was in South Australia that another angle was taking shape, with Tom Shobbrook making his first ‘Giallo’ in 2010.

That wine was something of a different landmark, a take on orange (or rather yellow, as the name suggests) wine, where Shobbrook was trying to mine the grape for a more interesting expression through skin contact. Shobbrook has now kept the skins but dumped the variety, making the ‘Giallo’ from riesling and muscat, but the statement was a bold one, opening up the possibilities for the grape even further.

Today, the ripples of Althaus and Shobbrook are definitively being felt, with Australian sauvignon blanc finally emerging from the imposing shadow of its New Zealand counterpart. And it’s doing so with a decidedly fresh face, or rather, faces. Makers are employing varying degrees of skin contact, fermenting and maturing in oak, both fully and in part, using wild yeasts, picking fruit deep into ripeness to capture intensity, as well as at the cooler end, capturing mineral expressions of site while skirting both tropical excess and grassy greenness… Times have indeed changed, and Australian sauvignon blanc has never been so exciting.

Our panel of experts gathered at the French Saloon, Melbourne. Photo by: James Morgan.

Outtakes from the tasting

We gathered as many bottlings as we could find and enlisted the help of eight of this country’s finest palates to check in to see just where Australian sauvignon blanc is at.

Our panel: Tom Brushfield, Retail Manager Union Street Wine; Yu Kurosawa, Sommelier Edwin Wine Bar; Sarah Fagan, De Bortoli Wines; Dr Ray Nadeson, winemaker/owner Lethbridge Estate; Neil Hawkins, winemaker/owner The Wine Farm; Sophie Carbonneau, National Sales Manager Bibendum Wine Co.; Abby Moret, owner Atlas Vinifera; Dave Verheul, owner/chef Lesa and Embla. All wines were tasted blind.

“People say: ‘I don’t like sauvignon blanc.’ But the tasting showed it’s impossible to say that,” said Brushfield. “We’ve got expressions in here that look like oaked chardonnay. We’ve got green, crystalline expressions that look like riesling. There are wines with overtly fruity guava and passionfruit notes that would satisfy people who like peachy pinot gris… It’s a cop out to say you don’t like sauvignon, because we’ve got so many different expressions. It’s a really eye-opening tasting.”

All wines tasted 'blind'. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.
“I gravitated towards the more oyster shell, saline wines, ones with chalky minerality, rather than being intensely punchy and tropical. That oyster-shell brininess is certainly down to site and soil, but it’s also picking. If you pick too ripe, then you lose all that elegance, and if you pick too early, then you’re in that green spectrum.”

“There was a lot more diversity than I expected to see, and it’s down to personal taste in the end,” agreed Moret. “I liked the oak usage. I liked the skin contact. I liked the ones that didn’t look boring. I liked the ones with an x-factor. So, I picked some of the more leftfield things”

Hawkins saw the wines in four distinct groups, from largely tank-fermented wines with commercial yeast flavours to those with marked oak use, sometimes to excess, then to ones that didn’t look overly varietal aromatically, but with many of them successful, if more pleasant then profound. The last group was characterised by skin contact, with Hawkins favouring the wines where it was a discreet use, complexing flavour and structure, rather than dominating.

“It surprised me that there was a level of restraint to a lot of the intense aromatics,” said Fagan. “I gravitated towards the more oyster shell, saline wines, ones with chalky minerality, rather than being intensely punchy and tropical. That oyster-shell brininess is certainly down to site and soil, but it’s also picking. If you pick too ripe, then you lose all that elegance, and if you pick too early, then you’re in that green spectrum.”

Tom Brushfield and Sarah Fagan. Photo by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.

“Three of my preferred wines were quite similar,” said Nadeson. “There was something about the site or the density of fruit… there was something else, which I thought was derived from the place, which made me choose those wines. The winemaking between those three was not outrageously different, I feel, and the wines I liked more in that group seemed to be down to the quality of site.”

The idea of reflecting site was one that Carbonneau felt was sometimes absent, with some of the more worked styles obscuring any chance of seeing it, while she found some of the wines that allowed a window into terroir weren’t always successful. “Often, the wines that had purity and elegance didn’t have a lot else, didn’t have a lot of character,” she said.

Kurosawa commented that the broad range of wine styles had an eager audience, no matter their shape, with the days of a singular expectation of how a wine should taste long gone. “I also always look to wine with food matching in mind,” she said. “There was just such a wide possibility for matching the wines. Some I wanted to have with grilled fish and miso soup, and some I wanted to have with spicy Middle Eastern food, with lots of complex flavours. There was so much opportunity and variety to match with such a variety of food that makes it interesting, I think.”

Sophie Carbonneau and Neil Hawkins. Photo by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.
“There was just such a wide possibility for matching the wines. Some I wanted to have with grilled fish and miso soup, and some I wanted to have with spicy Middle Eastern food, with lots of complex flavours. There was so much opportunity and variety to match with such a variety of food that makes it interesting, I think.”

Verheul noted that he liked the more mineral and saline wines, which suited his palate, but that he also liked some of the skinsy wines. “Sometimes I think some of the bigger wines are forgiven by putting them with something with a bit of fat or something that’s going to round them out,” he said, noting that several of the wines necessitated food. “Passionfruit and tropical flavours don’t sit very well with me, and I’m not sure there’s been enough time between people’s bad experience with the glut of it to see the new stuff that is actually coming through.”

In a former role, Moret admitted that she had in fact shipped millions of litres of New Zealand sauvignon blanc into the country at the height of the boom, and that many of the wines were not just indistinguishable from each other, but that they were often indeed the same, with different labels used to sell the same product.

“I think what really pushed the sauvignon blanc trend was that it was bright, fruity wine that was also dry,” Moret said. “It sat in that spot that also drew in younger drinkers who were maybe moving on from sweet stuff. It was such a huge thing, but now it’s fallen away. From my retail perspective, we can sell Sancerre, we can sell Pouilly-Fumé and some fumé blanc, but that’s it. I think people have moved on. I think people just grew up.”

In a former role, Moret admitted that she had in fact shipped millions of litres of New Zealand sauvignon blanc into the country at the height of the boom, and that many of the wines were not just indistinguishable from each other, but that they were often indeed the same, with different labels used to sell the same product.
Above: Yu Kurosawa and Tom Brushfield. Opposite: Dave Verheul and Abby Moret. Photos by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.

Nadeson felt that it was not just people moving on but also that a new generation had never been exposed to the wines like they had. “I met a couple of young people recently,” he said, “and the only wines they had ever drunk were pét-nats and skin-contact white wine. And that was their introduction to wine, and it completely changed my perspective. What was cool to me was that it wasn’t like they were starting with some passionfruit pop, but something kind of weird and serious. It allows this breadth of styles. So, perhaps makers aren’t worrying about their sauvignon blanc-ness. They’re going to have a play with it, and try to make something cool.”

“We’ve tried to make some interesting sauvignons,” said Fagan, “but they’re just a bloody hard sell. Sometimes the time and effort that goes into making them… it’s low yielding, with hand picking, whole bunch pressing, barrel fermentation… that all has a cost, the same as a chardonnay would, but the pricing expectations on a wine list or at a retailer aren’t the same. We just don’t make it anymore.”

That was an industry-wide trend, said Nadeson, noting that this provided ample opportunity for emerging makers. “There’s an outrageous amount of fruit out there that has no home,” he said, “and from vineyards that are nice, and some that are not so nice. Little producers have access to these plantings, and they’re not expensive. If you want to get some pinot in, it’s something like 3,000 bucks a tonne, and for something a bit ordinary. But the best sauvignon you can buy… well, someone would probably give it to you.”

“For the people coming into the industry, having access to some really nice fruit gives them a chance to give it a crack,” agreed Fagan. “And there are definitely retailers out there now who are prepared to give those more experimental wines a go. There’s more opportunity for diversity.”

“It’s a noble grape for a reason – that vibrant acidity, beautiful aromatics, amazing texture,” said Brushfield, noting that this adaptability shouldn’t be surprising, with a lack of thoughtful expressions – or of market penetration of those styles – fuelling an undeserved view of the grape as one-dimensional. “There’s a wine in this line-up for everyone, really. There are people here using low levels of sulphur, which would satisfy the ‘natty’ crowd, and there are wines that are squeaky clean and super pure that would satisfy more conservative types.”

Dr Ray Nadeson. Photo by: James Morgan. Location: French Saloon, Melbourne.

The Panel

Sarah Fagan is the winemaker for De Bortoli Wines’ Yarra Valley operation, working alongside Steve Webber and overseeing all the production. She has spent nearly two decades at the Yarra icon, while managing to work several vintages for legendary Californian vigneron Ted Lemon. Fagan was a Len Evans scholar in 2008 and the Gourmet Traveller WINE Young Winemaker of the Year for 2009.

Tom Brushfield is the Retail Manager at Union Street Wine in Geelong, starting in 2021 after a decade as a wine representative for leading independent fine-wine wholesaler Cellarhand. Brushfield had prior worked extensively as a sommelier, including at the Melbourne Supper Club. He was the runner up in the 2015 Ruinart Sommelier Challenge, Dux of the Lorenzo Galli Scholarship in 2014 and was in the national top 12 in the Sommeliers Australia Best Sommelier of Australia for 2014.

Yu Kurosawa first fell for wine in New Zealand, working in a French restaurant in Christchurch in 2005. In 2007, she worked at Claridge’s while studying in London. In 2009, she moved to Australia, where she ran the wine program at Collins Quarter for five years, passing her WSET Level 3 certification in 2016. She currently works as the sommelier at Edwin Wine Bar and Cellar. Kurosawa also worked at Market Eating House Middle Eastern restaurant in Bunbury, WA, as the sommelier and manager during lockdown, while also working at Bakkiheia winery in Lowden.

Dave Verheul’s professional snowboarding and skateboarding career was scuttled by injury when he was 22, but a career as a celebrated chef took its place. Verheul has worked in some of London’s finest restaurants, as well as those in Sydney and his native New Zealand, eventually starting the Town Mouse with business partner Christian McCabe. He currently is the chef and owner of Lesa and Embla (with McCabe), while also making artisanal vermouth under his Saison label.

Neil Hawkins is the owner of Gippsland’s The Wine Farm. After moving from his native South Africa, Hawkins and his wife, Anna, bought an established vineyard near Koonwarra, South Gippsland, in 2014. They have extensively reworked the site, with it currently in biodynamic conversion under Demeter. Hawkins makes all wines on site.

Dr Ray Nadeson is the winemaker and owner of Lethbridge Wines. During a career researching and teaching neuroscience at Monash University, Nadeson founded Lethbridge Estate with his partner Maree Collis. He also managed to squeeze in a winemaking degree in his spare time. Since 2003, Nadeson has been focused solely on the estate, farming with biodynamic principles and making wine from home vines, select local vineyards and as far afield as Heathcote, the Pyrenees and Henty.

Sophie Carbonneau worked for 10 years as a sommelier both in Australia and her native Montreal, Canada. She moved to the wholesale side of the business a decade ago, first alongside legendary retailer, importer and wine judge Randall Pollard at Heart & Soil, his import business, then at industry-leading independent importer and local wholesaler Bibendum Wine Co. She is now Bibendum’s National Sales Manager. Carbonneau is also a second year MW student, though she has pressed pause on her studies – for now.

Abby Moret has been working in the retail wine industry since she was 18, including working in London for Majestic Wine, gaining her WSET Level 3 Certificate while there. She was the Promotional Manager of Vintage Cellars, before moving into buying and product development for the national chains. After gaining her WSET Diploma, Abby founded Atlas Vinifera in 2017, an independent, boutique wine bar and wine store in Richmond that specialises in small-batch, interesting, hand-crafted and cult wines from all over the world.