Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Is there more to New Zealand than Sauvignon Blanc?

Sauvignon Blanc – from anywhere, but especially from New Zealand – has been THE wine success story of the past couple of years. It seems we just can’t get enough of this variety’s crisp, lively, tropical fruit character. New Zealand winemakers must be rubbing their hands with glee you’d think.

Well yes and no. While it’s great being this year’s big thing, there’s nothing worse than being yesterday’s news. New Zealand winemakers know that wines, like clothes, can become out-dated. So they’re keen to let us know that they can do more than produce gallons of appetising Sauvignon Blanc, ready for the time when our tastes are moving on and looking for something new. So what do they have in store for us?

Aromatic whites
New Zealand’s climate of warm(ish) sunny days and cool nights makes it a great place to produce aromatic white wines. Be on the look out for wines made from Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, both varieties which originate in Alsace in France. Pinot Gris has a streak of spice along with vaguely peachy fruit and sometimes a hint of almond or marzipan. This variety is now the most rapidly growing one in New Zealand. If you’d like to see what they’re producing, Waitrose offers The Ned Pinot Grigio for £9.99. Gewurztraminer (or Gewurz for short) has opulent aromas of lychee and rose petal. Have a try of ever-reliable producer Villa Maria’s Private Bin Gewurz at £8.49, also at Waitrose.

Another variety to watch out for is Riesling – but it comes with a warning! The problem is New Zealand Rieslings have a bit of a split personality. Some are dry, with delicious lime zesty flavours and crisp acidity. Others are decidedly off-dry, with perceptible sugar levels. Each winery seems to decide which style they are going to produce, so, unless you’ve tried it before, or have a good wine merchant’s advice, you’re in the dark as to which style you’re going to find when you open the bottle. Buyer beware!

Red wines
New Zealanders are keen to show us that their skills extend to red wines as well as whites.

Mainly, but not exclusively, from the warmer North Island, they have been making Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for a number of years. There are some good ones, a very few great ones – but there are an awful lot which are just not that enjoyable. Even the North Island seems to be a little too cool in most places to ripen red grapes fully and the wines end up with a green, mean streak to them.

The big noise on the red wine front, though, is Pinot Noir. This grape has a reputation for being fussy about where it grows. Not too hot and not too cool - and healthy growing conditions are needed to prevent rot in this thin-skinned variety. Pinot Noir seems to have found its ideal home in New Zealand. It comes into its own in the relatively new region of Central Otago, deep in New Zealand’s South Island – the most southerly wine region in the world. Pinot Noir is the grape that makes red Burgundy, and it is a great antidote both to blockbuster new world reds and to tough, tannic Old World ones. Pinot is lighter in colour and tannin than most other red wines, but it packs a punch in terms of a harmonious balance of red fruit flavours, spice and perfume. In Central Otago you can practically smell the air the grapes were grown in, by the fresh, clean aromas of strawberry and raspberry.

What’s the drawback? The price: New Zealand is never going to be a low-cost producer and it costs money to make good Pinot Noir, so expect to pay upwards of £10 for a decent bottle. My absolute favourite is Felton Road Pinot Noir, made 100% organically and biodynamically (more on that in another column) since 2002. The wine combines denseness and depth of flavour with a light touch which makes it a complete pleasure to drink. From pleasure to pain: you can buy this wine at Guildford’s Les Caves de Pyrène for £21.27 a bottle, or from Imbibros of Godalming for £21.95.

If this sounds like a few quid too many, have a look for these lower-priced but still delicious examples:
Waimea Estate Pinot Noir £10.99, or £8.79 if you buy two bottles, from Majestic is from the Nelson region at the top of South Island. It offers a good introduction to the New Zealand style.
Waitrose stocks Wither Hills Pinot Noir at £14.99, from the Marlborough region, again at the northern tip of the South Island. For me, Marlborough Pinots have more power, but less in the way of clear fruit flavours than Otago, but you can pick them up a little more cheaply too.

At the moment, New Zealand is riding the crest of the Sauvignon Blanc wave, but it’s betting on other varieties to carry it safely to the shore without a wipeout.

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