Wednesday, 13 July 2016

What direction should New Zealand winemaking take for the future?

(L-R) Peter McCombie MW, Patrick McGrath MW, Rebecca Gibb MW, Joe Wadsack, Sir George Fitonich

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the wine of now. If you’re out for dinner with friends, and ordering white wine, it's likely that the group will either go for that, or a Pinot Grigio.

Currently, 87% of New Zealand’s wine exports are Sauvignon Blanc, but what does the country’s wine future hold: embracing the regions and expanding beyond Malborough; new and exciting grape varieties; or focusing on the premium? 

At a debate sponsored by Villa Maria, and arranged through its UK agent, Hatch Mansfield, New Zealand master of wine Peter McCombie, UK master of wine Rebecca Gibb, and the ever-knowledgeable Joe Wadsack, came together to battle it out. 

Peter McCombie championed the regions 

McCombie argued that Sauvignon Blanc is often seen by critics as a bit tarty and too fruity, but it does delivers drinking pleasure. It has a brand status, and people feel comfortable buying it. 

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is indeed the fashionable choice of now, but this is the country’s chance to build its regional identities, and diversify. However, McCombie said that he’s not sure New Zealand winemakers have properly got to grips with terroir yet. 

There’s currently an emphasis on the grape, but this could be a way to make regions more prominent. As the industry grows, the country will find success from making better wines, and the best is yet to come. “New Zealand’s future lies in regions,” McCombie said. 

Rebecca Gibb countered, “I don’t think we should talk sub-regions. ‘Marlborough’ is enough. Regional is enough, and you can’t expect to push people through the regional door. And Joe Wadsack quipped, “Regions only exist because people want to know where the most expensive one is.” 

The wines

Region: Nelson
Admiralty Bay Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (£10.99, launching in August 2016)
Fresh and vibrant, with plenty of guava, gooseberry and a nice minerality.

Region: Gisborne
Villa Maria Private Bin Gisborne Chardonnay 2015 (£10.30, available from Tesco, New Zealand House of Wine)
“The chardonnay to convince people who don’t like chardonnay,” McCombie said. It’s fruity and accessible, with a creamy texture and a suggestion of oak.

Region: Hawkes Bay
Villa Maria Reserve Merlot 2013 (£22.70, available from Dylans Wine merchants, Village Wines, The Seriously Good Wine Company, New Zealand House of Wine)
This is deep and full, rich on the palate, with plum and chocolate notes. 

Region: Ihumatao
Villa Maria single Vineyard Ihumatao Verdelho 2014 (£19.40, only available in New Zealand, sorry!)
A bit spicy and citrusy at the start, with a fresh acidity on the finish.

Rebecca Gibb championed grape varieties

While 87% of New Zealand’s wine exports are Sauvignon Blanc, by 2062, will people be out of love with it? 

Gibb said that New Zealand is now offering good Chardonnay, and some good blends. With grapes and blends, people know what they’re buying. 

“There’s so much diversity in New Zealand. It’s a long country, and there’s a lot of opportunity for different grape varieties to flourish,” Gibb said. 

Lots of Italian grapes were planted in Australia and they’re now succeeding, so why can’t this happen in New Zealand? 

Grapes have diverse flavours, and textures, and they’re easier to understand. “Grapes are great,” Gibb stated. Is a country and a grape not enough? 

Richard Hemming, MW said, “Sauvignon Blanc became the norm. If New Zealand can create more varieties as distinct styles, there’s a strong argument going down the variety path.”

The wines

Left Field Albarino 2015 (£14.05, available from Bargain Booze, Taurus Wines, Vino Wines, Cambridge Wine Merchants, New Zealand House of Wine)
Plenty of apples and pears and spice. Only the second albarino I’ve tried that wasn’t out of Spain or Portugal.

Left Field Malbec 2014 (£17.30, available from Bargain Booze, Famous Wines, Barrica Wines, Campbell Moore, Vino Wines, New Zealand House of Wine)
A lovely, big wine with dark chocolate and blackberry.

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris 2015 (£14.95, available from The Co-op, Famous Wines, The Pip Stop)
A dry and refreshing wine with some interesting minerality. 

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Arneis 2014 (£14.05, available from New Zealand House of Wine
Lots of citrus, with a tangy acidity and dry finish.

Joe Wadsack championed premium wines

“It’s been a Sauvalanche,” Wadsack announced. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc started inexpensive, got better, and created the premium fine wine image. 

As the first white wine a country produced, it is much better than where others started. Take Blue Nun or Mateus for example, Wadsack said.

However, Sauvignon Blanc has to fit with the palate people have for it. Winemakers need to pick the best wines and create an aura around them. 

“In general, regions come second to thinking a wine is amazing,” Wadsack concluded.

The wines

Villa Maria Single Vineyard Keltern Chardonnay 2014 (£19.40, available from Hailsham Cellars, New Zealand House of Wine)
Peachy, creamy, rich and full.

Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 (£20.55, available from Hailsham Cellars, Eagle Wines, Edencroft Fine Wines, Islington Wine, New Zealand House of Wine)
Berries and plums with a nice hint of spice, and delicious richness.

Vidal Legacy Syrah 2013 (£41.00, available from Islington Wine, The Halifax Wine Company, New Zealand House of Wine)
A wonderfully balanced syrah with some floral notes and dark spiciness.

Esk Valley Winemakers Reserve Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (£24.90, available from Islington Wine, Woodwinters, Ellie’s Cellar, North & South Wines, D.Byrne and Co., Hoults Wine Merchants)
Loved this wine. Dark fruit, chocolate, and oaky spice in abundance. 

An extra treat

Sir George Fitonich, owner of Villa Maria also joined the panel, but had lost his voice. He was still kind enough to bring along a couple of bottles of The Gravels Ngakirikiri, Villa Maria's super-premium single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 from Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay. Absolutely divine.

The result!

In a room full of the wine great and good, the jury was out!

For me, as one of the ’99%’ (with a keener interest than some/most), I had to agree with Rebecca that grapes are likely to be the future. While the critics out there might want to delve into the premium wines and the sub-regions, for the vast majority of people, that is likely to be one step too far. 

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, much like Pinot Grigio, is a safe bet. In most restaurants, they’ll both feature on the wine lists, because that’s the choice of the day/year/decade. Wadsack said that he’d like to see sommeliers sell more widely to consumers, but Gibb said that in many cases, sommeliers don’t care, and will continue selling cheap New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, because they know people will drink it.

The status quo isn’t likely to change any time soon, but as New Zealand keeps diversifying, and selling better quality wines from different regions and at different price points, perhaps eventually that 87% of Sauvignon Blanc exports will come down a bit. 

Sunset at a vineyard in the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand. Photo by Chris Gin

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