“You wine writers need to check your facts!” barked John Buck, of Te Mata Estate, the oldest winery in New Zealand. This to a room full of wine writers, at last week’s London Wine Fair.
And his gripe? That too many wine guides state that, while New Zealand produces great white wines, its red wines lack fruit and have a tell-tale unripe, green, character. To prove his point, we then proceeded to taste a range of top flight Kiwi reds, all from the highly promising 2007 vintage, none of them showing a trace of anything unripe, yet with the New Zealand hallmark clearly-etched fruit. That was us told.
In defence of wine writing in general, I feel I should note that the leafy, unripe character of New Zealand’s reds is not a figment of our imagination. It was most definitely there when I first started tasting Kiwi reds back in the mid-nineties; I tasted it as recently as a couple of years ago in some Hawkes Bay syrahs. However, New Zealand’s winemakers are a determined bunch and have clearly worked hard to bring up the standard of their red wines, demonstrated by those impressive 2007s.
New Zealand’s first red wine successes came with pinot noir, which, ironically, has a reputation as one of the fussiest grapes in the world and hard to get right. Much of New Zealand’s neighbour, Australia, is too hot for top class pinot noir, for example, resulting in baked or stewed fruit flavours. New Zealand, however, has been arguably the most successful producer of fine, perfumed pinot noir, outside of its ancestral French home in Burgundy.
Pinot Noir producers to watch
New Zealand is, by any measure, at the cooler end of the winemaking world. However, its length from North (warmest) to South (coolest, this being the southern hemisphere), the varying influence of the cool Pacific and Southern Oceans, the variety of soils and sites, all make for wine regions which produce different styles of wine – even when based on the same grape variety.
The daddy of New Zealand’s pinot noir makers. They epitomize the muscular, relatively full-on style of Martinborough pinot. This spot at the southern tip of the North Island is about as far north as pinot ventures in New Zealand, making for depth of flavour, complexity and savoury richness. Burgundian in style – and price.
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2007, £31.49 from New Zealand House of Wine, Majestic (Fine Wine) £45 per bottle, down to £36 if you buy any 2 New Zealand wines.
Based in Marlborough, at the northern tip of the South Island, Jackson Estate has a reputation for elegant, Loire-ish sauvignon blanc. Their pinot noirs, though, are equally alluring and a great illustration of the lighter, more juicy style of Marlborough pinot.
Jackson Estate Vintage Widow Pinot Noir 2006, Majestic, £17.99, down to £14.39 if you buy any 2 New Zealand wines.
This is a small outfit with a huge reputation. Based in Otago deep in the South Island, the most southerly wine region in the world, they turn out deceptively effortless wines. The sunny days and cool nights in Otago give their pinots perfumed fruit and delicate tannins; light, but with no lack of flavour. Biodynamic practices may also have something to do with the poise and depth.
Felton Road Pinot Noir 2007, £25.50 from Imbibros, £25.99 (£22.50 case rate) from The Vineking, £26.20 from Les Caves de Pyrène (though the 2007 has yet to arrive and they have sold out of the 2006). They also make a number of wines from particular vineyards or blocks of vines, available in tiny quantities, including Calvert Vineyard and Block 3 – hard to find and prices start at £30 and up.
If New Zealand was going to succeed with any red variety, then pinot noir would be top of the list, with its liking for cooler conditions. Surely the warmer climate varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah are more of a struggle. Well, they have been, hence the talk of green, leafy wines.
However, the North Island, and specifically Hawkes Bay, has a warmer, maritime-influenced climate capable of ripening these varieties. Particularly important for syrah is an area called the Gimblett Gravels, with large pebbles from an ancient riverbed. These stones absorb heat from the sun during the day and radiate this heat during the night, helping to ripen the grapes – in much the same way that the “pudding stones” of Chateauneuf-du-Pape do in France’s southern Rhône Valley.
Producers to watch
With an uncompromising attitude to quality, Trinity Hill’s wines are ambitious and a signpost to the future of New Zealand reds. Their syrahs are all worth trying.
Trinity Hill Homage Syrah 2006, £75 from Swig. Less eye-watering prices for the Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2007, £19.95 from Swig, £17.35 from New Zealand House of Wine.
The winery may be in Hawkes Bay, but Craggy Range specialise in producing single vineyard wines from all over New Zealand, made from a range of grape varieties by Master of Wine Steve Smith. Highly-rated by people in the know, they command respect from everyone who has come across them.
Craggy Range Sophia 2006, a blend of mostly merlot, with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and malbec in support, is £25 at Waitrose. Wine Direct have the 2005 for £24.95, New Zealand House of Wine the 2004 at £23.75. For a more affordable taste try Craggy Range Syrah Block 14, Gimblett Gravels 2006, £16.99 from Waitrose.
Finally, back to New Zealand’s oldest producer, dating from the 1890s. They have a long-standing reputation for producing outstanding red wines (hence John Buck’s impatience with the “green” label), which have long commanded international recognition. Coleraine, their flagship red, is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a fair dollop of cabernet franc. The 2007 is embryonic, but already mouthwatering and a delicious prospect, especially if you are prepared to wait a few years to allow it to develop.
Te Mata Coleraine 2007, £27.99 from The Vineyard (due in a couple of weeks, so check first!). The 2006 is available from New Zealand House of Wine for £28.25 and from Wine Direct for £26.75.
Imbibros – branches in Godalming and Farnham, http://www.imbibros.co.uk/
Les Caves de Pyrène – retail outlet in Artington, Guildford, http://www.lescaves.co.uk/
Majestic – various branches and online at http://www.majestic.co.uk/
New Zealand House of Wine – online-only: http://www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk/
Swig – online-only: http://www.swig.co.uk/
The Vineking – branches in Weybridge and Reigate, http://www.thevineking.com/
The Vineyard – Dorking, http://www.vineyard-direct.co.uk/
Waitrose – various branches and online at http://www.waitrosewine.com/
Wine Direct – on-line only: http://www.winedirect.co.uk/