Saintly stuff from New Zealand

Henry Little, brand new trainee manager at Majestic Roehampton, only started at Majestic on the 2nd March! However, one week later, he was invited to a tasting with the chief winemaker from Saint Clair, Matt Thomson, and was keen to tell us what he learned!

Aphrodisiac properties and a clean sweat are not things you might expect to see on the average tasting note, but then sauvignon blanc does throw up some of the most vivid aromatics out there, and the wines of Saint Clair, one of New Zealand’s finest producers, are far from average.

Certainly, the tasting put on for Majestic staff was an opportunity for many interesting discussions, and even when trying to decipher my rather illegible scrawlings the morning after, my impression was that the evening was a great insight into developments at the forefront of New Zealand wine.

Relative newcomers on the scene, operating under the name since just 1994 (although their vines go back several decades) Saint Clair’s range is proving hugely popular, their sauvignon blanc especially – unsurprisingly perhaps, given it bears all the hallmarks of great Kiwi sauvignon. But just as New Zealand is not one uniform piece of ground, neither is New Zealand sauvignon one generic wine, and it can be reductive to talk about such varied wines in blanket terms.

Recognising the dangers of being pigeon-holed perhaps, Saint Clair are leading the way in the diversity stakes within the sauvignon variety, particularly with the adventurous Pioneer Block range, in which each name and number corresponds to a particular plot of land, or “block”. This represents a wise move away from the less sophisticated varietal emphasis towards something closer to ‘terroir’, a process of looking in fine detail at the individual characteristics of different areas and taking the wine production forward responsively.

Does it make a difference? In short, yes: whether it’s the angle at which the rows of vines are planted or the proximity of the land to the sea or a river, the wines are unmistakably New Zealand sauvignon, but the changes within the spectrum of aromas from one to another are also clearly discernible. Strong notes shared between the wines include blackcurrant and passion fruit, and even what chief winemaker Matt Thomson describes as a seductive “clean sweat” (the French prefer the more cautious term: “boxwood”), but more individual elements such as grass or green pepper show through in some of the wines too. And just as sauvignon blanc is no one-trick pony, neither is New Zealand. Most producers have already started branching out into pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay, pinot grigio and so on to provide essential breadth.

As you might expect, Saint Clair’s range beyond sauvignon is very strong; their pinot noirs ranging from silky to explosive, the chardonnays beautifully made, with good use of oak (both American and French in different cases). In fact, in a hugely unofficial and very limited poll I made at the end of our tasting, many Majestic staff actually voted the pinots and the chardonnays the pick of the bunch, so if sauvignon isn’t your thing then these are definitely well worth a try, although you will have to wait to sample their delicious chardonnay as it’s currently on a boat somewhere (due to arrive in store in the second half of April). Whether we will all be drinking as much sauvignon ten years down the line is hard to say, perhaps a new variety will be wowing us, but whatever happens on that front, Saint Clair already have their backs well covered.

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