The earthquake that hit southern New Zealand this month has not jolted confidence in the country’s wine industry. For publication in week starting 21 November 2016.
New Zealand’s geography and isolation are the major reasons its wines are world class, combined with innovative winemaking methods. The country is long and narrow and isolated from much of the rest of the world. Wines are produced sustainably, embracing policies to reduce the use of chemicals and aiming to recycle and re-use materials. Under the Sustainable Winegrowing banner, members aim to protect “the unique places that make our famous wines”.
Nowhere in New Zealand is more than 130km from the coast, and proximity to the ocean affects the character of its wines. Mild and sunny summers are a feature of the climate, with pronounced temperature differences between night and day during the ripening season. This diurnal difference influences the quality of grapes because flavours are concentrated.
Most people know of the success of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc. Two in three bottles made in the country come from that grape, and it represents 87 per cent of total wine exports. Sauvignon Blanc exports have boomed from about 110 million litres in 2010 to almost 180 million litres in 2015, according to annual reports from New Zealand Winegrowers. Export volumes for all wine for the same period jumped from 142 million litres to 209 million, which reflects the dominance of Sauvignon Blanc.
The grape’s zingy freshness has entranced consumers around the world. Flavours range from ripe tropical notes and lush passionfruit through to gooseberry and even red and green peppers at the less ripe end of the spectrum. Earlier columns have attracted comment at my describing the unripe form of the grape as smelling like “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush”.
An interesting and pleasant recent trend has involved ageing this grape in oak and sometimes releasing the wines after two or three years in he cellar. An excellent example is Giesen’s 2013 The August 1888 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough’s Wairau Valley which is like some of the quality wines made by Henri Bourgeois in Sancerre.
New Zealand makes excellent whites from other grape varieties. It’s just that they tend to be overshadowed by the Sauvignon Blanc phenomenon. Chardonnay is the second-most planted grape at about 9 per cent of national production, though only 2 per cent is exported. These are often delicious and well-made wines that should be sought out.
All Felton Road chardonnays from Central Otago are worth pursuing, along with anything from Martinborough Vineyard in the eponymous region, Giesen’s 2014 The Fuder Clayvin from Marlborough, the 2015 Villa Maria Cellar Selection from Marlborough, and the Esk Valley 2015 Winemaker’s Reserve from Hawke’s Bay.
Riesling is another grape that makes delicious and distinct wines, full of zesty acidity and profound length and flavours. The range of styles varies considerably from bone dry to lushly sweet. Again, Felton Road produce some of the best. Winemaker Nigel Greening is something of a legend in the wine industry and manages to produce excellent white and red wine year after year. The intensity of flavours of his wines never cease to impress. His Bannockburn dry riesling from Central Otago is sublime, as is the Block 1. The latter offers lush sweetness in a Germanic style yet with a distinct Kiwi charm.
The 2015 Giesen Estate Riesling from Marlborough and the 2015 Drowsy Fish from the Waipara region of Canterbury in the South Island give powerful aromas of honeysuckle and white fruits combined with citrus zing. Price wise, the Giesen is a bargain. Christchurch is the main city on the South Island and the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that hit the region on November 14 caused major concern.
Wineries have been assessing the damage and cleaning up, with numerous reports of broken bottles and damaged tanks. The epicentre of the main quake was northeast of Christchurch, near the town of Kaikoura. Damage was moderate because of the time of the year — not many people were working in the wineries at the time.
The third most planted grape after Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay is Pinot Noir, at about 8 per cent of total production. A native of Burgundy in France, Pinot Noir has found a natural home in the cool climate regions of New Zealand. Winemaker Dr John Forrest has often maintained that his country would be famous for Pinot Noir if Sauvignon Blanc had not become the dominant grape.
The main regions for Pinot are Marlborough and Central Otago and they produce exquisite wines, with the Wairarapa challenging them in terms of quality. Felton Road again features in any discussion of this grape variety. The best wine at a London tasting of the new releases for 2016 was easily their 2015 Block 3 Pinot Noir from the Bannockburn region of Central Otago.
All Felton Road reds are made from Bannockburn estate fruit. It has sweet black-fruit flavours, luscious mouthfeel and lashings of aromas of spice and red and black fruits, encased in a subtle structure of soft tannins. A wine one wants to drink a third and fourth glass of as often as possible. All of the other Felton Road pinots are almost as classy, from the soft tannins and perfumed joys of the 2015 Calvert to the elegance of the 2015 Block 5. These are wines worth cellaring.
With the yuletide season approaching, readers might consider sparkling wine from New Zealand as an alternative to their usual celebratory fizz. Wines made in the classic champagne style are of high quality with naturally high acidity and an appealing sense of quality on the palate.