All around New Zealand I get mixed reactions when I put forward my hypothesis that Chardonnays comprise New Zealand’s best white wines. I can sense the reticence of winemakers to condemn the proverbial goose (Sauvignon Blanc) in their initially flustered looks and carefully measured responses. But it is also painfully obvious that winemakers all over New Zealand are struggling to reconcile Sauvignon’s commercially successful style with their own creative impulses—hence the relatively recent moves to vineyard-designated and barrel-fermented Savvies.
Detractors of these approaches deride the wines as Chardonnay wannabes, but there is some truth to that accusation. So far, no other white grape grown in New Zealand offers the same combination of complexity and sense of place as found in the country’s best Chardonnays. It’s no wonder Sauvignon makers are seeking to emulate them. Although some other white grape varieties are showing promise (see sidebar, “What Else is New in New Zealand?” page 35), Chardonnay—difficult as it may be to sell the public on—is still top of the heap.
“We’re battling not only Burgundy, but also California and a lot of other New World regions,” explains Simon Buck, general manager of RO Imports. “I find that my greatest New Zealand white wine experiences have been Chardonnay, but getting away from bigger, oakier, buttery styles has been key for us.”
Like Buck, don’t be dissuaded by the fact that there’s strong global competition or that the variety is unfashionable in certain circles: New Zealand is capable of making some of the world’s best Chardonnays. What makes them so good? For a start, the combination of New World fruit with cool-climate growing regions. With latitudes approaching those of Burgundy but more maritime influences, New Zealand Chardonnays retain crisp acids, much like their French brethren.
And although much attention has been paid to modern French clones of Chardonnay, New Zealand’s old standby, the Mendoza clone, still makes many of the country’s best Chards. “We find that the Mendoza clone—with our levels of cropping—gives plenty of concentration,” says Katy (Poppy) Hammond, winemaker at Dry River in Martinborough. “As the vines are getting older, we’re getting more and more minerality and clarity in the wines,” explains Hammond.
In addition, New Zealand’s Chardonnays are capable of showing distinct regional characteristics. Want fully ripe, tropical fruit flavors? Look to the warm (more northerly) regions of Gisborne and Hawkes Bay. Marlborough and Nelson’s ample sunshine hours and generally gravelly soils yield more pineapple and melon, while Martinborough Chardonnays, befitting their central location, lie stylistically somewhere in between. Central Otago’s cool nights result in crisper, more citrusy profiles.
This sense of somewhereness mirrors what Burgundy so often claims to deliver and provides a succinct rebuttal to criticisms of New World wines for lacking terroir—of tasting of nothing but fruit and oak. Indeed, it’s even possible in New Zealand to take these distinctions to the level of differences between vineyards, as Kumeu River does with its range of single-vineyard Chardonnays.
Implicit in this growing understanding of New Zealand’s different wine regions and vineyards is the realization that excessive oak and overly buttery malolactic fermentations obscure those distinctions. The best New Zealand Chardonnays use plenty of oak and (often) malolactic fermentation, but properly in support of the fruit. There is a trend toward producing unoaked Chardonnays, but it exists for commercial reasons, not because it produces the best expression of the grape variety or terroir.
Even more so than Chardonnay, Pinot Noir is capable of conveying a sense of place. Wine geeks often refer to it being “transparent,” reflecting where and how it is grown more than other varieties. Burgundy nuts wax rhapsodic over the differences between Chambolle-Musigny and neighboring Nuits-St-Georges.
At February’s Pinot Noir 2010 conference in Wellington, the differences among New Zealand’s Pinot Noir regions were on full display. From the suppleness and easy accessibility of Marlborough to the brash fruit of Central Otago, the finesse of Waipara and the savory overtones of Martinborough, each of the major regions brings something distinct to the table.
Taking this a step further, if crossing a path between vineyards and finding differences in the resulting wines is a reflection of terroir, Felton Road’s Block 3 and Block 5 Pinot Noirs could be New Zealand’s terroir poster children. The two blocks have performed consistently over the years, with Block 3 always the softer, more elegant wine and Block 5 always the sturdier, more powerful of the two.
“I had just returned from doing vintage in Burgundy and I was really inspired by site-expressive wines rather than winemaker-selected ‘reserves’—whatever they may mean,” explains Blair Walter, Felton Road’s winemaker. “So when I saw a really expressive character in the Block 3 in our first vintage in 1997 (third crop for the vines), I really wanted to bottle this separately and preserve this individuality,”
Although many Central Otago wineries choose to blend fruit from different vineyards and various subregions to achieve a consistent style from vintage to vintage—and these represent legitimate expressions of Central Otago Pinot Noir—more and more seem to be embracing the idea that the best Pinot Noirs reflect individual sites.
“When I was at Gibbston, we used to make wines from all over Central, so we’d see a lot of differences from subregion to subregion,” explains Grant Taylor of Valli. “What occurred to me is that long-term, there’s limited value in being defined by a variety—anyone can grow a grape variety. We need to be identified as a place.”
Taylor now bottles wine from single vineyards in Bannockburn and Gibbston Valley to highlight those distinctions in place. “Bannockburn captures the warmth of the region, yielding bigger, riper wines,” says Taylor. “In Gibbston, I can pick two weeks later, with less alcohol, and the wine lives on acid rather than tannin, with more floral perfumes, spice and complexity. It’s leaner and longer.”
Although Central Otago boasts a range of different soils and mesoclimates, it is missing one of Burgundy’s main ingredients: limestone. For that, Taylor has gone to North Otago’s Waitaki Valley to source Pinot Noir. “I get lots of perfume and savory notes rather than ripe fruit, but no greenness—I think I’m tasting soil influence,” he suggests.
In Waipara, the Teviotdale Hills, which form that region’s eastern boundary, contain some limestone—one of the reasons New Zealand’s largest wine company has invested millions in vineyard development there—but they also afford protection against southerly storms. Indeed, Brancott’s Pinot Noir has recently changed its labeling from Marlborough to South Island, to account for the increased proportion of Waipara fruit in the blend.
Those gently sloping clay hillsides are reputed to give more powerful, assertive wines than the Waipara’s gravel terraces. “People do say that the gravelly soils give lighter, more aromatic Pinots, but I’m not sure I’d agree,” says Lynnette Hudson, winemaker for Pegasus Bay in Waipara. Certainly the Pegasus Bay style—despite being drawn from gravelly soils—is not one of lightness or delicacy. “Waipara Pinot Noirs tend to have ripe, plummy fruit but also a lot of spice as well,” says Hudson. “I find a lot of similarities to Martinborough, although they’re farther north.”
Martinborough, at the southern end of the North Island, is Pinot Noir’s spiritual home in New Zealand. Pioneering wineries Ata Rangi, Dry River and Martinborough Vineyard led the way in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and are still stalwarts, supplemented by at least two waves of followers-on. Craggy Range and Escarpment, both on Te Muna Road, are recent entities, but have made big impressions with their Dijon clones and closely planted vines.
But for truly Burgundian viticulture in New Zealand, two vineyards come most to mind. Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley, both in the limestone-rich Weka Pass area of North Canterbury, are perhaps as close as the New World can come to Burgundy. They’re closely planted to 10,000 vines or more per hectare, with almost miniature-looking vines only a meter or so high.
At Pyramid Valley, American Mike Weersing, who cut his Kiwi-winemaking teeth at Neudorf, and his wife Claudia, established their tiny vineyard from scratch along biodynamic principles. According to Weersing, though, it’s not about re-creating Burgundy. “I think soil type has a consistent, predictable effect independent of variety,” he explains. “Limestone gives you structure, and for a thin-skinned variety like Pinot Noir that’s helpful…clay provides flesh—what the French call ampleur—which is also good for Pinot Noir, because as a variety it can be lean.”
Pyramid Valley’s 2008 Earth Smoke Pinot Noir is like few other New World Pinot Noirs. It’s delicate and finely wrought, with sinewy cherry and herb flavors and silky tannins that impart great elegance to the wine. While other New Zealand Pinot Noirs display Burgundy-like attributes, this one tastes positively Burgundian, in a relatively light bodied, Côte de Beaune sort of way.
Of course, that’s not necessarily what Weersing is looking for. “As long as we continue to plant the glamour grapes and emulate what other places are doing, we’re never going to find New Zealand’s own voice,” he asserts. “Years ago, when I was young and brash, I wanted to make great wine,” Weersing continues. “Now I just want to make authentic wine.”
New Zealand’s Best “Burgundies”
The following is a very personal and subjective list of New Zealand Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that combine high quality with a strong sense of place. Importer information is supplied to assist in locating the wines.
Ata Rangi Craighall, Martinborough (imported by Via Pacifica)
Clearview Reserve, Hawkes Bay (Meadowbank Estates)
Cloudy Bay, Marlborough (Moët Hennessy USA)
Craggy Range Les Beaux Cailloux, Hawkes Bay (Kobrand)
Dry River, Martinborough (RO Imports)
Felton Road Block 2/Block 6, Central Otago (Wilson Daniels)
Gibbston Valley Reserve, Central Otago (Not imported)
Kumeu River Maté’s Vineyard, Kumeu (Auckland) (imported by Wilson Daniels)
Mountford Estate, Waipara (Not imported)
Neudorf Moutere, Nelson (Epic Wines)
Pegasus Bay, Waipara (Meadowbank Estates)
Sacred Hill Rifleman’s, Hawkes Bay (Not imported)
Seresin Reserve, Marlborough (Sorting Table)
Te Mata Estate Elston, Hawkes Bay (Not imported)
Amisfield Rocky Knoll, Central Otago (imported by Pasternak Wine Imports)
Ata Rangi, Martinborough (Via Pacifica)
Brancott Terraces, Marlborough (Pernod Ricard USA)
Chard Farm Finla Mor, Central Otago (Dreyfus, Ashby & Co.)
Craggy Range (various sites/regions) (imported by Kobrand)
Dry River, Martinborough (RO Imports)
Escarpment Kupe, Martinborough (Meadowbank Estates)
Felton Road Block 3/Block 5, Central Otago (Wilson Daniels)
Fromm Clayvin Vineyard, Marlborough (Meadowbank Estates)
Neudorf Moutere, Nelson (Epic Wines)
Pegasus Bay, Waipara (Meadowbank Estates)
Pyramid Valley (various sites/regions with several regional importers)
Quartz Reef Bendigo Estate, Central Otago (imported by Vine Street Imports)
Rippon, Central Otago (Station Imports)
Valli (various sites/Otago) (RO Imports)
Villa Maria Taylors Pass Single Vineyard, Marlborough (Ste. Michelle Wine Estates)
What else is new in New Zealand?
Much of New Zealand is too cool for complete ripening of Bordeaux varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but in Hawkes Bay and on tiny Waiheke Island these sturdy reds take pride of place. Inspired by Bordeaux yet marked by New World fruit, the best of these wines offer the complexity developed over life spans of a decade or more and the plush tannins for near-immediate gratification. While most of the Waiheke wines will be impossible to locate here in the U.S., volumes coming out of Hawkes Bay are more substantial, with excellent offerings from C.J. Pask, Craggy Range, Matariki, Te Awa and Villa Maria, among others.
Hawkes Bay is ground zero for this decade’s Syrah explosion in New Zealand. The region’s warm (by New Zealand standards) temperatures are still cool enough to promote the development of delicate floral and peppery spice notes and preserve a vibrant, fresh-fruit quality. The biggest, baddest, most expensive examples—Trinity Hill’s Homage, Bilancia’s La Collina and Craggy Range’s Le Sol—push the limits of power and extraction, yet still retain a sense of elegance and proportion in top vintages. For a slightly different take, try Man O’ War from Waiheke Island, or Martinborough Syrahs from Dry River, Kusuda and Schubert.
For the past 10 years, Pinot Gris has been the trendy white in New Zealand. Now that growers have some experience with the grape and understand that it needs to be cropped at low levels to have any chance at distinction, quality is improving. Although residual sugar levels are still all over the map, these are generally broad, off-dry wines with neutral aromatics. A perennial—if somewhat expensive—favorite comes from Dry River in Martinborough, which balances its richness with hints of mildly gingery spice, but other good examples come from Peregrine, Quartz Reef and Rockburn, all in Central Otago.
At this year’s Nelson Aromatics Symposium, Riesling was the top story, with a lively debate about whether dry or sweet styles were more appropriate and how they should be labeled. Near as I could tell, there’s no consensus among New Zealand Riesling producers just yet. The best dry versions, like Andrew
Greenough’s from Nelson, meld ripe peaches with briny minerality, but more and more are being made in off-dry styles, like the reliable Marlborough bottling from Spy Valley. As long as the sugars are balanced by crisp acids, these can also be excellent. Although made all around New Zealand, Central Otago is emerging as the go-to region for wines of this ilk: look for Carrick, Felton Road, Mt. Difficulty and Mount Edward, among others.
The gravelly soils of Marlborough and Hawkes Bay seem to yield the most
aromatic examples of this idiosyncratic variety, especially from top producers such as Lawson’s Dry Hills, Spy Valley and Stonecroft. But no one rivals the single-mindedness of Nick Nobilo, whose Vinoptima winery is devoted entirely to Gewürztraminer. Early vintages from his clay-loam soils sometimes lacked the variety’s hallmark in-your-face aromatics, but the 2006–2008 wines balance the weight and texture Nobilo is seeking with admirable spice.
Millton proprietor James Millton believes Viognier will prove to be Gisborne’s next big white, eventually supplanting Chardonnay as the region’s top variety. His entry-level Riverpoint Vineyard Viognier ($20) is floral and spicy, textured without being overly weighty. Look for the 2008 when it arrives later this year. Other small plantings of Viognier are showing promise in Hawkes Bay and Martinborough.