Preliminary figures for 2O1O indicate that both the dollar value and the case volume of New Zealand wine exports to the US are up close to 2O% over 2OO9. New Zealand has now established itself as our sixth most important source of imported wine by value, and seventh largest supplier by volume. This reflects the fact that its wines carry a higher average price per liter than those of all our major trading partners other than France. What’s particularly striking is the contrast with New Zealand’s Antipodean neighbor Australia, whose bottles we import here in far greater quantities but at about exactly half the average value of a kiwi bottling. As the economy improves and our wine market creeps further upscale, this positioning bodes quite well for New Zealand’s prospects.
Production has been ramping up lately, with plantings having increased threefold in the country over the past decade. Marlborough, and in particular the region’s signature Sauvignon Blanc, accounts for the vast majority of New Zealand wine exports to the US. Although a small nation, most of which is unsuitable for any form of agriculture, New Zealand actually offers an amazing diversity of regions and other varietals, each with their own distinct terroir influence, providing optimism that there could be further successes in the future. It’s been my rule of thumb for some time now that if I see a New Zealand wine other than Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, I will try it on the premise that it’s not an easy sell so someone who understands quality must have specially selected it. I’ve actually discovered some very interesting wines doing this over the past several years, the more obscure generally the better.
New Zealand is, for the most part, quite cool in climate, but with exceedingly long hours of sunshine during the growing season in most of its wine regions, so the style of wines produced is an interesting combination of firm structure and good levels of ripeness. At a recent event put on by a consortium of New Zealand’s 21 top wineries – it was called “Complexity. New Zealand Fine Wines” – there was ample opportunity to note the strides that the country has made in such a short period of time; its premium wine industry is, for all intents and purposes, just two decades old.
The following are recent non-Marlborough favorites, grouped by varietal, that showcase what I would consider the best of the best examples currently available from this most exciting cool climate country.
KUMEU RIVER “MATÉS VINEYARD” CHARDONNAY 2OO7
This winery is in a class by itself, almost literally. Geographically Kumeu River is off on its own, with no other premium vineyards nearby, so far to the north of the main viticultural action in the cloud-covered area around Auckland that it’s hard to believe they consistently produce the country’s finest Chardonnays. Or maybe it’s not: the heavy clay water-retentive soils mean that no irrigation is necessary and temperatures even during the height of summer rarely reach 85 degrees Fahrenheit. This delightful bottling, made by Master of Wine Michael Brajkovich from a single vineyard on his family’s property, displays an aroma of wheat, hay and green apple. It’s crisp, pinpoint sharp and minerally with some lingering dry apple and pear flavors, but woven into a very sophisticated well-balanced, lingering whole.
KUMEU RIVER “HUNTING HILL” CHARDONNAY 2OO7
About 14% of the country’s grape production is Chardonnay and the predominant style of the higher quality bottlings like this is, dare we say it, quite Burgundian. From a cooler climate south-facing slope, this single vineyard wine has fine herb and delicate apple scents with a touch of peach. It’s crisp, clean and bone dry with very firm acids and beautifully integrated lemony spice. Sleek and supple – very, very fine.
PEGASUS BAY CHARDONNAY WAIPARA 2OO7
With a beautiful aroma of understated spice, delicate herb and citrus, this lush-textured Chardonnay is quite complex as it evolves on the palate. Having aged on the lees (but apparently without batonage) for an extended period, it shows a nutty, earthy flavor mingled with yeasty, slightly pineapple-like tones. Vibrant with acidity and extract, it strikes me as a long ager.
FELTON ROAD “BLOCK 2” CHARDONNAY
BANNOCKBURN (CENTRAL OTAGO) 2OO8
This whole cluster pressed barrel-fermented Chardonnay might be the finest I’ve ever tasted from the Southern Hemisphere. From an area that gets minimal rainfall, but no more heat accumulation annually than Champagne, this superb Pinot Noir and Riesling producer’s biodynamically grown Chardonnay has hit the heights. The wine has a seductive buttered toast aroma, with richness-balancing mineral intensity. A Chardonnay of enormous power and finesse as well. Of note, high ultraviolet light intensity in Central Otago makes it critical to harvest earlier if vibrancy is to be preserved; longer hang time, so sought after elsewhere, most often has a tendency to dull fruit definition this far south in New Zealand.
PEGASUS BAY “BEL CANTO” RIESLING WAIPARA 2OO8
A lovely late harvested but relatively dry Riesling, fermented with natural yeasts and substantial quantities of solid particles remaining in the juice, Bel Canto is a substantial wine in every sense. Waipara is a cooler South Island region with a growing season longer than Marlborough. From a vineyard that – even within this zone – experiences exceptionally cool night time temperatures because the Ocean is only 3 miles away, this Riesling is extremely well structured. With strong scents of earth, mineral, orange, apple, and white peppery fruit, its flavors have a spicy purity that suggest long aging.
PEGASUS BAY SAUVIGNON BLANC SEMILLON WAIPARA 2OO8
This is nothing stylistically like any Marlborough Sauvignon I’ve ever tasted. It’s smoky, leesy, with a parmesan cheese type aroma, showing ripe figgy fruit and a creamy soft texture. Rich, tobacco-like, intense and very sensual in style, it’s marked more by the 3O% Semillon than the majority grape. Like the Riesling from the same winery, this was hand-harvested and fermented naturally with a proportion of solids in the juice.
MUDDY WATER “HARE’S BREATH” PINOT NOIR WAIPARA 2OO8
Strong Burgundian notes, with earth, cepes, roast meat, and brown spices. On the palate it actually comes across as understated and a bit soft in acid – a very moderate well-balanced, measured Pinot. This grape is now the country’s second most widely planted, just ahead of Chardonnay, and there are several distinctive regional styles, but Waipara’s always strikes me as the most elegant.
PALLISER PINOT NOIR MARTINBOROUGH 2OO8
Directly across the Cook Straits from Marlborough, this region is a bit cooler in the evening than its southern neighbor, its wines perhaps more classically styled and taut on the palate. With earth, mushrooms and red fruits prominent on the nose, it has a layered, silky cherry flavor profile, fresh, savory and mineral-like, with very moderate alcohol. Brilliant!
PEGASUS BAY PINOT NOIR WAIPARA 2OO6
This winery does not miss. Smoky tobacco, coffee-like meaty scents are intriguing enough but the seamless mélange of baking spice, red pepper, vanilla, and tomato on the palate is absolutely beautiful. Pure velvet, nuanced, with moderate tannins and alcohol, but very precise structure and authoritatively spicy undertones.
CRAGGY RANGE “SOPHIA” GIMBLETT GRAVELS 2OO5
A Bordeaux blend produced by Master of Wine Steve Smith from one of the most unique terroirs in the world, this is opaque with a glowing blue tint at the rim of the glass even after five years. With smoked meat, olive and exotic spice aromas, Sophia has a velvety texture, coffee-like black plum herbal fruit and a distinctive note of vanilla bean. Tannins are substantial but nicely integrated. Quite impressive for fruit that at the time of harvest grew on six-year-old vines!
CRAGGY RANGE “LE SOL” SYRAH GIMBLETT GRAVELS 2OO7
If Syrah and New Zealand don’t compute in your mind, you have to try this. From the first whiff of smoked meat, earth, black pepper, and raspberry, you can tell it’s the real deal. Big in every way: acid, fruit extract and tannin, but there’s an ultra-silky impression that the chocolate covered blackberry fruit leaves. Beautiful, superb.
TRINITY HILL “HOMAGE” SYRAH GIMBLETT GRAVELS 2OO7
Just to prove that the above wine is not “one of a kind”, this superb Syrah (blended with 9% Viognier a la Cote Rotie) is very different in style but no less impressive. More floral and blueberry-like, Homage also has a chocolate edge but it’s more gamey and a touch less vibrant and tannic. Perhaps less structure but more elegance. At any rate, these two are companion pieces that hopefully point the direction for other producers. Gimblett Gravels is apparently all planted though, and high end Syrah is not exactly an easy sell, so this may be it.