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New Zealand - what's the latest?

6 Apr 2006 by JR
Last year's winner of the Paten prize for an outstanding performance in the Wine & Spirit Education Trust's Diploma exams was West Yorkshire-based wine educator Paul Howard (www.winealchemy.com) whose special interests are New Zealand, Burgundy and biodynamics. For his prize-winning trip he chose to go to NZ and I found his report on this recent visit particularly illuminating and well-written so am delighted that Paul has agreed to let me publish it here.

The WSET Wine Club Paten Scholarship allows the winner to study the wines of a country or region of their choice. Despite the great appeal of many wine-producing countries, I chose New Zealand without hesitation.

New Zealand has a long but frequently turbulent history of winemaking, with the first vines planted in 1836. Their current reputation for high quality rests on radical developments that date back only to the 1970s and 1980s. Its image of "the riches of a clean, green land" is a relatively recent phenomenon.

New Zealand is a niche player, producing only 0.3% of the world's wine and only accounting for 1.5% of the UK market. Nevertheless the expansion of Kiwi wine is phenomenal, and the UK market has been a key element:

  • The number of wineries has increased by 150% in 5 years. Now there are some 520, with a rate of establishment of one new winery opening every week;
  • The productive area under vine has grown 250% in the last 10 years, to 21,000 ha;
  • 2005 export volumes were not only at record levels, for the first time they exceeded domestic consumption;
  • 41% of New Zealand's wine exports are to the UK, a market that saw 50% growth in 2004-2005;
  • New Zealand wine commands ultra-premium pricing. The average retail price per bottle in the UK is the highest of any country over the last 7 yrs, and although it continues to fall, as volumes and discounting increases, it still stands at £6.55, 75% higher than the all-country average of £3.75.

While New Zealand is most famous for its world-renowned and utterly distinctive Sauvignon Blanc, especially from Marlborough, it has far more to offer from a wide variety of white and red grapes. In fact the New Zealand wine industry is characterised by diversity and innovation, and the excitement this generates is palpable. What's Hot? Some of the most important trends are summarised below.

HOT WHITES

Sauvignon Blanc is inescapable. It has made a huge international impact since the first plantings in Marlborough in the 1970s. Much of New Zealand's growth has been fuelled by seemingly insatiable demand and it now accounts for over one third of plantings and over 70% of exports. Although grown throughout New Zealand, it is at its most classic in Marlborough. Because of demand, Marlborough is forecast to account for 50% of New Zealand's total area under vine by 2008.

The pungent Marlborough style is immediately distinctive, marked by herbaceous and tropical aromas. However there are clear signs that there is increasing divergence from this. Some producers are aiming for ever higher concentrations of methoxypyrazine - the organic compound that characterises Kiwi Sauvignon. However some of the wines are now so intensely aromatic that they risk becoming caricatures. In contrast, a style gaining ground is one more akin to French Sancerre. Here the pungency is kept in check, the aim being to produce less assertive softer wines that have more subtleness and minerality. Typically these are being produced by boutique winemakers seeking to differentiate themselves by expressing "terroir". There is also considerable experimentation at all quality levels, e.g. by adding small amounts of barrel-fermented/matured wines to bring more complexity.

While there are no signs of consumer fickleness toward Sauvignon Blanc, most producers are expanding their ranges of other aromatic white wines, eG Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Viognier, and there are also considerable plantings of Chardonnay. There are many excellent examples of all these varieties but arguably the variety likely to become the next success is Pinot Gris.

Pinot Gris is a fast-growing category. New Zealand's 4th most planted white variety, (behind Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling), it will overtake Riesling to claim 3rd place by 2008. Marlborough and Hawke's Bay presently account for over 50% of plantings but plantings are expanding in all regions. Pinot Gris has become the epitome of fashion. Many reasons are advanced for this, one being that it appeals to those tiring of Chardonnay, another that it is relatively straightforward to cultivate. A third is that it is an easy food match, particularly with New Zealand's fusion cuisine.

However, New Zealand Pinot Gris has not developed a single style. While its malleability makes for considerable interest and versatility, it does impede consumer perceptions of what the grape stands for. There are perhaps four identifiable Pinot Gris styles.

The first is akin to Italian Pinot Grigio, dry, light and with no pronounced flavour, designed for early drinking. In marked contrast is an Alsace-style with ability to age, which is dry but much riper and bigger bodied, with higher alcohol and a focus on smooth texture.

The third style is recognisably New World, where the Alsace-style wine is given maturation in new French Oak. The amounts used vary by producer, from the subtle to the very high toast, in a way similar to that found with Chardonnay.

Lastly and perhaps the greatest expression of New Zealand Pinot Gris is an off-dry style where a little residual sugar enhances the wine's silky texture and balance. These wines are sometimes barrel matured and again age well.

Sweet wines Over 100 different examples of sweet "dessert" wines are made in small quantities in New Zealand and a wide range of white grapes are used - Riesling is the most popular, but Chardonnay, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris and Viognier can all be found.

The most high-profile sweet wines originate from Marlborough but wineries in other regions are also now making examples of often outstanding quality.

These wines come in two main styles. Firstly there are Late Harvest wines, similar to the French Vendange Tardive or German Auslesen styles. Generally these are delicate and gently sweet, with light fresh fruit flavours.

Then there are the botrytised wines, similar in style to the sweet wines of Sauternes or the Loire. Capable of great age, they have a refreshing acidity to balance their intense sweetness and a powerful array of honeyed dried fruit flavours imparted by noble rot. Because the action of Botrytis is unpredictable and erratic, as it needs autumnal morning mists followed by clear warm days to flourish, so these wines are rarely made every vintage.

These world-class wines remain rare in the UK because the European Union currently considers them incompatible with EU standards. New Zealand requested derogation for sweet wines in 2000 and see this restriction simply as a trade barrier. The current impasse has yet to be resolved.

HOT REDS
Pinot Noir is New Zealand's red wine success. While it is capricious and difficult to grow, it has now become the second most planted variety, with over 4,000 hectares projected by 2008. In particular the cool climates of Martinborough and fashionable Central Otago have been found to be especially felicitous. Here Pinot Noir remains the winemakers' Holy Grail, with Burgundy their touchstone.

International accolades are numerous and demand outstrips supply. Now many producers feel that a Pinot Noir in their wine range is becoming an essential badge of prestige. Consequently plantings in other areas such as Marlborough and Hawke's Bay are also increasing rapidly and here there is potential to increase volumes significantly.

Comparisons with Burgundy are inevitable but New Zealand Pinot Noir is rapidly developing its own distinctive style, often with deeper colour, purer fruit and higher alcohol. While regional differences are apparent, the best wines do have Burgundy's elusive complexity, texture and "pinosity" and are capable of ageing.

It is a testament to the skill and craft of New Zealand producers that poor examples are infrequently encountered. While most Pinot Noir can be classed as "good" - therein lies the challenge to improve still further- still only a handful are "great" and these have now reached icon status.

However the quality trend is still very much upwards. As site selection improves, young vines mature and the newer Dijon clones come on stream, so the potential for New Zealand Pinot Noir will be realised. Meanwhile, "second labels" have emerged as a method of marketing volume production or younger vines at a lower price without damaging the reputation of the main winery brand.

Syrah A century ago Syrah was widely planted and known as "Hermitage" but it has had a difficult history. Because of the cool, wet climate and vine vigour, Syrah frequently produced thin acidic wine that lacked colour.

By 1984 there was no interest left in Syrah. The remaining vines were rescued from a viticultural research station and replanted at the Stonecroft Estate in Hawke's Bay.

Hawke's Bay is dry and sunny, and planting inland provides the extra heat that Syrah needs. In particular, the Gimblett Gravels and Ngatarawa Triangle are producing high quality distinctive red wines that need bottle age. These areas possess stony gravel soils, the remnants of old river beds. Their low fertility and free-draining nature reduces vine vigour and yields.

Since this initial success a quiet revolution has occurred. In the last decade, Syrah plantings have grown over 400%, from 62 hectares to 264 hectares. Three-quarters of this is in Hawke's Bay, with smaller pockets in Auckland and Marlborough.

There are dozens of award-winning wines emerging, with more in common with the Syrahs of the Northern Rhône than the Australian Shiraz style. Some producers are also co-fermenting it with Viognier, bringing deeper colour and aromatics similar to that of the Rhône's Côte-Rôtie.

Waitaki, also known as North Otago, is New Zealand's newest wine region, sited between the towns of Duntroon and Kurow on the Waitaki river and inland from South Island's Pacific coast. The vines that have been planted here after painstaking viticultural research are creating considerable excitement.

Waitaki's north-facing sunny slopes enjoy a mild climate suitable for producing fashionable "cool climate" varieties such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Compared with rapidly expanding Central Otago to the south, grape growing is less risky here because of the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean. Frost is unlikely and the growing season is longer with lower peak summer temperatures.

The biggest single reason for the excitement is the limestone-based soil. In New Zealand, limestone soils that also occur in areas climatically suitable for grapes are extremely rare. Waitaki's limestone may have different characteristics to that found in Burgundy but it is this combination of soil, grape and climate that is unique in New Zealand.

Some of the leading lights of the New Zealand wine scene are already making wines from Waitaki vineyards and the North Otago Vignerons' Association (NOVA) has recently been created.

The first commercial vintage released was in 2004 and some of these wines are now reaching the UK in small quantities. The vines are very young so it is too early to assess whether the limestone soils will be influential in creating a distinctive Waitaki style. However, comparing Pinot Noirs from Waitaki with Central Otago, the Waitaki wines show a more savoury character and have less exuberant fruit, but show the silky texture that is the hallmark of good Pinot Noir. This new region is certainly one to watch and it was a special pleasure to be one of the region's first wine tourists.

CONCLUSIONS

This article can only be the briefest of summaries about just some of the most important trends in the New Zealand wine industry.

There are other trends too such as the growth in other aromatic white grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Viognier and the development of other reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot. Then there are a multitude of experiments with varieties as diverse as Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Zinfandel, Verdelho and even Pinotage. The importance of sparkling wines and the explosion in rosé production is also of considerable importance.

The highly successful NZ Screwcap initiative has also been a big shift over just the last few years and this is now gaining momentum worldwide.

All this is driven by constant experimentation and innovation, high skill and quality levels, strength in diversity, a pioneering spirit and above all a willingness to take risks.

Add to all this stunning scenery, an outdoor lifestyle, abundant produce and a vibrant food culture - exploring the New Zealand wine industry was both essential and life-affirming.

Finally, I would like to thank WSET for enabling this opportunity, together with New Zealand Winegrowers and the "Family of XII" for their assistance in planning the visit. Finally, I'd like to thank the two-dozen or so wineries that gave so much of their time, energy and wine stocks.

They have left me with an abiding love of Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Tags:  NZ
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