New Zealand: Clarity, Precision and Elegance

  • Kevin 

New Zealand: sure the Sauvignon Blanc is fabulous – but what about the rest?

That New Zealand is producing some very good wines should not come as a surprise to very many people. If you’ve tried anything from New Zealand, you’ve probably had a Sauvignon Blanc, likely from Marlborough – and probably the one made by Cloudy Bay, who are nearly singlehandedly responsible for putting New Zealand on the wine map, back in the day.

Sauvignon Blanc and, increasingly, Pinot Noir are the grapes with which New Zealand has made its reputation, internationally. And with good reason; the style of Sauvignon Blanc emerging from those islands, with its vivid aromas of grapefruit, gooseberry and passionfruit complemented by grass, bell pepper and even jalapeño has, like Argentinian Malbec, established itself as a new archetype in its own right. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is very different than that coming from Bordeaux or even that coming from that redoubt of French Sauvignon Blanc: Sancerre.

But New Zealand is far, far more than Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, there are plenty of other interesting grapes to be found, and most of them offer a particular, characteristic “New Zealand” signature. More on that later. First, let’s look at some of what makes New Zealand special – or at least different.

Latitude and Hemisphere

Newsflash: New Zealand, like Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and many other “New World” wine-producing nations, is in the Southern Hemisphere. This simple fact has a significant influence on wine production, regardless of actual geographic location, due to the effects of all that ocean (the Southern Hemisphere has far less landmass compared to the Northern Hemisphere) and the tilt of the earth. “What has the tilt of the earth got to do with it?” I hear some of you thinking. Well, the tilt of the earth means that when one of the two hemispheres is tilted towards the sun, it experiences “Summer”. This obviously happens at different times of the year depending on which hemisphere you are looking at as the earth traces its orbit around the sun. You are probably aware that the earth’s orbit is not a circle, but an ellipse. As it turns out, the Northern Hemisphere experiences summer when the earth is actually at its farthest point from the sun – and the Southern Hemisphere experiences theirs when, orbitally speaking, the earth is closest to the sun. Closer to the sun should mean more solar energy, which should lead to warmer summers. Combined with the regulating effects of the oceans, however, the summers in the southern hemisphere are actually slightly cooler than what is found at an equivalent latitude in the northern hemisphere. Nevertheless, the climate in the southern hemisphere is somewhat more advantageous for the production of consistently ripe grapes. And “consistency” really is the byword; in general, there is less vintage variation in the Southern Hemisphere.

Latitude is also an important factor: like Tasmania and some parts of Chile and Argentina, New Zealand is located at relatively high latitudes, allowing it to produce wines that benefit from some climate conditions that are closer to those found in continental Europe’s cooler-climate zones (where many of the best of the “Old World” wines are made) – but without some of the risks.

Geography and Geology

Map of New Zealand including wine regions

Look upon this…and wonder. Image courtesy of New Zealand Wine

New Zealand comprises two main islands (and nearly six hundred smaller ones), both with mountain ranges influencing wind patterns, rainfall and growing areas.

North Island: the warmer of the two, and with volcanic soils, gravels, silt and sand. Up-and-coming winegrowing areas include Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, and Wairarapa – which contains the exciting Martinborough subzone.

South Island: cooler, with plenty of alluvial soils, silt and sand, but also some exciting slate parcels. The legendary Marlborough is found here, but also Central Otago and Waipara Valley, among others, are worthy of note.

Grapes and Viticulture

New Zealand’s winemaking babysteps were made with Müller-Thurgau, phylloxera-resistant hybrids, and other grape varieties responsible primarily for “Cheap and Cheerful” wines, thanks to the habits of the European consultants flown in to advise the nascent wine industry on what would work best. Those days are, thankfully, mostly past. New Zealand has converted to high-quality grapes – and is the first nation able to claim 100% sustainable viticulture.

From a total of over 35,000 hectares under vine, the major commercially-viable grape varieties found now include:

White

Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer – with one of my personal favourites, Viognier, coming up from time to time as well

Red

Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah – but, like Viognier above, Cabernet Franc can also be found, and it can be great!

Closures

So how do you feel about screwcap closures on your wine? Some people love them, some hate them (Italians, in particular, are infamous for their refusal to accept screwcap as a legitimate closure for wine of any price class). But love them or hate them, we have New Zealand significantly to thank (or curse) for the ever-increasing worldwide acceptance of this style of closure. New Zealand bottles almost all of their wine under screwcap (over 90% of production, apparently), including their super-premium production. The discussion of the relative merits of screwcap, cork and any other closures will have to wait for another post, but our friends from the islands have good reason to have switched wholesale to screwcap: they endured poor quality natural cork for years, with individual producers sometimes losing upwards of 75% of their production due to cork taint. Fingers were pointed, words were spoken. The twin curses of cork taint and premature oxidation are eliminated with screwcap. Which is not to say that screwcap does not bring with it some other difficulties. More on that another time.

Positioning

Now, I find this bit pretty fascinating. New Zealand is tiny, really – just four million people. And they produce less than 1% of the world’s total wine output. And yet, the wines are universally accepted as being of high quality, with the cheapest bottlings generally more than double the cost of the cheapest Australian offerings – their nearest neighbour as far as wine producing countries are concerned. This is, really, mostly by design. New Zealand may be small and its wine industry extremely young (export has only existed around 40 years or so), but its producers were savvy enough to realise that they could not compete on the bulk wine scene. And so they focused on quality – and boy, do they deliver.

Sustainability

Nearly all (98%, in fact) of New Zealand’s vineyards are certified “sustainable” by the country’s independent certifying body: Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand. The program was initiated 1997 with the aim of setting up a framework for the OIV’s standards for sustainability to be made accessible for all of the country’s winegrowers. The program has been a raging success by any measure.

Going into a lot of detail would take far too long. For more information please do check out the website from New Zealand Wine, which will guide you through the history and details. In a nutshell, however, the program focuses on the “Pillars of Sustainability”, which are:

  • Byproducts
  • Soil
  • Air
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Pest & Disease Management
  • People
  • Business

Each of these pillars is optimised for the appropriate elements, and nearly every winemaker and vineyard – plus staff – in New Zealand is on board. The first “Sustainability Report” was released in 2016, and it makes for very encouraging reading.

Being so isolated from the rest of the world, our friends from the islands recognised fairly early on how important it is to look after resources and land in order to secure the future. Incredibly, there remain people – yes, also in viticulture – around the world who genuinely seem not to realise that the survival of any agricultural business depends on the health of the natural world from which said business draws its raw materials.

Some thoughts on “New Zealandness”…

There are perhaps three countries in the world whose wines have made an initial impression on me primarily for the cleanliness and purity of the fruit: Chile, Switzerland and New Zealand. Of these three, it is New Zealand that truly astonishes me in this regard.

Geography and geology were looked at a bit above. The country also benefits from huge diurnal variation, meaning the difference in temperature between night and day can be really large. Combined with the moderating effects of the ocean (no part of New Zealand is farther than 180 km from the ocean) this means that the grapes ripen completely, bringing us great fruit, but also that their acidity is maintained, bringing freshness and food-compatibility. Add to this the fungus-defeating, vineyard-scouring effects of the wind – and Antarctica is the source of some of those winds, bestowing cool air on the southern and western parts of the islands – and you have a recipe for perfect, healthy, fresh-tasting grapes.

The work in the vineyards contributes to the health of the grapes, as well as to the aroma profile. Work in the cellar, with its hygiene, temperature control and attention to detail, goes a long way to maintaining and augmenting that fruit. Stylistically, New Zealand prides itself on clean, precise wines.

Finally, since the wines are almost always bottled under screwcap, there are seldom problems with  cork taint or oxidation. The winemakers have a lot of experience with this closure. Even if you are new to the winemaking scene in NZ, expertise is not lacking – you are likely literally surrounded by colleagues who know what they are doing and are going to help you if you need it. This means that one of the main problems with screwcap – the problem of reduction (smelly, sulphur-like aromas) – is generally avoided.

All this adds up to what is, for me, a signature, national style of winemaking: vibrant, pure, healthy fruit often backed up with crisp acidity and underscored by varietal typicity.

But with that varietal typicity comes a single caveat: often, the bottlings of some varietals offer such clarity and clean flavours that they end up being surprisingly different than bottlings made in practically all other countries of the world. Think of that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; try as they might, the winemakers of the rest of the world have, thus far, been unable to mimic this style. As New Zealand branches out and masters how to work with varieties like Pinot Noir and Syrah, we see that there really is a difference in what ends up in the bottle, compared with what is being produced, well, nearly everywhere else.

Like with everything when it comes to wine, it comes down to taste: do you like it or not? In my opinion, every grape our friends from the Islands work with must be assessed individually; if you don’t like the Sauvignon Blanc, it doesn’t mean you won’t like the Pinot Gris, and vice versa. In short, if you haven’t tried it yet, don’t be too quick to judge! Far too many people are missing out on some exciting wines simply because they feel they know how it is going to be based on nothing more than their experience with a few of the famous bottlings to have emerged from the country.

The Tastings

I’ve had the pleasure of attending three hosted tastings of wines from New Zealand, all sponsored by the New Zealand Winegrowers association. Each event had its own focus – and each was interesting in its own way. The most recent of these was led by Master of Wine Romana Echensberger.

There were, unsurprisingly, more than a few Sauvignon Blancs presented, but there were also several Chardonnays and Rieslings, a Pinot Grigio, a Semillon, and a Viognier. The reds were ably represented by plenty of Pinot Noir, but what I personally found more exciting were the three Syrahs and the three Bordeaux blends (wines made with the “classic” Bordeaux grapes but, obviously, not made in Bordeaux).

Here are my thoughts on some of what I tried.

THE WHITES

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio

I like it. And I don’t just mean the NZ versions of it that I’ve had. I mean that I like this grape and what can be done with it in the hands of a careful producer with access to good grapes. I haven’t tried too many of these yet from New Zealand, but what I’ve had has been of high quality, exhibiting good colour (the grape generally looks a bit more brassy in the glass than lemon or straw-coloured), stone fruit, floral and spice elements, and with good body. As everywhere that the grape is made dry, it tends to have high alcohol – but the NZ examples I’ve tried shore that up with real freshness in spite of having very good concentration, which is most certainly NOT a given elsewhere. Exciting stuff!

Riesling

Okay. I live in Germany, home to half the world’s Riesling vines and source of most (no, not all) of that glorious grape’s best producers. On top of that, the greatest Rieslings in Germany are not expensive here – at least, not compared to literally every other great wine from any of the classic regions from the rest of the world. Ahem. And so it is difficult to compete with what Germany offers. The Rieslings I tried were good, and they were even reminiscent of German Rieslings! And I very much encourage the producers in New Zealand to keep learning about, experimenting with and producing wines from this grape. It could become very exciting in the near future.

Chardonnay

These are getting more and more interesting – and I was really taken with one of the wines (see below) that I tried. Some are oaked – generally quite tastefully instead of overdoing it – and some are not. My preference generally is for the unoaked versions, where there is often a clear mineral and acidic structure with delightful fruit.

Sauvignon Blanc

There’s no getting around the need to talk about the flagship NZ grape variety. And in spite of everything that I’ve already said about it, there were a few pleasant surprises at the tasting. First: the prices! Not one of the bottlings was over €17.00, and two, one of which was my personal favourite of the Sauvignon Blanc portion of the evening, were at about €10.00. This is an extremely competitive price, and the quality in the glass was very high. Plus, the wines chosen, generally, offered a broad spectrum of wine experiences, from simple, zesty, fruity and appetising to deeper, complex, mineral and herbaceous.

Semillon

Oh, I was looking forward to this: my first New Zealand Semillon. And it did not disappoint. Okay, the wine was a white Bordeaux blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, but I was excited nonetheless. I was particularly curious if it would be anything like the wines emerging from that antipodean mecca of Semillon: Hunter Valley in Australia. Short answer: it wasn’t. But the wine was fascinating and unexpected in addition to being quite delicious. Score!

Viognier

If you are looking for Condrieu – or, worse, “more Condrieu than Condrieu” – you would likely be disappointed. But, after having tried a number of examples from different producers, I can honestly say that no other white grape planted in New Zealand inspires more “gotta find some” zeal in me than this one. Freshness with Viognier is often a problem, even on its home turf in the Northern Rhône. But New Zealand is pulling it off, and not by sacrificing ripeness. Floral, fruity, spicy and with delicate acidity, this is exciting stuff.

The Standouts:

Seifried, Old Coach Road Unoaked Chardonnay, Nelson, 2014Seifried, Old Coach Road Unoaked Chardonnay, Nelson, 2014

Lovely ripe lemon and lime, a bit of melon and vibrant, yet well-integrated, acidity. An interesting flinty element and a somewhat prickly finish, but with very good length. A very good wine at an excellent price.

Villa Maria, Private Bin Organic Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, 2016

With an appetising note of green bell pepper and sweet herbs to add some variation to the grapefruit and subtle passionfruit. The acidity here, too, is lively and fresh without being aggressive. An elegant, vertical wine with a mouthwatering finish.

Waimea Family Estate, Sauvignon Blanc, Nelson, 2015

A bit smoky and with some more green bell pepper. A hint of capers and a very fine, salty mineral finish. Excellent freshness. An unusual and unexpected wine that I. nevertheless, really enjoyed.

Pegasus Bay, Sauvignon Semillon, Waipara Valley, 2013

Pegasus Bay, Sauvignon Semillon, Waipara Valley, 2013The initial floral nose is swiftly subsumed by deep tropical fruit aromas. There is a hint of tannin and breadth in the mouth, with excellent complexity, spice and a lovely, drying finish. Somehow manages to be simultaneously understated and explosive. Fascinating wine.

 

THE REDS

Pinot Noir

If there must be only one representative red variety for fine wines on the islands, it would have to be Pinot Noir. Indulge me for a moment: I am not Pinot Noir’s greatest defender. Far, far too many examples of it that I simply can’t enjoy – at least for what I am prepared to pay – make their way across my tasting table.  I enjoy the grape a great deal when it is well-made, but I can seldom justify the expense of the ones that I like. For me, a good one offers fruit, a bit of herbaceousness and some spice, with good tannin and nice acidity. So far, I could be describing good Pinot Noir from many places. Above all, however, I appreciate healthy fruit picked before becoming overripe, and a very fine hand when it comes to oak. Now we’ve suddenly reduced the playing field to just a few contenders. New Zealand is making very fine Pinot Noir with excellent, healthy fruit, seldom overoaked, reflecting real regional identity that will only intensify as time and know-how progress. Pinots from Martinborough and Central Otago were the most interesting for me at the tastings (it was a real pity that one of the Central Otago Pinots from Quartz Reef was stuck on a truck somewhere near Nuremberg and so couldn’t be at the tasting), but other regions are doing very good things as well. If you are looking for consistency, pleasure and interest without the crapshoot that Burgundy usually offers, New Zealand is an excellent place to cast your net.

Syrah

Now we’re talking. If I walked away from these tastings with one single important lesson learned, it would be that New Zealand can and does make beautiful Syrah. In my opinion, after Sauvignon Blanc it could be the grape with the most potential for establishing a quintessential “New Zealand” wine style. The Syrah made here exhibits all of the “New Zealandness” that I was referring to earlier, with exceptionally pure fruit, excellent ripe tannin – and an aromatic profile that, from some producers, can seem almost as if the grape is trying too hard. What you get here more than any other aromatic component is Black Pepper. In one wine it was like freshly-ground from the pepper mill, in another it was more of a mortar-and-pestle effect. But it always seems to be there, and it is gorgeous.  Add to that fine, ripe tannin, elegant acidity and deft deployment of oak and these wines become truly exciting. It might be tempting to try to compare them to what is made in Australia, the next-closest producer of famous Syrah/Shiraz, but this is not particularly useful; New Zealand Syrah is a very different animal. The ones I’ve had are all labelled as Syrah instead of Shiraz. They are filled in the Burgundy bottle instead of the Bordeaux bottle. It’s almost as if they are trying to tell us something. I can’t wait to get some more of these, they are pure drinking pleasure with real potential for years to come.

The Bordeaux Blends

I have to admit, I was very pleasantly surprised not only by the high quality offered by these wines, but also by how enjoyable and characterful they are. Bordeaux blends are always a mix of at least two of the Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenère are the main red varieties found), and nearly every region capable of ripening at least two of them has an array of producers trying to mimic that enchanting – and lucrative – style of wine. In countries like Spain and Chile the wines can have excellent fruit and some good structure, but warm-climate Bordeaux blends seldom approach the interest and elegance of Bordeaux. Parts of Italy and certainly California offer excellent options – but these wines are almost always ultra-premium producs suitable only for the deepest wallets. New Zealand offers a viable alternative to these other interlopers. The wines I have tried have not been cheap, but nor have they been fruit bombs – even with occasionally high alcohol levels. They often offer elegance, healthy fruit, complexity and staying power, coupled with that New Zealand crispness and subtle use of barriques. What I’ve had has always been interesting and enjoyable – and capable of improving with time in bottle. I really can’t say that about many other homages to this icon of French winemaking. Unquestionably a style to watch, and I will be very interested how these wines develop in the coming years, both in the winemaking and in the bottle.

The Standouts:

Elephant Hill, Pinot Noir, Central Otago, 2013Elephant Hill, Pinot Noir, Central Otago, 2013

The darkest of the Pinots that I tried, and with a hint of dark chocolate to accompany beautiful red fruit – particularly cherry, as well as fine, spicy nuance. While not as fresh as most of the the other Pinots, it had enough acidity to be interesting and to work well with food. Very good length. Altogether an intriguing, enjoyable wine.

Giesen, Clayvin Syrah, Marlborough, 2012

Giesen, Clayvin Syrah, Marlborough, 2012Here we are, black pepper crushed with mortar and pestle underscore a delicious stewed plum and San Marzano tomato aspect which, excitingly, marries very well with the blackberry and blueberry fruit that complete the initial picture. Very fine, supple tannin and smooth acidity leading to a good, long finish. A very nice wine – and the only one without a German importer. I hope this can be corrected soon!

Schubert, Syrah, Martinborough, 2011

And speaking of Germany, this estate is owned and operated by two Germans who are also graduates of Geisenheim University (Germany’s preeminent school for all things wine). Now, I mentioned the black pepper aspect of Syrah…well, this wine has got it in a way I have never experienced before. At the first instant, it was almost like someone had poured fresh peppercorns into the glass. This modulated into a spicy, long-lasting juniper-wood character that was delightful, and backed up with cooked blackberries, finishing with a hint of cedar. Very fine acidity and ripe, smooth tannin all capped off with a long, appetising finish that had a hint of bitterness better-known in Italian reds. What a delight!

Man O’ War, Cuvée Ironclad, Waiheke Island, 2012

This wine utilises nearly the full spectrum of red Bordeaux varieties, having been made with 45% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, 14% Petit Verdot, 13% Malbec and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon. Also the barriques are French, but only 35% of them are new wood. The wine itself presents a delicious savoury character with some olive, a bit of oregano and basil. It has really big structure, with firm tannin, is full-bodied but still fresh. The oak is very present, but does not detract from the overall character of the wine – and there is promise for years of potential with good cellaring. No, you will not mistake this wine for Bordeaux – there is too much fruit ripeness and power for that – but you will absolutely recognise its Gironde ancestry as seen through the New Zealand lens. Cheers!

Leave a Reply