Sure, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is hot right now; the NZ section in your neighborhood retailer is lousy with them and nearly anyone making wine in New Zealand these days has at least one in their line-up. But, despite its pre-eminence in today’s market, this grape variety has only been grown by the Kiwis for a few decades.
In fact, this popular grape owes a debt of gratitude to brothers Bill and Ross Spence for its Southern Hemisphere fame. The visionary duo first planted the variety in Auckland on the North Island in 1969 as a result of Ross’ studies at the University of Fresno, CA. Their first commercial production of Sauvignon Blanc was in 1974.
After studying viticulture from two separate hemispheric points of view – Ross in California and Bill at Massey University in New Zealand – the two brothers eventually established Matua Vineyard in 1973 in a tin shed on the North Island in West Auckland. From there, they went on to purchase land in Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, eventually establishing their largest vineyard holdings in Marlborough.
While the first set of Sauvignon Blanc vines were susceptible to disease and didn’t prove to be agriculturally viable, the Spence brothers went on to identify better suited clones and eventually identified the best material from which to plant a larger Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in 1978. By then, Matua had developed a solid reputation for its Sauvignon Blanc and other wines, winning numerous awards and acclaim.
In 2000, the Matua company was sold to Beringer-Blass Wine Estates, but the brothers remain actively involved with the venture. While Nikolai St George became Senior Winemaker as a result of the sale, Bill took on the role of Ambassador and Vintrepreneur.
I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Bill at a recent press dinner held in New York. Tromping through snow piles and trying to maneuver around knee-deep, lake-size puddles at every street corner, I made my way to The Musket Room on Elizabeth Street. Prior to the invitation, I had never heard of this restaurant, but I won’t soon forget its delicious New Zealand-inspired cuisine.
We started off with Matua’s signature Sauvignon Blanc, produced with a blend of fruit from the three valleys in Marlborough. As a result of this blending, the wine is very well balanced, with a good dose of fruit, herbs and minerality. At Bill’s recommendation, I had the foie gras appetizer, which was a lovely match for the lively acidity of the wine. The main course was accompanied by a Pinot Noir, also from Marlborough. Its earthy flavors and rich, red fruit were a perfect complement to my venison.
Although Matua doesn’t produce a dessert-style wine, Bill graciously ordered the Vinoptima Late Harvest Gewurztraminer from Gisborne for us all to enjoy with dessert; a sweet ending to a lovely meal.
Describing them as “porch wines,” Spence encourages consumers to open these wines and enjoy them with whatever they wish to eat or simply on their own – no need to pontificate on aromas or flavors or worry about pairing principles.
Both wines, which are part of the Matua Regional Range, feature newly redesigned labels. With their vibrant turquoise blue backgrounds and a Maori symbol called a Ta Moko created especially for Matua, which means “head of the family” in the Maori language, the new labels speak equally to the heritage and future of Matua and its wines.