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Dear Dr. Vinny,
What makes New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc taste the way it does?
—Steve, Hong Kong
Great question. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc transmits its terroir, or “sense of place,” in a very distinct way. The wines are typically bright and effusive, with a zingy acidity that complements the citrus and fresh herbal notes, balanced on a light and crisp body. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
I think the high level of ultraviolet (UV) light that New Zealand is exposed to leaves a big imprint on the wines. I’ve read that there can be as much as 30 percent to 40 percent more UV in New Zealand than in other winegrowing regions. The UV rays help ripen the grapes, and those strong rays mean the grapes can ripen while it’s still relatively cool, which helps keep the fresh acidity. In most other wine regions, it has to get quite warm to also get the grapes ripe and flavorful, and that warmth can decrease acidity.
Why so much UV? There are a couple of reasons for this. The earth's orbit of the sun is an ellipse, which means its distance from the sun changes as the year passes; we're closest to the sun during December and January, which is summer for the southern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere also has less ozone than the northern hemisphere, which means less of the sun's UV light is being filtered out. Finally, New Zealand has very little air pollution (which also filters out UV light), both because it’s a small, sparsely populated country, and because it is a narrow island with persistent winds.
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