The world knows New Zealand sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. For something different, try Kiwi chardonnay and syrah. A recent tasting in London showed how stylish these wines can be – though production is low compared with the better-known varieties.
As of late 2014 New Zealand had more than 700 vineyards and 90 per cent of them sold overseas. Kiwi wines are distinct because New Zealand is so isolated. It is 1,600 kilometres from the nearest landmass (Australia). The country is long and thin like Chile – about 1,500 kilometres in length. The furthest point inland is only 130 kilometres from the sea.
This means New Zealand has warm days and cool nights, with copious sea breezes producing a long ripening season with plenty of diurnal variation – the difference between maximum and minimum temperatures that produces great flavours in grapes.
At least 94 per cent of the country’s vineyards are certified as sustainable, via a system of self reporting based around seven “pillars”. About 70 per cent of the vines in New Zealand are less than 12 years old.
Chardonnay represents only 7 per cent ofNew Zealand wines, and only 2 per cent of exports. But these whites are impressive, and tend to be elegant and versatile with food. The classic Kiwi chardonnay has crisp acidity and concentrated fruit flavours, sometimes complemented by some oak treatment.
Unoaked chardonnay is meant to be consumed within a couple of years, whereas the oaked version can be cellared for about half a decade, sometimes longer with wines made from older vines. Chardonnay is grown throughout the country. Flavours depend on where the grapes are grown, with warmer climates giving rounder and richer notes while wines from the cooler south have higher acidity and a more pronounced sense of minerality, with fresher and more savoury flavours.
Production of syrah, also known as shiraz, is even smaller: Only 1 per cent of NZ’s total and 0.1 per cent of exports. But again these wines are elegant and remind one of reds from the northern Rhone region. Expect spices and black pepper and loads of black fruit flavours like plums with sometimes hints of violets or other flowers.
Syrah has been planted in New Zealand since the mid 1800s, but it was not until recent years that winemakers have given it their full attention. Plantings in the past decade have accelerated, to total about 430 hectares. Most of these can be found in Hawkes Bay and Auckland on the north island.
Some of the best chardonnays tasted included the range of 2012 vintages from Kumeu River, the 2013 Man O’ War Valhalla from Waiheke Island off the main city Auckland, the 2012 Greywacke from Marlborough, the 2013 Villa Maria reserve barrique-fermented from Gisborne, and the 2012 Escarpment from Martinborough.
The 2012 Kumeu River Coddington has exceptional length and fine acidity with restrained and what some might describe as feminine power on the palate. Earlier columns have commented on the continued excellence of chardonnays from this estate.
The Escarpment has zingy acid and extended citrus flavours, while the Greywacke feels rich and textural with long length. The combination of acidity, fruit and oak suggest this is a wine to cellar to appreciate in a few years.
The Man O’ War Valhalla has tight acids, good length and intense flavours. This fine wine also needs time in the cellar, though could be consumed now with the right kind of food such as meats with creamy sauces. The Villa Maria reserve is another profound wine with subtle aromas and soft mouth-feel, with surprisingly low acidity yet impressive length.
The 2013 Nanny Goat from Central Otago was a bit of a puzzle. It offered quite a funky nose that varied from feeling slightly off to charming, depending on when it was tasted. The piercing acidity and complex mouth-feel made one want more.
Four syrah-based reds also proved attractive with their bright and spicy flavours. The 2013 Cable Bay from Waiheke Island was co-fermented with 2 per cent of viognier and spent 16 months in French oak. Plenty of hours of sunshine and a rain shadow mean it is possible to grow syrah well on Waiheke Island. This wine is elegant and approachable, with pleasant acids and a soft, even delicate, sense of place on the palate.
The 2013 Elephant Hill syrah from Hawke’s Bay also reflects the high number of sunshine hours. It has the aromas of a syrah from the northern Rhone – dark fruit with touches of spice and violet – with lovely acidity and length, and soft tannins. It needs time in the cellar though it could be consumed now with rich meat dishes. Syrah appears to be a more appropriate grape than the cabernet sauvignon planted originally in this region of the country.
The 2013 Mission Jewelstone syrah from Hawke’s Bay offers a glorious nose of spice and flowers plus lively acid and a sense of minerality from the Gimblett Gravels soils. The gravels feel similar to those found in Mendoza in Argentina. The empty glass offered a delightful perfume.
The 2013 Fromm La Strada syrah reflects the meticulous reputation of winemaker Hätsch Kalberer, given that Marlborough is near the limit of the potential to ripen syrah. It felt the most Rhone-like of the four reds, with plenty of black pepper and a range of floral notes.
Give your palate a treat and try some Kiwi wines that are not sauvignon blanc or pinot noir.