Saint Clair Family Estate – Marlborough Battle

11 08 2016

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

FullSizeRender-392When you’re in a brand new wine shop or liquor store looking at a string of unfamiliar sub-$20 labels and hoping not to take a step too far wrong, the word “Marlborough” should be a huge source of relief to you.  It is the name of New Zealand’s most famous wine region, and more than maybe any other star region on Earth whose bottles you can still grab without a price cringe, it offers a very high quality floor, a strong baseline that offers confidence that even the lower-end offerings on the shelf will be somewhat well-put-together.  Marlborough, located on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, is most renowned as the birthplace of Sauvignon Blanc’s most distinctive New World expression, that zingy, grassy, refreshingly searing style that almost anybody under 30 now associates with the grape.  Producers there have locked down on that mythical combination of quality, quantity and value that make Marlborough the safest, if at times one of the more redundant, “I’ve-never-had-this-bottle-before” picks out there.

A relatively new region on the global scale, Marlborough has been on the world’s radar since the mid-1980s, but the owners of Saint Clair Family Estate have been at the wine game longer than that.  Neal and Judy Ibbotson have been grape-growers on their estate since 1978, but previously sold off their crops to other wineries and didn’t decide to start making wine themselves until 1994.  They opted for the name “Saint Clair” for their winery because their vineyard property was initially settled by a James Sinclair back in the day; the added words “Family Estate” are not just lip service, as all three of their children are currently involved in various aspects of the business, with one of them even designing the wines’ labels.

This is an intriguing tasting, pitting Marlborough’s bread and butter Sauvignon Blanc against another white grape that’s starting to gain acclaim in the area, Chardonnay.  Enough acclaim to unseat the viticultural ruler of the region?  Let’s find out.

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Steven Rating:  5/10 (Like the black cap art, but can’t go higher than this when I can’t unscrew it without busting the neck.  Plain gold needs work – why no graphics?)

2013 Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc

I had to check this label twice to make sure I got the year right.  New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is usually released, sold and drunk as soon after the most recent vintage as possible, as the wine’s fresh and fruity style is generally best enjoyed young and two other factors get it on the shelves quicker than most other wines:  (1) Southern Hemisphere harvests happen around April (their fall) as opposed to October, and (2) NZ Sauv Blanc almost never sees any oak aging after fermentation, allowing it to be ready for shipping after a shorter maturation period at the winery.  But this was indeed a 2013, perhaps not the current local release but the bottle on the shelves here.  Thankfully it was still plenty fresh (even though the entire neck capsule of the bottle came off when I tried to open the screw cap!).

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The wine certainly showed no signs of age in the glass, emerging from the bottle a clear, sharp, notably green-tinged (one might even say Olympic diving pool-tinged) pale lemon colour.  Even as I was pouring it I could smell the could-be-nothing-else NZSB aromas:  gooseberry, blackcurrant Wine Gums, lemongrass, actual grass and a hint of anise.  The acid hits first, puckering the cheeks within a second of the first taste, accenting the wine’s light electric body and lending a chalkiness and Rockets candy trappings (surely I’m not the only one whose Hallowe’ens were let down by those) to the pink grapefruit, tropical (banana, guava), herbaceous flavours.  This is crisp and delineated without coming across as too sharp, and it offers up that textbook Marlborough identity without going too green or pungent.  I don’t say this about too many Sauv Blancs, but I would seek this out again.

88+ points

$15 to $20 CDN

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2014 Saint Clair Chardonnay

This is surely the only time I have seen a winery’s Chardonnay release be younger than its Sauvignon Blanc release, a particularly interesting feat given that this Chardonnay was aged for 10 months in barrel after being 50% fermented in seasoned American oak.  US oak barrels tend to have more overt flavours and looser grain than tighter and defter French oak barrels, so I was slightly worried that this might end up a wine where the maturation flavours overrode the inherent character of the grape, but this was not remotely the case:  at times, I had to strain to pick out the oak influence, a testament to the strength of the Marlborough soils.

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The Chardonnay unsurprisingly had a bit more depth of colour than the Sauvignon Blanc, but not much, remaining a similar greeny-lemon hue.  It is almost unfair trying to describe the aromas of neutral cool-climate Chardonnay after bombastic punk-rock Sauvignon, so I’m not sure I’m doing this bottle justice by saying its aromas were quite and understated, but I can say with more confidence that the standard oak-based smells of vanilla, dill and coconut were absent, replaced by more careful and primary notes of Asian pear, honeydew, red apple, water chestnut and spice.  Only medium-bodied, the wine unfolded on the palate in layers, first white peach fruit, then pecan nuttiness, then lemon curd, nutmeg and oolong tea on the finish, with a touch of bitter almond long after you swallow.  Where the oak influence shows up most is in the slightly mouth-drying hints of fuzzy tannin, not often evident in a white wine.

On the whole, this is an impressively nuanced value effort Chardonnay, one that may leave some people wanting more oak influence and others wanting less, depending on their preferences – suggesting maybe that a balance has been struck?

87+ points

$15 to $20 CDN

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