A New Zealand Pioneer Still Tastes Fresh

It’s an age-old story: fathers and sons arguing, sons then leaving to chart their own way. This version began more than 40 years ago and led to the production of New Zealand’s pioneer Sauvignon Blanc, a grape now synonymous with the country.

Bill and Ross Spence had New Zealand wine in their veins. Their grandfather made fortified wines in 1918 in West Auckland, a wine region, and their dad followed his footsteps. But the boys thought they could make something special, more refined than the usual fare their countrymen drank. Ross, the older of the two, enrolled at Fresno State to study oenology. Bill majored in viticulture at New Zealand’s Massey University.

They returned home with modern ideas about how Dad could change his practices and that didn’t sit well. “He told us it was his way or the highway so we left” and went to work for other wineries, Bill told me.

Ross had tasted California Sauvignon Blanc and believed the grape might thrive in the right spot back home, where other varieties had struggled with the cool climate. In time, he got cuttings from a New Zealand research center and he and Bill planted them in 1969 at their fledgling Matua Winery, which their grandmother helped underwrite. Matua means “leader” or “head of the family” in Maori. Those cuttings had viruses, so they kept looking and found a clone from UC Davis at another New Zealand research center. They made a small amount of Sauvignon Blanc from that clone in 1973, following in 1974 with their first commercial release. They proudly say it was New Zealand’s first Sauvignon Blanc.

Today, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is instantly recognizable. If your nose could smell a color, the country’s Sauvignon Blanc would smell green. A serious student of the grape, Bill says, “Depending on the climate and terroir, the grape tastes different everywhere. The green, grassy flavor that comes out of Sauvignon Blanc is unique, but different styles come up. Some have more intense flavor. We’re trying for more minerality and fullness in the mouth.”

Bill says the brothers didn’t have a lot of money when they started Matua. They provided the know-how and others provided investment dollars. When those investors needed to take their money out, the parties sold the company in 2001. Ross held positions in wine industry organizations before retiring recently, and Bill now acts as ambassador for Matua.

To mark their 40th anniversary, Matua’s making a huge push in the U.S. with its Sauvignon Blanc and other varietal wines. (Case in point: We went to a fine Greek restaurant just last week where the wine special of the day was Matua Sauvignon Blanc.) The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc is refreshing, with mild green-pepper and citrus notes and a pleasant spritz. The 2013 Pinot Noir is a solid Pinot in a light, gulpable, grapey and earthy package. Both wines made us think of summer (thank heavens). Both hit their highs after a serious chill, which Bill recommends. We could see them—and many bottles of them because they’re so darn pleasant—in a tub of ice, next to the grill.    

“We want to make a wine that’s enjoyed by everybody,” Bill says, “a wine that’s trustworthy.” I’d say the Spence brothers accomplished their goal.