Wine writer Wayne de Nicolo examines the wines of his native country – New Zealand. Home to the southern-most winemaking region in the world, what is it that makes NZ wines so special? And what are the bottles and varietals you should be looking out for?
Lead image: Brancott Estate – home to the first ever Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (photo © Kevin Judd)
New Zealand has only existed as a producer of serious, internationally known wines since the early 1980s, rocketing into mainstream recognition when Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc won an international competition with its first vintage in 1985.
At that time there were few vineyards in the region and almost no wineries, but now, Marlborough, the country’s biggest wine producing area and home to Cloudy Bay, is a wall-to-wall carpet of vines.
New Zealand has become known in the UK mainly for producing distinctly fruity, racy and very popular sauvignon blancs and, more recently, for its excellent pinot noirs, pinot gris and some very good cabernets and syrahs.
‘If there is still one ‘secret’ about New Zealand’s wines, it is that it produces many great chardonnays’
But if there is still one ‘secret’ about its wines, it is that it produces many great chardonnays, some of which I review below. Their emergence from the shadow of the sauvignon blancs is long overdue.
One of the reasons for the rapid evolution of winemaking since the early 1980s is the willingness of Kiwis to try new ways of doing things – to push the boundaries.
This derives from the frontier society mentality of the first settlers who arrived in the 1840s. It is still subtly evident today. Hence producers are always experimenting with viticulture and winemaking techniques, and looking for new regions that will produce top quality wines from particular varietals.
Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay was a dried up riverbed until local grape grower and pilot Chris Pask spotted its potential when flying over. He decided in 1981 to take a punt on his theory that the alluvial stones would heat up during the day, increase temperatures generally, and enable him to ripen cabernet grapes that would not ripen in his other vineyards.
And he was right. By the 1990s, the major operators had moved in and Bordeaux style wines are now being made there to wide acclaim.
Another illustration of this innovatory approach is the almost universal use of sterile and hygienic stainless steel tanks in wine production, something adapted from the country’s dairy industry. Now it is standard practice internationally, but 40 years ago the Kiwis were ahead of the curve with this.
New Zealand’s winemaking areas vary greatly geographically and visually. One of the most interesting is Central Otago in the south of South Island. It has been making waves for a few decades with tourism, especially in Queenstown.
‘Central Otago has also attracted much attention as the southern-most winemaking region in the world (and the highest in New Zealand)’
High mountains, deep valleys, big rivers and picture postcard lakes abound. It offers great skiing, is the birthplace of jet boats, and is where bungee jumping really took off (the first successful bungee jump actually took place off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol).
But Central Otago has also attracted much attention as the southern-most winemaking region in the world (and the highest in New Zealand). Despite short summers and severe winters, with frequent heavy snow, an extraordinary micro-climate and unique soil have enabled growers to produce some exceptionally good wines.
The long summer days with high radiation and sunshine hours lend themselves to excellent ripening of certain grape varieties, such as pinots noir and gris, chardonnay and riesling, so alcohol levels of 14% are commonplace. Hard to believe when you consider that 75 miles to the west, the famous Milford Track area has the second highest rainfall on earth – about 23 ft a year.
Elsewhere, the main growing areas are Auckland (including Waiheke Island), Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Wairarapa, Nelson, Marlborough, North Canterbury and, in the last decade, North Otago.
11 of the Best New Zealand Wines
Wayne de Nicolo picks out 11 high flyers from NZ
MiruMiru Sparkling NV, Hunters (12.5%) I have included this not because it is a top drawer sparkler but because it is excellent value and is rather pleasant. Some complexity is evident. Has smooth apple, peach and mealy flavours and light bubbles. £18.99 from averys.com and laithwaites.co.uk
Greywacke Wild Sauvignon 2017 (13.6%) Now this is really something, as you might expect from the legendary Kevin Judd, the original winemaker for Cloudy Bay. Full flavoured, complex and mature, with herbal, peach and gooseberry notes. A very sophisticated wine which is in a class of its own among Marlborough SBs. £22.09 from northandsouthwines.co.uk (based in Battersea).
Pegasus Bay Bel Canto Riesling 2017 (14.5%) It is unusual to find rieslings at this alcohol level, but the resulting ripeness is very apparent on the opulent palate. An inviting nose precedes full, dry, rich flavours; has none of the restraint found with so many Old World examples of this varietal. £19 from specialistcellars.co.uk
Pegasus Bay Chardonnay 2017 (13.5%) A really well made wine from an internationally renowned North Canterbury winery, with good intensity and depth. Stone fruit and nutty flavours with a lingering aftertaste. £22.95 from thevinorium.co.uk
Lake Chalice The Raptor Chardonnay 2018 (13%) Again I have chosen this wine because, though not in the top division, it is appealing and good value for money. Soft, creamy nectarine and biscuit palate which is well balanced. Widely available online from £15.85 upwards.
Giesen The Fuder Clayvin Chardonnay 2015 (13%) Ripe melon and white stone fruit on a balanced, buttery and complex palate. A gold medal winner in New Zealand’s top wine competition, this is a beauty. £44.95 from thesurreywinecellar.co.uk
Vidal Legacy Chardonnay 2016 (13.5%) Ripe, full, mature fruit on a complex and stylish palate. It has been one of New Zealand’s best chardonnays for years (before 2012 known as Reserve). £34.99 from nzhouseofwine.co.uk
Wild Earth Pinot Noir 2017 (14%) From Central Otago this has silky, ripe, red berry flavours, a hint of sweetness and good weight. As pinots go, this is no shrinking violet. Outstanding. £20.70 from vinvm.co.uk (2015 and 16 also available online).
Te Mata Coleraine 2016 (13.5%) A blend of cabernet, merlot and cabernet franc, this has long been regarded as probably NZ’s best Bordeaux style red, and on a level with classed growth wines from that region. Has a deep colour and concentrated, high quality fruit, with considerable tannins at this stage. Impressive now, with more age it will develop into a very special wine. Will last 15+ years. £322.07 for six at vinquinn.com (the 2015 is available at thedrinkshop.com for £58.08).
Esk Valley The Terraces 2014 (14.5%) Made only in outstanding vintages from malbec, cabernet franc and merlot. Already quite mature, this has a dense colour and a delicious, rich plum and black currant palate. An exceptionally good wine now, it will improve over the next 5+ years and last much longer. £70.49 from nzhouseofwine.co.uk
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