The Chosen One?

By | 01/05/2013

That Marlborough sauvignon blanc is the engine room of the country’s wine is a given. But in a typically New Zealand fashion, we seem to both be extremely proud and incredibly dismissive of the grape and style. The number of winemakers – and commentators – who say, “Nah, don’t drink the stuff” seems inordinately cavalier given its importance to the industry. No wonder the style suffers from an image problem when even those who make their living from it feel at liberty to mock it. Within this context, Brancott Estate and their masters at Pernod Ricard have decided on an approach that they feel is going to take Marlborough sauvignon blanc (MSB) to another level – via an ‘iconic’ take on the genre – the NZ$80 Chosen Rows: a row-selected, carefully nurtured, winemaker-worked style of uber-MSB.
The genesis of this wine came from chief winemaker Patrick Materman and his crew’s contemplation of how particular flagship varieties and their associated place command high prices and respect, but that while MSB stands out on world stage with its expression of the noble variety, it is yet to command accordingly high prices (and while not specifically stated by Patrick at this tasting, the notion of the corresponding lack of respect was also implied).
Brancott Estate has always made and explored different expressions of the styles, particularly through the evolution of the Letter Series. The ‘B’ sauvignon has seen varying levels of barrel fermentation over the years and has now settled into a style that also incorporates wild ferments. Materman noted that it has morphed into a much riper style, away from sweaty reductiveness into something now more subtle, perhaps cleaner, brighter and fruitier in style. The focus now is on how to add elements of texture and complexity. The ‘B’ style change has reflected both the learning curve of winemakers as well as the growing knowledge of site selection within the viticulture team, where there is frequently 30 years plus of on-the-ground experience. With Chosen Rows, they want to experiment for their own sake as well as place a stake in the ground for MSB and what it is capable of.
So, how do then to take MSB to another level as well as command aspirational prices? Brainstorming started in 2008 as they unpicked processes from vineyard to marketing and Denis Dubourdieu was commissioned, visiting just prior to harvest 2009. They wanted to use multiple sites (ultimately 14 vineyards) and took a pinot philosophy to the viticulture, keeping hand-harvested parcels separate, though some variables such as yeast were constant (at least initially). A Champagne press was used to keep phenolics to a minimum and the focus was on creating a tightly-structured, age-worthy style that introduced other aromas while being respectful of MSB’s own character. Materman sees the Chosen Rows as a very tight wine with 10 years ahead of it. He says they want to meet consumer expectations, but don’t expect that consumers of this wine to necessarily expect constancy in their wine either.
Materman acknowledges forerunners such as Dog Point, Cloudy Bay and Clos Henri, with the former two used in the launch tasting as local benchmark wines. Wines were served open label, which was a bit of a shame as it would have been good to taste them blind, with preconceptions left at the door. There was not much discussion of these wines: how they fitted together as expressions of premium sauvignon blanc and in what sort of context Brancott wanted us to see them, which also seemed a bit of a lost opportunity. Materman did state that he was not looking to France when making this wine and indeed, that he had only recently explored the Loire Valley. Fair enough, as the aim is clearly to make benchmark MSB and there is no need to make Loire-lite (or Bordeaux-lite for that matter) but it would still have been good to have had a little more depth to this discussion considering the fascinating array of wines on the table (not to mention the trouble taken to set it all up).

2010 Dog Point Section 94
Honkingly funky nose with loads of smoke and bacon fat; but smoke from a coal chimney on a very cold day (no wonder wine writers are called wankers). Quite impenetrable in many ways and actually quite rubbery reductive too; celery seed comes through but you’d be hard pressed to guess its variety off the nose. Very crisp and piercing palate with firm acid finish. linear palate, quite bracing but oddly moreish too. Some elderflower fruit, hard to get much past the firm, stony acid though fruit is tucked up there underneath, presumably to emerge in time. Very sulphidey, which you imagine might be quite a challenge for many.

2010 Cloudy Bay Te Koko
Much richer, opulent, tropical nose with hints of smoke and some nutty, toast elements too. More approachable though still exotic within the genre. Seems sweeter, more generous in style on both nose and palate, which while still firm and linear, has much more upfront fruit. This seems dialled back from the pretty funky monkey it was – or perhaps we are just getting more used to this style now? Very good richness and concentration; nice length; retains varietal character while overlaying a voluptuous exoticism.

2010 Brancott Estate Chosen Rows
Quite a funky, cheesy nose, cooked celery, cheddar, very savoury but with distinct herbal undercurrent (all three wines could hardly be more different). Some smokiness beneath, like cheese on slightly burnt toast. Palate has sweet entry, quite a tight palate with a firm stony richness to it; good concentration and oak is very subtle – more texture and complexity than wood; crisp, pithy citrus finish, perhaps a touch of heat; style a little between the two earlier wines, palate seems very Marlborough, though tightly wound and subtle with it. Looks pretty sharp. Gooseberry lime finish. Whiff of gunflint. The nose is a bit odd to begin with but opened up with more lifted herbal and elderflower notes though I could never quite get away from the cooked celery.

2010 Henri Bourgeois Sancerre Cuvee d’Antan
Marvellous, perfumed nose with masses of elderflower, ripe current leaf and a dusty lime sherbet note; a lovely textural palate with plenty of fruit richness and also a taut, stoniness, quite limey. Good concentration and elegance too. Subtle but quite juicy with it.

2010 Alphonse Mellot Sancerre Generation
This was quite an oxidised example, which was a shame given the usual high quality of Mellot. A creamy green bean nose, not entirely attractive with a definitely underripe edge to the fruit. Very tight and quite grippy palate; a bit hard work after the generosity of the Bourgeois wine. Quite a classic stony palate though and certainly still good concentration and length. Pity about the bottle’s condition.

2010 Didier Dagueneau Pouilly-Fume Silex
Very complex nose, very pretty and floral – blackcurrant blossom – subtle and soft. Gentle herbal lift. Very compelling and lithe wine with masses of concentration and complexity and a real dancing liveliness to the palate. It is extremely moreish. Seems an entirely different beast from all others in the line up, though after reflection the palate structure could only be SB. Quite a raspy edge (though no hint of unripeness) but done so beautifully and with a lovely delicacy. A neatly, crisp finish. Just urges you to drink it…

2010 Château Smith Haut Lafitte Graves
The one wine where oak is most apparent, though it is ably absorbed by fruit (and it is of course a baby). Very typical with lots of tropical exoticism, very sophisticated and rich; again plenty of concentration and length, a touch of heat perhaps; quite tight, very seamless, firm palate with a background of dried papaya, rockmelon, with crisp red capsicum, pineapple and fresh mown grass.

In a second flight of wines, we also tried the vintages created so far under this project:

2009 (a dozen cases made)
Bright fresh nose with obvious MSB character; quite a subtle, stony style though. A rich palate upfront then a tight, stony finish. Nice intensity, moderate length and quite an appealing wine, more food style but not remarkably different from other more thoughtful MSB styles that have been around for some time (Mahi, Churton, Greywacke, etc).
2010 (the current release)
More reductive style than the 2009, more complex nose and stronger character, with still some MSB character, especially on palate where the attack is sweet. See above for full notes. Materman commented that he thinks there is more ‘noise’ in this wine than the 09, which is what they were after.
2011 (became the Fume Blanc Terroir Series wine)
Oak dialled up, more tropical richness, a broader palate though still pleasingly dry and stony in the finish. Pithy and strongly citrus.
2012 (still on gross lees, has been blended).
Very funky, more tropical, seems more intense, tight, dry but with lots of underlying rich fruit, similar dry pithy stony grapefruit thread running through. Smoky struck match. Nice nettley elements.  Expected release would be 2015 but still not yet sure if it will or will not make the cut.

Certainly an interesting project, and one that seems both inevitable in MSB’s evolution as well as for the BE winemaking team who, given their history and market position, should be looking to push and/or redefine boundaries. The wine is good and seems to deliver its quality aims, though it remains to be seen what the market will make of it (the team seemed pretty upbeat about that at this point, and it’s not as though they have masses of the stuff. Evidently).
However, one must consider a few of the elephants in the room. Most crucially, iconic status is something bestowed externally, by history and pedigree, not internally by winemakers or marketing departments. I am sure both Pernod Ricard and Materman are well aware of that fact, but it does lend a slightly unfortunate air of hubris to the whole exercise.
Chosen Rows in certainly a high quality wine, and an interesting one too, but Brancott Estate is still likely to face an uphill battle to achieve any lift in the status of MSB. NZ’s recent oversupply and cash-flow woes have contributed to a change in the perception of MSB by both consumers and gatekeepers, particularly in the UK marketplace and while this may make wines such as Chosen Rows all the more important to reaffirm MSB’s status as a benchmark wine, it also makes the battle tougher. Chosen Rows needs to be seen as not only as a genuine contender for the crown but also as something more than a wine with with an arbitrarily chosen price and platform.
Plus, sauvignon blanc has a rather unenviable reputation amongst the ‘Noble Grapes’ in that it suffers from being the poor cousin. The best examples seem regarded as exceptions that prove the rule, there are few illustrious champions of the grape, and it has never commanded the attention or adulation of grapes such as chardonnay or riesling. The latter is perhaps the best comparison, for it needs no tricking up to be a beautiful tuning fork for its origins. Yet seeming most all who set out to make ‘serious’ sauvignon, spend a considerable amount of time fiddling with the wine to make it shine.  And perhaps in Marlborough, where the sheer purity and exuberance of the fruit might be harder to tame than many regions, to set a wine apart by major work in the winery is not even the right angle to be pursuing – are we allowing our terroir to shine or just showing off our winemaking skills? Of course, many of the world’s greatest wines are fiddled about with, so a hands-off approach is hardly the litmus test, but still. You see what I am getting at.

All this sounds a bit depressing and yet I am pleased to see what Materman and Brancott are doing. It’s not exactly revolutionary but the wine is worthy, and another high quality and interesting MSB is no bad thing at all. They will need to be careful that it isn’t just (perceived as) an exercise in marketing, not least as a large company does bring a certain amount of baggage to such projects. But still, you have to start somewhere, and these rows chosen are a good start indeed.

Disclosure:
I travelled to Blenheim (and back) for the Chosen Rows launch as a guest of Brancott Estate/Pernod Ricard.

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