This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See 160 new NZ tasting notes.
Despite bumper harvests in 2008 and 2009 in New Zealand, I am more optimistic about the quality of wine coming out of the North and South islands than I have been for a very long time.
In Marlborough at the crossroads back in February, I wrote about the worrying level of over-production of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and propose to set that particular bandwagon on one side. Wine lovers the world over are now familiar with its very particular, pungent character. The only problem for Marlborough wine producers is how to maintain the relatively high prices that their Sauvignon Blanc used automatically to command.
No, what is so encouraging about New Zealand wine is that it is no longer a one-trick pony. There have been isolated pockets of winemaking brilliance throughout the country for some time, but now it seems as though the overall level of competence is more widespread than it ever has been, at a range of price levels and in a wide range of styles.
Take Chardonnay. For years, with the exception of such longstanding over-performers as Kumeu River of Auckland and Neudorf of Nelson, it seemed as though Kiwi winemakers virtually ignored their second most important grape variety (see Sauvignons without the Sauvignon flavour?). But now there seems to be a real step up in the quality of New Zealand Chardonnay generally.
In recent tastings, I have encountered world-class Chardonnays in virtually every New Zealand wine region. Most producers have various renditions of this white burgundy variety in their repertoire but those making especially exciting Chardonnay that is top quality on any comparative basis are Felton Road in Central Otago (whose winery is shown here); Mountford and Bell Hill in Canterbury; Dog Point, Fromm, Gravitas, Seresin and Wither Hills of Marlborough; Ata Rangi of Martinborough; and Te Mata of Hawke's Bay.
But in a recent tasting of new releases I was also very taken by even the most modest bottling of unoaked 2008 Chardonnay from the market leader Montana, which is currently widely available in the UK at the recommended retail price of £6.99 (Waitrose have it on special offer at just £5.59 until 21 Jul). The fruit was grown in Gisborne, the wine region on the easternmost tip of the North Island where Montana buy about 60 per cent of all the grapes grown, the majority of them Chardonnay. The Reserve version of Montana's 2008 Gisborne Chardonnay at £2 a bottle more would also be a decent buy, with New Zealand's trademark bright, fruity acidity counterbalancing its bumptious ripeness, if any UK retailer would take it on board. Admittedly in 2008 in Gisborne, in sharp contrast to Marlborough's bloated grape harvest, the crop was shrunk by frost, which may have helped inject a little more concentration into the wine.
But my enthusiasm for this excellent performance from such a big player is muted somewhat by the news that Montana, owned by Pernod-Ricard of France, recently announced that it is cancelling its grape contracts in Gisborne. The reason? Montana maintain that despite their best efforts, the market prefers Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay. This is catastrophic news for Gisborne grape growers, but it would seem a great shame to me if they responded by grafting over their Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc. Gisborne's traditional reputation as Chardonnay capital of New Zealand seems well justified now on the basis of quality, and Gisborne's summers can be a bit too hot to produce the sort of the cut crystal Sauvignon Blanc now in fashion. Buy Gisborne Chardonnay; keep these growers afloat!
The one white wine grape that is steaming into fashion in New Zealand, as elsewhere, is Chardonnay's more perfumed relative Pinot Gris and the country's plantings have grown sixfold in the last three years but - perhaps because most of the vines are so young - Pinot Gris remains one of the white wine styles that most Kiwi winemakers have yet to conquer. The wines typically have too little focus and fruit concentration and too much sugar, although Dry River of Martinborough (pictured below) with its 30-year-old Pinot Gris vines is a particularly noble exception, and Michelle Richardson's Marlborough example is also superior, as is Brennan's from Central Otago. Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio seems mysteriously to sell the world over on its name alone rather than on any intrinsic wine quality.
Much more successful is New Zealand's performance nowadays with the country's two other aromatic varieties (partners with Pinot Gris in Alsace too), Riesling and Gewürztraminer. New Zealand has a decent supply of mature Riesling vines and fewer and fewer winemakers seem to be relying on the crutch of residual sugar to give their wines appeal. Producers such as Pegasus Bay of Waipara, Brightwater and Greenhough of Nelson, and Framingham and Forrest in Marlborough really seem to have got the hang of Riesling and make a wide range of styles from bone dry to thrillingly and naturally sweet.
New Zealand is one of the few countries that can claim to have established its perfect spot for Gewurztraminer. Beleaguered Gisborne was producing fine Gewurztraminer as long ago as the 1970s so that, even if this is very much a minority product for New Zealand, there are some old vines to draw on. Wines such as Nick Nobilo's Vinoptima are designed to take advantage of this by showing Gewurz at its most concentrated and distinctive.
One or two rather good Viogniers are emerging from New Zealand, too. Dry River's 2008 looks very serious (to match the price), while the 2007 from the winery known as Herzog in New Zealand but Hans Family abroad is also impressive.
Among reds, Pinot Noir is of course New Zealand's answer to Sauvignon Blanc, with its bright, direct, easy-to-like fruit and early drinking appeal. Fine producers of this ubiquitous cool-climate variety can now be counted by the score, and to judge from vine plantings that are yet to bear fruit, Pinot Noir is set to overtake Chardonnnay as New Zealand's second most important variety. But one of the more palatable side effects of global warming has been the emergence of fine New Zealand reds made from varieties that ripen later than Pinot.
It used to be the case that a tasting of Kiwi reds left tasters' teeth pristine, so underripe were the grapes and thin the grape skins. Now, however, New Zealand can boast a host of Cabernets and, especially, Merlots grown in Hawke's Bay on the North Island that are so ripe that they blacken the teeth just as unappetisingly as young bordeaux. Gimblett Gravels has proved itself the Médoc, or perhaps more accurately Graves, of New Zealand.
But I am increasingly excited about the quality of NZ Syrah grown by the likes of Craggy Range, Stonecroft and Unison of Hawke's Bay, by Schubert of Wairarapa, and Kennedy Point of Waiheke Island. It can be complex, savoury and much more subtle than Australian Shiraz, its cousin across the Tasman.
PROMISING NZ CHARDONNAYS
Ata Rangi, Craighall 2008 Martinborough
Felton Road 2007 Central Otago
Kumeu River, Maté's Vineyard 2007 Kumeu
Montana, Unoaked 2008 Gisborne (a bargain, especially at Waitrose)
Montana, Reserve 2008 Gisborne
Mountford 2005 Waipara
Neudorf, Moutere 2007 Nelson
Waipara Hills, Soul Of The South 2008 Waipara