Last week New Zealand Winegrowers hosted a veritable wine camp for a little more than a dozen industry buyers and influencers. The two-day event offered a snapshot of some of New Zealand’s key topics in the wine industry. Among the presenters included a handful of New Zealand winemakers including Warren Gibson of Trinity Hill winery in Hawke’s Bay, Clive Jones of Nautilus Estate in Marlborough, and Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef in Central Otago, along with NZ Wine experts Ryan Woodhouse of K&L Fine Wine Merchants and Master Sommelier Laura Williamson.
As a general overview, the seminar-focused event revealed a few basic stats about New Zealand wine. Namely that the country produces more than 285 million liters of wine from more than 37,000 hectares of vineyards, most of which (about 60%) is planted to Sauvignon Blanc. And while there are stellar Sauvignon Blancs with rich complexity and nuance being produced in this country, it soon became clear that there’s quite a bit more to talk about with regard to other varieties.
Below are a few key takeaways from the in-depth experience:
Sustainable, for The Greater Good
Among the many tidbits presented, one stuck out as a clear point of distinction, the purity of New Zealand wine.
“These wines are fresh and verve-oriented,” said Ryan Woodhouse. “They have this grace and elegance in a range of grape varieties. It’s fascinating to see how these styles can vary in the different regions.”
Perhaps this purity is a result of the country’s primarily cool climate, which affords a healthy amount of racy acidity to its grapes. But many would argue that a lot of it has to do with a commitment to quality and more importantly, sustainability.
The New Zealand Winegrowers’ Sustainability Policy requires all wine to be made from 100% certified grapes in fully certified winemaking facilities. The requirements for sustainability involve everything from water purity to wildlife conservation, responsible land management, and upholding best practices for employment. According to the 2017 Sustainability Report from the New Zealand Winegrowers, 98% of all New Zealand producers were sustainable. (The goal is to be at 100% by 2020.)
For producers like Rudi Bauer, the responsibility to the land is one of the most important components. “It’s very important that we pass on the vineyards to the next generation in better shape than we found them,” said Bauer. “If you’re running your vineyards from a sustainable point of view, I think you get a more authentic expression of the grapes in the wine glass.”
It’s something Laura Williamson says you can virtually taste in the wines. “The connection with that purity of fruit and the land, it’s really the mark of New Zealand and you only have to taste a selection of their wines to understand that.”
Chardonnay, The White Underdog
While Sauvignon Blanc claims the lion’s share of white grape vineyard plantings, Chardonnay has long held the attention of winegrowers throughout New Zealand’s various regions.
“I think there’s so much potential with New Zealand Chardonnay,” said Warren Gibson. “And it’s still really undiscovered. But when you look at the complexity these wines develop in the range of soils and climates we have, they’re really an absolute bargain compared to other iconic Chardonnay regions of the world.”
Gibson pointed to the range of soils in regions such as Hawke’s Bay, including the more silty parts of Gimblett Gravels where Chardonnay thrives. Going further south into Marlborough, Jones touted the quality of Chardonnay coming from the South Island.
“Chardonnay tends to be the forgotten child, but once people taste it they’re amazed by the freshness…it’s what gets people back for a second glass,” said Clive Jones. “That freshness is what shows their potential to age as well.”
Riesling, the Darling of the South Island
An iconic grape for Germany and Alsace, Riesling has found a home in new world regions in Australia and the United States, and also New Zealand. Central Otago is where you’ll find some of the best examples from producers such as Felton Road, and Mount Edward, but Marlborough also holds its own with beautiful wines from Giesen Brothers and Framingham.
One unique discovery was wine from Waitaki Valley, a micro region found between Canterbury and Otago that has gained some well-deserved attention despite its very remote location. Tasting the 2016 Riesling from Ostler Lakeside piqued significant interest from seminar participants. A bone-dry Riesling with an unmistakable stony character, as well as bright notes of lime backed by hints of tropical and stone fruits on the finish, the wine was described by Williamson as having "this electric vibrancy that makes you crave another glass.”
Pinot Noir, Central Otago and Beyond
If the average wine enthusiast has come to know Sauvignon Blanc as New Zealand’s primary white grape, they’ve no doubt experienced Pinot Noir as its signature red grape, particularly from Central Otago. But it’s worth noting that Marlborough is also a region to watch.
“A lot of the original plantings in Marlborough were for sparkling wine, but today that’s sort of been flipped on its head,” said Jones. “By far the majority is grown for still wine today.”
Jones points to the Southern Valleys of Marlborough as an area for premium examples of the grape. “Pinot is very site-specific and wants to be in the right spot. We’ve been chasing a soil type in the Southern Valleys that has allowed us to really see great opportunity for this grape.”
The Nautilus Estate 2015 Southern Valleys Pinot Noir is a stunning example of Jones’ hard work. Offering notes of sour cherry and lavender, the wine has a savory, almost meaty quality that lingers through the finish.
Beyond Pinot Noir, Bordeaux varieties have found a home in regions such as Hawke’s Bay as has Syrah, which is having a bit of a moment as a grape variety to watch.
“I think the inclusion of the Trinity Hill and Te Mata Estate Syrahs on the latest Master of Wine exam shows that Hawke’s Bay Syrah has a distinctive sense of place, and is a benchmark in its own right,” said Woodhouse.
Within the cooler growing conditions of Hawke’s Bay, the grape seems to have found a particular liking to the Gimblett Gravels sub-region, which was once considered the poorest, least productive land in Hawke’s Bay. As it turns out, the gravely soil with bits of sand, clay, and silt is ideal for grape growing, with excellent drainage that drives the roots down deep.
“Now that we really understand what Gimblett Gravels is for us as a micro region, we’re able to really focus on the potential for this grape,” said Gibson. “We don’t want to push too hard that it’s in the style of the Northern Rhône, but that is the market we’re really selling to.”