The wines challenging an icon of Kiwi viticulture
Sauvignon Blanc accounts for 72 percent of New Zealand wine production and an even more staggering 86 percent of wine exports. Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is one of those global success stories almost without peer. The highly memorable Cloudy Bay label showing early morning mists rising off gentle slopes helped to make Sauvignon Blanc as iconic an image of New Zealand as a flock of sheep.
Woe betide that it should have a peer which might threaten its appearance today on every bar counter, every wine list, and every wine shelf. If it were to become yesterday’s wine, what would happen to the New Zealand wine industry?
Pinot Noir is the most important red grape in New Zealand but accounts for just 8 percent of production (and 6 percent of exports). Wine lovers have long sought some iconic labels — Martinborough Vineyard in Martinborough, Neudorf in Nelson on South Island, and Mount Difficulty and Felton Road in Central Otago’s classy Bannockburn subregion. But overall, New Zealand reds do not have much of a strong reputation outside the country, or beyond elite Pinot Noir conferences.
While some Pinot lovers may find the wines of Central Otago a bit too alco- holic and powerful, or a bit too rich and fruity, the more structured and savory wines of Martinborough are well worth a look. Julicher Pinot Noir 2011 is just beginning to develop some funky notes associated with bottle age but is still a powerful wine very much in the New World camp. Also produced from grapes from the Te Muna single vineyard on Te Muna Road is Craggy Range Pinot Noir 2013, showing the elegance of a fresher vintage, though a sense of restraint seems to come through on all this producer’s wines.
Yet something of a red revolution is happening. Growers have been slowly identifying the best plots for specific red varieties, and consolidating their offerings. Craggy Range, for example, was making four different Pinot Noirs and growing grapes everywhere. Its new focus is on Hawkes Bay and Martinborough and to a lesser extent Marlborough. Note that Central Otago, which has tended to have an excellent reputation for Pinot Noir, is not on the list.
One of the more Old World style producers in New Zealand, Craggy Range, is also working towards holding back some vintages, to better illustrate the potential of reds for aging. The premium Craggy Range Sophia 2011, as an example, is closed and chunky at this stage.
The “discovery” of Gimblett Gravels on the North Island for red production is upping New Zealand’s ante (though there’s some white there, too). The Gravels has allowed the country to turn out some highly elegant, fully ripened Syrahs and Merlots in particular, with excellent aging potential.
The district has an extremely short viticultural history. Until the late 1980s it was regarded as the poorest, least productive tract of land in Hawke’s Bay — apparently requiring 3 acres of land to support a single sheep! Vines, as we know, have no problem with the poorest, gravelly soils.
The first red produced there was a 1985 Bordeaux blend from CJ Pask. Af- ter winning at wine shows and tastings all over the country, this wine encouraged other producers to set up shop in the Gravels. The area has gone from strength to strength, even becoming bold enough to take on Bordeaux head to head in blind tastings.
Craggy Range Syrah 2011 is highly aromatic of spicy plums and though it is reasonably fruit-forward it is quite classical, too, and would benefit from time. Awarded Sauvignon Blanc producers Saint Clair is doing great things with red, too. With grapes mainly from the Gimblett Gravels region, they’ve crafted the Saint Clair Family Estate Merlot 2013 — a very well-made wine that manages to contain any Merlot exuberance and finishes smoothly elegant. Elephant Hill Syrah 2013, from grapes mostly sourced from the Gravels and various coastal vineyards, is similarly elegant with lovely violet petal aromatics.
Pinot Noir is also getting a look in here, in addition to the “bigger” red varieties. Selini Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2014 refuses to fit any molds: it is pale pink in color, light in style and certainly a wine to chill. It is great to see wines being made here outside the formulas too often applied to New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc. Stephen Quinn writes about wine for a variety of publications in the region. From 1975 he was a journalist for two decades with the Bangkok Post; the BBC, The Guardian, ITN, the UK Press Association; TVNZ; the Middle East Broadcasting Center in Dubai and a range of regional newspapers in Australia. Dr. Quinn became a journalism educator in 1996, but returned to journalism full time in 2011. He is based in Hong Kong and is the author of 17 books. Annabel Jackson has worked in the wine industry for more than 20 years, and has written 8 books about wine and food. She is an Advanced Ambassador of the Academy of Wines of Portugal, and teaches wine marketing at the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom.