New Zealand is known mainly for its distinctive Marlborough (South Island) sauvignon blanc – a wine style honed by Australian winemaker David Hohnen, founder of the iconic Cloudy Bay. Pinot Noir has been recognised among connoisseurs with key players in Martinborough and, increasingly, Central Otago (South Island). The Gimblett Gravels area in the Hawkes Bay has been delivering some exceptional cabernet sauvignon-merlot blends.
What is now also emerging is a rather interesting sparkling wine category and, though most of this is currently consumed domestically, more is likely to enter the export markets. The big players already have their international reputation – for example Pelorus from Cloudy Bay, now owned by fashion and drinks giant LVMH.
Alan McCorkindale, winemaker and proprietor at his eponymous winery in the Waipara Valley in the South Island, says that interest in this category is long overdue, given that quality is high at the top end and also at entry level. His Blanc de Blancs 2009 is just about to be released on the market, a wine which wine critic Michel Bettane, of the Academie Internationale du Vin, has declared “the best Southern Hemisphere sparkling wine that I have ever tried”.
Apparently British wine critic Oz Clarke, when asked by McCorkindale to “try this”, asked: “Is it champagne?” Soft and classy, it definitely has a classic champagne nose, a small and persistent bead, and what McCorkindale refers to as “a kiss of oak,” which helps to fill out the mineral-laced palate. His chardonnay clones were all imported from Champagne, and he employs the close-planted vine practices of the Champagne region.
The Blanc de Blancs is McCorkindale’s flagship wine, produced on limestone soil. “We use the cooler sites,” says McCorkindale, noting that the diurnal range is wider than in, for example, Marlborough, particularly during ripening. Even so, the temperatures are higher than in the Champagne region of the UK. “But we get a vibrancy… which sometimes Champagne doesn’t get.” He believes many New Zealand winemakers are staying away from sparkling wine “because the sparkling wine market demands quite a lot of marketing; more than still wine”. A further issue is that while Champagne and Prosecco are known the world over, “everywhere else is a black hole”.
Certainly he is not the only one doing high class wine. At entry level, Villa Maria makes a sparkling sauvignon blanc, and Mission makes a sparkling which is almost 100 per cent pinot gris. This recalls Cremant d’Alsace, though in this French region the grape would tend to be blended with other aromatics. Other New Zealand winemakers blend sauvignon blanc with pinot gris. These are subtle, appealing wines, but the class is coming from the small, even boutique producers, working with the grapes of the Champagne region: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
The wines of Quartz Reef are typical of what is happening in New Zealand, because of their consistent quality and dependability. These are the wines of Central Otago pioneer Rudi Bauer, who was New Zealand Royal Agricultural Society winemaker of the year in 2010. His Brut NV, which is 65 per cent pinot noir, has lovely honeysuckle on the nose and palate, but finishes perfectly dry – the dosage is a relatively low 7g/L. His Rose NV, which is 100 per cent pinot noir, has a huge nose, and again shows some honeysuckle. It has the same perfect balance of the Brut with a dosage of just 5g/L. This represents very precise winemaking.
Sparkling wine heavyweight Dr Tony Jordan established Green Point in Australia’s Yarra Valley – Moet & Chandon’s outpost Down Under. He consults at Akarua, also in Central Otago. The Akarua 2010 is just over half pinot noir, and has the delicacy of a Dom Perignon: that “almost there” purity of character. It is highly sophisticated. The Akarua Rose NV is also just over half pinot noir and has the prettiest, pale salmon colour. It is a subtle wine with a gentle bead. McCorkindale comments that the wines of Central Otago, where he also has a vineyard, tend to be more elegant and austere than those of the Waipara Valley, with a higher proportion of pinot noir.
In addition to the challenges of how to market sparkling wine, McCorkindale says there is an additional issue preventing more winemakers from going down this path. “It is technically more difficult to produce,” he laughs.