Some facts you may not know about New Zealand:
• It was the last large land mass discovered on earth, making it, for all intents, our planet’s youngest country.
• New Zealand is the only nation on earth to have three official anthems: God Save The Queen, God Defend New Zealand and Please Don’t Eat The Kiwis.
• The flightless kiwi is not, as I have previously reported, the avian equivalent of a swamp rat, but a shy, hairy, nocturnal little furball; the avian equivalent of a tarantula.
• There are nine sheep to every human in New Zealand, offering Auckland horndogs a better scoring chance than the roughly equal man/woman ratio.
• They make some wicked sauvignon blanc in Marlborough.
Whitehaven Wine Company: Shareholders and sharecroppers share the stash
As kids growing up in Detroit without the slightest sensitivity to the ravages of reality, we used to joke about white havens: Dearborn was one—Mayor Hubbard was put on trial for conspiracy to violate human rights based on his housing policies—and Hamtramck was another, although we were equally shameless when speaking of the lily-white Poles. Embarrassing, cruel and childish attitudes; the fact that we were children is not a sufficient excuse. Better that ‘white haven’ should hereafter be associated only with the unique and gorgeous wines of Whitehaven Winery in Marlborough, New Zealand.
Back in the mid-Nineties, Greg and Sue White pulled a classic Oliver and Lisa Douglas bait’n’switch, abandoning careers in financial markets for the rural lifestyle of Marlborough, where, without the interference of Mr. Haney and Arnold the Pig, they had considerable success.
In fact, their first significant vintage, 1995, was a boom; they picked up a double gold medal for their riesling and a 5-star rating for their sauvignon blanc.
To augment this remarkable achievement, you must take into consideration that for the rest of Marlborough, ’95 was a bust—the most difficult vintage in the region’s history.
Do what Simon says…
Sue White is the first to suggest that those early-days bragging rights go primarily to their winemaker, Simon Waghorn, who has, in turn, modestly credited the quality of the grapes he used. In truth, all parties involved deserve credit. For his part, Waghorn came on board with his pedigree papers intact. Previously senior winemaker at Corbans Winery (among the oldest in New Zealand; now owned by Montana Wines, which I mention only so I can mention Montana’s founder, Ivan Yukitch. I love this name—every time I hear it, I want to respond, ‘Then scratch it already, dude.’) Anyway, in the years that followed, Waghorn took multiple shimmering prizes in every metallic hue available and excelled in both whites wines and reds, pinot gris to pinot noir. Additional ribbons went to Whitehaven for gewurtz, chardonnay, riesling and of course, the flagship wine of Marlborough, sauvignon blanc.
Just a word on this particular pas de deux…
Like the mawkish love story of Jerez and Pedro Ximénez, Chablis and chardonnay, Beaujolais and gamay, sauvignon blanc has found an archetypal anchorage in this paradisiacal region of the South Island, a map of which resembles (to me) a rear view of Scooby Doo’s head.
Amid stunning visuals, Marlborough (and in particular, the Wairau Valley) possesses a microclimate unique to the island—it’s one of New Zealand’s sunniest and driest areas, with marked day/night temperature fluctuations. Here, sauvignon enjoys the pampering it craves the most: A long, slow ripening period balanced between daytime heat (to develop sugars and flavors) and an after-hours chill (to retain acids). Viticulture centers on the stony, sandy valley soils which perch above layers of free-draining shingles, reducing the vigor of the vines, and as a result, concentrating the flavors of the grapes that do develop. Lots of sunshine and protracted hang time is key for the varietal to overcome a tendency toward ‘cat box’ aromatics which can be intriguing or off-putting depending on their intensity. Sniff this in a sauvignon blanc and be the first taster at your table to identify a short, cloudy growing season.
The conditions under which Marlborough’s sauvignon blanc thrives are also ideal for fussy, demanding pinot noir—Whitehaven’s other pet varietal. Though most of the NZ pinot buzz has centered on Central Otego lately—for all the right reasons—Marlborough cranks out a pretty mean interpretation, too. The scale of pinot plantings increases every year (it’s the most widely planted red on the island, and in Marlborough, accounts for about half the acreage of sauvignon blanc), producing wines characterized by big color extractions, bright, acidic fruit profiles and a restrained sort of earthiness—something that’s traditionally been sought out in this grape.
It’s still early days for pinot in NZ, and the wines improve yearly in most areas where they’re taken seriously.
Cravin’ Some Whitehaven… (Go ahead PR people, use it sans commission)
For a boutique winery producing such a nice variety of artisan wines with such distinct regional character, the web site reads like a SEC report, making statements like ‘Whitehaven has grown well beyond the original expectations of its shareholders’ and describing Greg and Sue not as owners, proprietors or impassioned winos but as ‘majority shareholders’.
Alas, it turns out that the site is badly in need of an update—halfway through this piece, I learned that Greg White passed away in 2007 after a valiant struggle with cancer, that Sue is now at the Whitehaven helm and that Waghorn has run off to do this own thing at Astrolabe Winery. The new cook and chief bottle washer (in the case of wineries, this isn’t a metaphor) is Sam Smail, a name that might have been lifted from the pages of Lord of the Rings, filmed, of course, not far from Whitehaven’s acreage. Working at a Smail’s pace—which in this case means ‘quickly’—Sam has established a consistency of style in Whitehaven sauvignon blanc while pushing the limits of experimentation (he’s a degreed chemist) with other varietals in the winery’s portfolio.
Speaking of PR campaigns, apparently Marlborough Country is best experienced without nicotine after all—who knew? As kids, we’d never heard of it, and gratefully so—with all those funny, spiky little birds, people named ‘Yukitch’ and the potential for multiple Saturday night I Love Ewe experiences, I suppose we’d have had a field day.
Notes on Tasting Notes: When reading reviews of New Zealand SBs, especially from native critics, you see the wine regularly ballyhooed as tasting like gooseberries, which leads me to wonder: If they like gooseberries so much, why don’t they just make gooseberry wine and call it a day? Maybe they do. Me, I wouldn’t know a gooseberry from a mooseberry, a spruceberry or a calabooseberry and beseech anybody from Down Under to please send me a gooseberry so I can find out what the heck you’re talking about.
Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, 2009*, about $23: Kiwi fruit is another common descriptor for regional sauvignon blancs, and despite the twee coincidence (both with the bird and the fact that another name for kiwi fruit is ‘Chinese gooseberry), that I can see. To me, this is a textbook specimen of varietal identity; strongly herbaceous upfront, leafy and mineral laden at midpoint and leading into grapefruit and melon flavors that linger though near-viscous palate sensations and finish with sparks of jalapeño in the aftertaste.
Whitehaven Pinot Noir, Marlborough, 2007*, around $23: Luscious, ample and lively, explosive with silky cherry notes, strawberries and a nice, supple pungency. Fruit weight is good, there is juicy plum and licorice around midway through the tasting experience; flavors are moderately intense, not overwhelming—the wine is better characterized as ‘charming’ rather than ‘aggressive’.
* Remember when dealing with Southern Hemisphere vintages that they’re essentially half a year older than ours; they harvest in what to us is springtime.