Although the modern-day wine industry in New Zealand dates back only about 50 years, in the past two decades it has roared to near the top of wine-producing countries in terms of the value of its exports. Sauvignon Blanc from the country’s powerhouse region of Marlborough has led the charge, but there’s an increasingly diverse roster of other grape varieties with which to fall in love, as well as other notable wine regions worth exploring on both the North and South Islands.
Nearly 18 years ago, my “New Zealand: Beyond Sauvignon Blanc” article was an exploration of the other possibilities open to producers and consumers, a recognition that the country’s varied vineyard locations and skilled winemakers were capable of so much more than churning out industrial quantities of Sauvignon Blanc.
Apparently, I was just two decades too early. Forbes.com published an article last July with almost the same headline. I suppose it’s a tribute to the success New Zealand (and the Marlborough region in particular) has had in growing, making and commercializing Sauvignon Blanc that the conversation remains focused on what comes next.
Hawke’s Bay is one of New Zealand’s warmest major grape-growing regions, making it a popular spot to grow the red Bordeaux varieties. Chardonnay is hugely successful here, and Syrah—often very fragrant and peppery—is fast becoming a regional star.
Relatively large in area, Hawke’s Bay has a couple of subregions worthy of note. The Gimblett Gravels subregion is the best known and most often seen on wine labels because of the strong efforts of the association’s members. The deep, free-draining gravels have only a thin layer of topsoil over them and the area’s daytime temperatures are often the highest in the area, so most producers have focused on red grapes. The nearby Bridge Pa Triangle has a deeper layer of topsoil but similar gravels underneath. Those wines are often slightly more fragrant than Gimblett Gravels wines.
The Gimblett Gravels of Hawke's Bay is where many of New Zealand's top Syrahs and Bordeaux-style blends originate. (Photo Courtesy of SMWE)
Centered around the Art Deco city of Napier, Hawke’s Bay seems to foster more creative experimentation than what is found in some other parts of the country. Visitors can find no-sulfur Gamay, orange wine, trendy Albariños, concrete eggs and more alongside stalwart collectibles like Esk Valley’s The Terraces and Te Mata Estate’s Coleraine, Bordeaux-style blends with two decades of cellaring potential.
The top examples of Chardonnay, red blends and Syrah are world class, although harvest can be affected by tropical cyclones, adding a bit of uncertainty to the mix. Among recent vintages, I hesitate to talk too much about the challenging 2017, as too few of the wines have been released, but 2013–2016 are all reasonably strong to excellent, with many fine wines in each of those years. Most 2012s aren’t worth taking the effort to find, as it was one of the rainiest summers on record.
Martinborough is a much smaller region that predominantly focuses on Pinot Noir, a practice that dates back to the region’s earliest days. Accessed via a steep, winding road from New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington, it’s a bucolic, small country town, with vineyards located on free-draining old river terraces. Here, too, vintage variation can be dramatic, but recent years have been kind. The same run of 2013–2016 all have gems to consider buying and cellaring. From the top producers, these are often the most complex, savory and age-worthy Pinot Noirs produced in New Zealand.
The tiny production of Waiheke Island is largely slurped down by hordes of summering Aucklanders and tourists, but it includes some notable brands. They’ll be covered in a subsequent report. This online report includes more than 500 reviews, with more emphasis on the South Island.
By far the largest region is Marlborough, at the north end of the South Island. This is where oceans of decent-quality Sauvignon Blanc originate. Grown at prodigious yields of up to 16 tonnes per hectare, machine-harvested, inoculated with selected yeasts, fermented cold and bottled as early as three months after the vintage, most of these wines sell based on brand and/or price.
In Marlborough, the 2017 harvest was punctuated by two major rain events. Most of the Sauvignons I tasted were clean, but many lacked concentration. Chaptalization (for people who care about that) was widespread.
I sampled scores of these wines for this report and have attempted to point out the better examples. Most fit the stereotypical profile of such wines, offering tropical fruit, plenty of herbaceous notes, bright acids and a crisp, clean finish. Find a brand that fits the profile you enjoy and drink it before the next vintage is released, as there is no point in aging Sauvignon Blancs made in this style.
A growing number of wineries are exploring what have become known as “alternative styles” of Sauvignon Blanc. These can differ by as little as having spent increased time on lees (to try to develop more textural interest), or they can be full-blown barrel-fermented and aged wines using indigenous yeasts. The best of these wines exhibit ample complexity, textural interest and length.
These alternative-style Sauvignon Blancs often benefit from short-term cellaring, and some are capable of aging up to a decade. I’ve indicated which wines I feel can benefit from aging in the individual reviews.
Marlborough’s free-draining alluvial sites on the floors of the (main) Wairau and Awatere Valleys also produce light, aromatic wines possessing considerable charm from other varieties. Riesling and Gewürztraminer, although not common, can both be excellent. Pinot Noir, while fragrant and pretty from these stony sites, is often quite light in color and body.
For the Burgundian varieties—Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir—look for wines from the region’s Southern Valleys. The Brancott, Omaka and Waihopi all offer north-facing slopes with clay and loess deposits, which provide greater water-holding capacity, and wines with more power and weight.
Nearby Nelson, also at the north end of the South Island, offers similar climate and soils. The Waimea flats are classic aromatic and Sauvignon country, while the clay soils of the Moutere Hills provide power and richness to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir alike.
Moving considerably south, the region of Waipara, just north of earthquake-ravaged Christchurch, offers diverse soils and growing conditions. Increasingly going under the umbrella region of North Canterbury, some of the sites feature clay-over-limestone soils capable of producing excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A number of wineries in the region are experimenting with low or no-sulfur bottlings, skin contact (orange wines) and the like.
Another hop further south, and the most continental of New Zealand’s wine-growing regions, Central Otago is a hotbed for Pinot Noir, featuring some of the country’s top examples. Back when I first visited the region in the year 2000, a lot of things were different. There were fewer vineyards, fewer wineries and fewer winemakers. What there was, was excitement. A feeling that the region was onto something big, that Central Otago Pinot Noirs would be the next big thing.
Many of those wines were big. Backed by the exuberance of young vines and young winemakers, they pushed boundaries in terms of color, ripeness and extraction. They were bold and edgy, like the landscape and their makers.
Today, the landscape is the same. The hard, jagged edges of the mountains still thrust up into the sky. The wind still whips up the cold waters of the lakes. The intensity of the sun still burns our skin. In geologic terms, those 18 years since the turn of the century are nothing. Less than a blip.
In human terms, 18 years is about the time it takes to grow up, to go from brash youth to young adult. And the same is true of the region’s vineyards. Amidst all the fun and adventure sports that typify Central, the vines have gotten serious. They’ve put down roots, thickened their trunks and balanced their canopies.
The region’s winemakers have matured, too, and benefited from the increasing influence of new arrivals, with broader-based practical experiences from Oregon and Burgundy. Winemakers have pulled back on alcohols, extraction and oak, allowing the wines to be what they want to be, to express their origins through fruit and site, rather than through winemaking. Quiet confidence has taken the place of exuberant youth.
That’s reflected in the wines. While the excitement was once about being new, the excitement now is about being classic. About having the confidence to stand side by side as equals with young Pinot Noirs made anywhere in the world. And about having the quality to back that up.
In Central Otago, vintages don’t often jibe with conditions further north. Here, 2014 and 2016 were warm vintages, while 2015 was cool. The region escaped 2017 unaffected by the tropical cyclones that unloaded rain on more northern latitudes.
Throughout the country, New Zealand’s wineries are producing quality wine, with certain benchmark producers making wines that can stand alongside wines from anywhere in the world at comparable price points.
To give readers a bit more local flavor, I’ve included short notes on all of the wineries I visited on my latest trip. Unfortunately, with almost 700 wineries in the country, I’m not able to visit every one each year. I’ve still got more than 100 samples on my shelves, so if you don’t see your favorites represented here, I’ll try to get to them by next issue. Cheers!
Two Paddocks Estate Pinot Noir 2016 – 89 Points
A blend of three sites (Bannockburn, Earnscleugh and Gibbston), the 2016 Pinot Noir reflects those disparate characters. Some herbal notes contrast with ripe notes of dark plum, providing an enervating tension. It's medium to full-bodied, with a smooth texture and tart, silky finish.
This was my second visit to Two Paddocks, the country vineyards and farm of actor Sam Neill. Although it's easy to get distracted by Angelica the pig, lavender oil, and the various other crops on this former horticultural research station, Manager Jacqui Murphy kept me focused on wine and vineyards during my short visit. The Riesling, one of the highlights despite not being a focus, was unfortunately sold out. If you stumble across a bottle, don't hesitate to grab it. The single-vineyard Pinot Noirs now come from three distinct subregions of Central Otago and do a creditable job of showing those distinctions under the winemaking care of Dean Shaw.
Two Paddocks The First Paddock Pinot 2016 – 92 Points
Sam Neill's First Paddock is starting to show some significant vine age, as it was planted to Clone 5 in 1993. There are 200 cases of the 2016 The First Paddock Pinot Noir, a medium-bodied, velvety-textured expression of a cool site in a warm vintage. Floral notes abound, along with dark fruit and savory, earthy notes. Despite its rich texture, there's some serious backbone to this wine, and it should age well for up to a decade.
Two Paddocks The Fusilier Pinot 2016 – 94+ Points
My favorite of the 2016s from Two Paddocks comes from the warmest of its vineyards, was vinified as 70% whole clusters and saw the largest proportion of new oak (33%). That probably says more about my palate than Dean Shaw's winemaking or the various vineyards Two Paddocks owns, but it is worth noting. The 2016 The Fusilier Pinot Noir is floral and stemmy up front, but it's balanced by layers of mixed fruit that offer richness and texture without excess weight, finishing on silken notes of incredible delicacy and length.
Two Paddocks The Last Chance Pinot 2016 – 91 Points
Arguably the world's southernmost vineyard, Two Paddocks' 2016 The Last Chance Pinot Noir is a bit firm and taut. Herbal-stemmy notes (it's 50% whole cluster this vintage) accent cherry aromas, while the flavors turn darker on the palate, heading toward charred oak, blackberry and plum. Give this one a bit of time to pull itself together and drink it from 2020.
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