NZSB Playoff Challenge

4 05 2016

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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Two enter, one leaves. Well, actually zero leave; there were no leftovers.

I need very little reason to open and taste two bottles side by side, especially when their comparison can tell me even more about them and where they’re from.  Somebody decided that Friday, May 6th would be known as Sauv Blanc Day (or #SauvBlanc Day, to be more accurate, even though it makes no sense to put a space in a hashtag), although this is a fact not without controversy, as others seem to have settled on April 24th for International Sauvignon Blanc celebration.  We can all agree that some time within this two-week window would be a great opportunity to open some Sauv Blanc, and with the playoffs upon us in two of the four major professional sports leagues, my dining table was also primed for a showdown of some sort.  Enter the titans.

These two bottles are excellent references for each other, as both are from the same vintage (2014, a shorter growing season with a wet harvest), the same country (New Zealand), the same region (Marlborough, the kickstarter of the NZ wine industry and of global New Era Sauv Blanc) and the same grape (the aforementioned SB).  Flavour and textural differences thus largely stem from slight climatic and geographic alterations at the vineyard level and minor distinctions in winemaking choices by the producers, as well as whatever cosmic forces make good wines end up just so.  Going in, I have to admit I was leaning toward the 2014 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc as the likely favourite; this winery, run by former Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd (who literally put New Zealand on the world wine map with a now-ubiquitous tropical/herbaceous style of Sauv Blanc), now turns out deeply personal, characterful expressions of the grape year after year.  They are no stranger to love from this blog.  But strange things can happen in the playoffs.  Onward.

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Stelvin Ratings: 7.5/10 (L) & 6.5/10 (R) (Great gunmetal colour; a little more panache on the left.)

2014 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc

I was first introduced to Nautilus on my honeymoon, when my wife and I travelled down to Australia and New Zealand for a glorious five weeks.  Strangely enough, it was in the former rather than the latter locale that the winery made my acquaintance:  we were taking a wine tour of the Hunter Valley north of Sydney in a van driven by a former Penfolds/Lindemans winemaker, and we stopped for lunch and were presented with a striking Pinot Noir with a seashell on the label.  I still distinctly remember that wine to this day, and the Nautilus label still immediately brings me back to it.

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This is the 30th vintage of the Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc, which saw 2% of the wine barrel-fermented and the whole batch receive 3 months of aging on the lees for additional textural intrigue.  It was a bright, clear lemon-green colour in the glass and just hummed with aromatic energy from the second it was poured, practically vibrating as it emitted beams of blackcurrant, star anise, papaya and honeydew, with a whiff of camphor on the edges.  It gets tighter and more chiseled and focused on the palate, a rush of electric lime, agave, white peach and gooseberry tinged with grassiness and poultry herbs, with a smoky, biting, bone-dry mineral finish.

It’s hard to overstate the cutting, piercing sharpness of flavour on this utterly textbook NZSB.  This one is a vivid and unforgiving razor blade, with no rounded edges to speak of, lean and lithe and taking no prisoners.  A thrill ride of a drinking experience for less than $25.

91 points

$20 to $25 CDN

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2014 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc

In retrospect, the Greywacke may have suffered from going second in this particular lineup, as its more nuanced, layered approach to Sauvignon Blanc does not easily puff out its chest against the Nautilus’ laser light show.  This is an NZSB for people who want to see what else Marlborough can do apart from the now-cookie-cutter style that Greywacke’s founder ironically helped invent.  It succeeds at its aim, but does it topple a bottle that cut some pretty damn impeccable cookies?

The Greywacke was similar in hue to the Nautilus, trending slightly more towards yellow to the latter’s green.  While the Nautilus saw a splash of oak through its very limited batch of barrel fermentation, the Greywacke was all stainless steel, although a small portion of the wine was fermented with ambient rather than commercial, cultured yeasts.  The aromatic difference between the two wines could not have been more striking:  after smelling the Nautilus, I almost couldn’t get anything out of the much softer, more muted and delicate nose of the Greywacke.  Absent the usual NZSB bombard, I almost didn’t know where to look, eventually teasing out wet rocks, river spray, orange rind, Asian pear and cherry blossoms, a very un-Marlborough combination.

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A similar trend played out once I took a sip, as the Greywacke offered a rounder, fleshier, more accommodating palate, with some of the greenness (Granny Smith apples, tennis balls, lemon-lime) but none of the herbaceousness often found in this region’s Sauv Blanc; but for slight tropical/canteloupe undertones and an expansiveness yet lightness of body, I could almost have mistaken this for a Riesling, right down to the touch of slate on the clean finish.  It is not what you immediately expect, but it is carefully crafted and strives to be something more.

This bottle has stereotype-busting, beyond-NZSB appeal, albeit at the slight expense of regional typicality.  It’s a beautiful wine, but perhaps not quite as confident or compelling as some Greywackes I’ve had in the past, which seem slightly bolder in their foray into the uncharted depths of Marlborough’s potential.  This combined with Nautilus’ pitch-perfect take on the style we expect from this area allows the challenger to pull off a stunning upset.  Same time next year?

90- points

$20 to $25 CDN

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