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Get Thee Some Kiwi Gris from NZ
By Linda Murphy
Sep 11, 2012
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I wrote a column for Wine Review Online in 2008 about New Zealand’s aromatic white wines -- Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer -- and how they were having a difficult time finding their place in the market alongside the Kiwis’ iconic Sauvignon Blancs.

Vintners worried about New Zealand being a one-trick winemaking pony, with all of its eggs in the Sauvignon Blanc basket.  Pinot Noir was the emergent red, though a relatively expensive one (as it is anywhere the grape is vinified into high-quality, varietally correct wines), along with some marvelous Bordeaux-style reds and Syrahs coming from the warm Hawkes Bay region.  However, the world considered Sauvignon Blanc the wine of New Zealand -- and its winemakers sought another white varietal to balance the scales and provide insurance in case the world grows tired of Kiwi Sauvignon.

Four years later, New Zealand Pinot Gris appears to be that wine, having made strides in both quality and in finding itself.  I’m a fan of dry Riesling and floral, spicy Gewurztraminer from New Zealand, yet Pinot Gris is far more available in the U.S., and my tasting last week of 27 of them -- which are all sold in the States -- showed an encouraging shift toward more serious, complex wines.

In 2008, there were far too many semi-sweet, confected, dull Pinot Gris produced for easy enjoyment by those who some Kiwis like to call the “lady lunchalots.”  A few wineries went for the lean Italian Pinot Grigio style (or labeling as such to appeal to the U.S. market), and only a handful of the remaining wines I sampled in New Zealand were wonderfully aromatic, dry and structured.  The preponderance were of the simpleton sort -- okay for spicy Asian foods, where the residual sugar helps temper the heat -- but not world class, and not all that interesting.

As Tim Finn, proprietor of Neudorf Vineyards in the Nelson region of New Zealand’s South Island, told me in 2008, “Winemakers are still figuring Pinot Gris out, but the consumer loves the wine in all of its styles.”

My tasting last week revealed a few wines so cloyingly sweet as to make them unpalatable.  Yet the majority had effusive aromatics of white flower blossoms, pears, white peaches, apples and spice; ripe yet not sweet fruit flavors; crisp acidity; sometimes a minerally streak; and long, refreshing finishes.

Most of the wines were fermented and aged in stainless steel, although a few spent time in oak barrels, including former Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd’s 2011 Greywacke Pinot Gris and the 2010 Staete Landt, both from Marlborough.  Various combinations of wild-yeast fermentations, commercial yeasts, skin contact with the juice and lees stirring come into play in the cellar, and in the vineyard, decision-making is crucial on crop loads, canopy management and the precise time to harvest the grapes.

Pinot Gris can be tricky, as the grapes show very little aroma or flavor character until they reach approximately 24 degrees Brix; from there, ripeness can soar in a day or two, and thus can the alcohol content of the wines.  It’s common for New Zealand Pinot Gris to have 14 percent alcohol -- no wallflowers, these -- with the best balanced by crisp acidity.  Those that have lower alcohols, in the 12 percent to 13 percent range, tend to be sweeter, because fermentation is stopped before all the grape sugars are fermented to dryness. 

Full tasting notes with scores for top performers appear on this week’s “Reviews” page, but among my favorites from the 2011 New Zealand Pinot Gris are, in alphabetical order, Astrolabe “Province” from Marlborough ($23); Brancott from Marlborough ($15); Carrick from Central Otago; Roaring Meg from Central Otago ($18); Greywacke from Marlborough ($22); Jules Taylor from Marlborough ($15); and Mt. Beautiful from North Canterbury ($18).