A Profile of New Zealand Wine
New Zealand Wine
by Paul Howard
Grapes were first planted in New Zealand back in 1836. But it is only 25 years ago when their distinctive style of Sauvignon Blanc hit paydirt. Since then, there has been phenomenal growth – there are now ten wine regions, with 585 wineries and new ventures appearing almost weekly. While NZ makes only a tiny fraction of the world’s wine, we Brits are the biggest consumers of it.
New Zealand’s image is clean and green, with stunning scenery and an outdoor lifestyle. Diversity and innovation are creating new trends and the winemakers are a passionate bunch. So – what’s hot? Here are my predictions for the new decade with some personal favourites to look out for.
New Zealand is most famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. Now planted in all regions, its huge international impact has been fuelled by a seemingly insatiable demand. Because of this, over half of New Zealand’s vineyards are now planted in Marlborough, where this grape is at its classic best.
That pungent Marlborough style is immediately distinctive, marked by herbaceous and tropical aromas. However, there are clear signs that Sauvie is dividing into two camps. Some producers are aiming for ever higher concentrations of aromatics in the gooseberry/peapod/passionfruit range. In contrast, an alternative style is one more akin to French Sancerre. Here pungency is restrained. The aim being to produce less assertive but more elegant wines that go better with food. Which is best is according to your personal taste!
Look out for… Astrolabe, Clos Henri, Cloudy Bay, Dog Point, Isabel Estate, Lawson’s Dry Hills, Montana Brancott (all Marlborough). While there are no signs of boredom with Sauvignon Blanc, most producers also grow other white wines, for which New Zealand is well suited: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier and large amounts of Chardonnay. There are many excellent examples of all these but arguably the white grape most likely to become the next big thing is Pinot Gris.
“Epitome of antipodean fashion”
Pinot Gris is now New Zealand’s third most planted white variety, behind Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and is the epitome of antipodean fashion. One reason is that it appeals to those tiring of Chardonnay; another is that it is a great food match. Perhaps the simplest answer is that it is easily recognised. In the UK we often refer to it by its Italian name – Pinot Grigio.
However, New Zealand Pinot Gris comes in four different styles. The first is akin to Italian Pinot Grigio; dry, light and lean, designed for early drinking. By contrast, when it is in a dry Alsace-style it is riper and with a bigger body, with a focus on smooth texture and spice.
The third style is to mature the wine in new French Oak barrels, the wood influence ranging from subtle elegance to toasty. Lastly, arguably the finest expression of Pinot Gris, is an off-dry style where a little residual sugar enhances the wine’s silky texture and quince fruit – and that makes it brilliant with Asian cuisine.
Look out for… Neudorf (Nelson), Ata Rangi, Dry River (Wairarapa); Seresin, Villa Maria (Marlborough); Kumeu River (Auckland);
Pinot Noir is New Zealand’s red wine success. International accolades are numerous and demand outstrips supply. It has become easily the most planted red grape in New Zealand because the cool climate is especially suited to it. Wairarapa and fashionable Central Otago make the best examples but Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay are also getting in on the act. Pinot Noir is the Holy Grail of the serious Kiwi winemaker and a “must have” in the wine range as a badge of prestige.
While Burgundy in France is the touchstone and comparisons are inevitable, Kiwi Pinot Noir has its own identity. Often it possesses deeper colour, purer fruit and higher alcohol. The best wines have perfume, balance and silken texture – what I call “pinosity”. Meanwhile, second-label wines have emerged, enabling wineries to sell bigger volumes using bought-in fruit at a lower price without damaging the main brand – many are very good value.
It is a testament to the skill and craft of New Zealand producers that it is rare to encounter a dull example of their Pinot Noir. There is a wealth of good bottles from which to choose. In addition, there are a handful of iconic wines that are simply world class. And my expectation is that quality will continue to improve!
Look out for…Felton Road, Carrick, Two Paddocks, Valli (Otago); Neudorf (Nelson); Millton (Gisborne); Ata Rangi, Dry River, Escarpment (Wairarapa); Fromm, Herzog, (Marlborough); Pegasus Bay (Waipara)
“Winning combination of new world fruit with old world structure”
A century ago Syrah was widely planted in New Zealand. But because of the cool, wet climate it frequently produces thin acidic wine that lacks colour. By 1984 there is no interest remaining in Syrah. Viniers rescue the few remaining vines from a viticultural research station. Replanting takes place at Stonecroft Estate in Hawke’s Bay. They thrive in their new home. It is drier and sunnier, with stony gravel soils, the remnants of old river beds.
Suddenly, the potential of Syrah re-emerges and a quiet revolution occurs, especially on the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawke’s Bay. Though the amount grown remains relatively small there are dozens of award-winning wines emerging. These have more in common with the graceful Syrahs of the Northern Rhône rather than the bolder Australian Shiraz style. They offer a winning combination of new world fruit with old world structure.
“Never an excuse for a jaded palate”
Look out for… Trinity Hill, Bilancia, Craggy Range, Stonecroft (all Hawke’s Bay). And there’s more: don’t overlook excellent Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Viognier. The red Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Merlot) have improved enormously and are glorious in Hawke’s Bay and on Waiheke Island near Auckland. And there’s never an excuse for a jaded palate. You can find wines being made from Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Verdelho, Pinotage and many more besides.
Finally, the excellent sparkling wines make a great (and cheaper) alternative to Champagne, while the newly available sweet dessert wines are delicious too. I find that discovering New Zealand wine is a life-affirming pastime – I hope you’ll join me.