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New Zealand Wines: An Update
By Michael Apstein
Oct 20, 2015
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Although still focused primarily on Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand is showing a lot of vinous diversity these days, both with that variety and with other grapes.  In the cellars, winemakers are branching out by using oak barrels for fermentation and aging of Sauvignon Blanc.  In the vineyards, growers are experimenting with Grüner Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Syrah, to name a few.  And the results are very encouraging.

In many ways, this experimentation is just a natural extension of New Zealand’s already rapid rise in the wine world. Its modern winemaking history dates back only about 35 years, yet its wines, especially those made from Sauvignon Blanc, have taken the world by storm.

The World Loves New Zealand Wines

A few statistics show how rapidly the New Zealand wine industry has grown and how the world has embraced it.  In 2002, total vineyard plantings in New Zealand comprised about 35,000 acres.  In a little over a decade, by 2014, vineyards had increased 2.5 fold to almost 90,000 acres.  (For purposes of comparison, Napa Valley has about 45,000 acres planted.)  In 2002, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay each accounted for about 30 percent of the bottlings of New Zealand wine.  Now, Sauvignon Blanc represents about two-thirds of the production with Chardonnay weighing in at less than 10 percent.  For the year ending in June 2015, New Zealand exported a whopping two-thirds of its wine production.  Not surprisingly, over 85 percent of those exports were Sauvignon Blanc.  By comparison, France, the world’s leading wine-producing country, exports about one-third of its wine. 

Quality and Cool Climate

A focus on quality--as opposed to volume--helps explain the rapid success of the New Zealand wine industry.  And much of the quality can be traced to New Zealand’s location in the South Pacific.  The entire country is considered “cool climate” for viticulture because all the wine growing areas, save for Central Otago, are basically on the coast and are cooled by the sea.  A quick look at a map easily explains the maritime influences--the next landmass south of New Zealand is Antarctica and the intervening ocean is very cold.  Central Otago, with its more continental climate and a warmer growing season, is still considered a “cool climate” area because its location at the southern end of the South Island marks the Southern Hemisphere’s limit of grape ripening.  Cool temperatures in all of the vineyard areas, especially at night, allow the grapes to hold onto their acidity, which translates into bright and vibrant wines.

Sauvignon Blanc

You would be excused if you equated Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  The Marlborough region, on the northeastern tip of the South Island, remains the country’s most important wine area, accounting for two-thirds of the New Zealand’s total plantings and the vast amount of the country’s Sauvignon Blanc.  Typically, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and clean with a grapefruit-like zing that electrifies the palate.  The 2014 Goldwater Sauvignon Blanc ($17), with its electrifying, shake-you-by-the-collar vibrancy, is a quintessential example.

Part of the excitement about the current state of New Zealand wine is the realization that the same variety produces a different wine depending on the region in which it’s planted.  Of course, this is not a new concept invented by the Kiwis.  Indeed, the concept of terroir--that the grape’s local environment determines the taste of the wine--has been known for centuries.  What is new, and admittedly risky, is growers’ willingness to try other renditions of that varietal despite the proven success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  Move to Central Otago and you see a slightly gentler style of Sauvignon Blanc because of the relatively warmer climate.  The 2014 Amisfield Sauvignon Blanc ($18) still packs plenty of pungency, but is rounder and broader--more stone fruit than grapefruit flavors--reflecting its Central Otago origins. 

No surprise, winemaking techniques also influence the taste of the wine.  Some producers have moved from the traditional--if you can call 35 years a tradition--fermentation and aging in stainless steel vats, which captures maximum fruitiness and freshness, to oak barrel fermentation and aging of Sauvignon Blanc.  Dog Point Vineyard, one of the country’s leading producers, has achieved a toasty creamy refinement that balances the pungency inherent to the Marlborough-based fruit with their barrel-fermented and aged 2012 Sauvignon Blanc “Section 94” bottling ($31). 

Pegasus Bay, located in Waipara Valley on the east coast of the South Island between Marlborough and Christchurch, achieves a generous creamy, lanolin-like texture by blending Semillon with their Sauvignon Blanc.  Their 2012 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2012 ($26) conveys an alluring broader Bordeaux-like sensibility without sacrificing crispness. 

Pinot Noir

Despite the world’s thirst for Chardonnay, New Zealand’s second most widely planted grape is Pinot Noir, with almost twice the acreage devoted to it compared to Chardonnay.  (Though the percentage of acreage devoted to Chardonnay has fallen over the decade, New Zealand does produce extraordinary, world-class examples; one taste of the Chardonnay from Kumeu River or Craggy Range makes you wonder why growers aren’t planting more.)  Even though there’s far greater demand for red Burgundy, at least judging by what the market is willing to pay, the French should be worried about New Zealand Pinot Noir because of its high quality at a lower price. 

Two of the major areas for Pinot Noir, Martinborough, located on the southern tip of the North Island, and Central Otago, reinforce the idea that location matters.  Central Otago, even though further south (which should be colder in the Southern Hemisphere) produces riper more full-bodied Pinot Noir compared to ones from Martinborough.  The explanation, according to Jesse Webster, a Kiwi who is the Market Liaison in the US for Mt. Difficulty, a leading Pinot Noir producer, “Is that maritime influences trump latitude.” Pinot Noir from Martinborough are typically less fruity with more savory nuances.  Putting those differences into clear relief are the 2013 Felton Road “Block 3” Pinot Noir ($88) from Bannockburn, one of the four subregions of Central Otago, and the 2012 Ata Rangi PN from Martinborough.  The Felton Road combines intriguing savory notes with a “sweetness” that comes from ripe fruit, not sugar, while the almost weightless Ata Rangi focuses more on engaging savory earthy nuances ($46). 

Another Red

Despite its miniscule plantings--just over 1,000 acres--Syrah shows tremendous promise in New Zealand, at least judging from what Craggy Range does with that varietal.   (Wine made from this variety is always labeled “Syrah,” not surprisingly considering how its neighbor to the west labels their wines made from the same variety.)  Craggy Range focuses on single vineyard bottlings from all over New Zealand, including a stunning Syrah, named “Le Sol,” from the Gimblett Gravels Vineyard in Hawke’s Bay where they are based.  Despite the relative warmth--for New Zealand--of Hawke’s Bay, the 2009 Le Sol ($95) has all the peppery lively character of “cool climate” Syrah, reminiscent of a wine from the Northern Rhône.  With a silky texture and spicy peppery notes, this robust, but not heavy, wine is truly a grand and unique expression of Syrah, reflecting its origins. 

And a Bargain, Too

Most New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc cost less than $20, which to my mind, is a remarkable value.  (The average price of 23 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the 2014 vintage plucked randomly from wine-searcher.com was $14.34.)  Though more expensive than Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir from New Zealand are still well priced compared to red Burgundy.  Pinot Noir are always expensive because they are an inherently more expensive wine to produce.  Unlike other grapes, once the yield of Pinot Noir starts to rise, the quality drops dramatically.  Hence, for the same fixed costs, the amount of wine produced--and for sale--will always be less compared to other varietals.  One can argue about the price of Craggy Range’s Le Sol--but you can’t argue about its quality.  Indeed, you can’t argue about the quality of New Zealand wines in general.

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E-mail me your thoughts about New Zealand wine at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

October 21, 2015