Wine Enthusiast Podcast: New Zealand Beyond Sauvignon Blanc

Women from New Zealand drinking wine
Illustration by Anne Bentley

When you think of New Zealand wine, most people immediately go to Sauvignon Blanc. And while this boisterous white wine definitely deserves a place on your shelf, the country is also home to excellent varieties like Syrah and Chardonnay. Our contributing editor for Australia and New Zealand, Christina Pickard, had the chance to talk with Christopher Tanghe, an award-winning master sommelier and chief instructor for GuildSomm, about the diverse world of New Zealand wine.

The Wine Enthusiast Podcast

Christina Pickard: Hi and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Christina Pickard, the contributing editor here at Wine Enthusiast for Australia and New Zealand. In this episode I’ll be chatting to Christopher Tanghe, an award-winning master sommelier, and the chief instructor for the international educational organization GuildSomm. We’ll be talking all about New Zealand wines—other than Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand may be known for its boisterous Sauvignon, but this beautiful new world country is far from a one-trick pony. In this episode, Chris and I will cover some well-known varieties as well as some surprises. We’ll also reveal some of our favorite New Zealand wines and styles, and we highlight three wines highly rated in the Wine Enthusiast buying guide.

Christopher thanks so much for talking to me today. I know you’re a busy, globetrotting, wine-educating guy so I really appreciate you taking the time today.

Christopher Tanghe: Yeah, no problem. Happy to be here, for sure.

CP: You were recently in New Zealand and you’ve been teaching some classes through GuildSomm on New Zealand wines, is that correct?

CT: We will be in early 2020.

CP: Oh, really?

CT: So, this trip was to go and learn about the region and taste a wider array of wines to prepare for that class which will be starting in, uh, probably February of 2020.

CP: Cool. That’s very exciting. So, New Zealand! Let’s dive in. It is a big Sauvignon Blanc-producing country.  It’s a country that’s really kind of carved its reputation off that grape variety. It’s still, I don’t even know the exact percentage, but something like between 70%–80% of all wines come from this grape variety, majority of the production comes from Marlborough.

But we’re going to talk today about everything but Sauvignon Blanc, because that does get a lot of coverage—and rightly so, because there is so much made—but there’s so much more out there. And we’ll start with the great variety that is played the second-most known, which is Pinot Noir. And even though it is a grape variety that has that really has a great reputation within New Zealand, it’s still relatively small production on the global scale. But I think what does get produced from that grape variety is just of such enormous quality, and I hope that you also found that when you were there?

CT: Yeah absolutely. I will say, just before we dive into that real quickly…

CP: Sure.

CT: Just one little anecdote about Sauvignon Blanc, because I think it’s really important and it’s something that really moved me when I was there was that I think the bulk of the kind of identity of what people think of in Sauvignon Blanc is that it’s kind of that porch-pounder, coffer-type style, right? And that it always has to be loud, kind of jalapeño, you know that super ripe, piercing style which—yes, that style obviously is very prevalent and important to the image of New Zealand and of Sauvignon Blanc, but there’s also a whole host of other examples that are really pushing the boundaries of what people of that image.

And I think that in the years down the line, we’re going to see New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc definitely being confused and blind tastings for other famous regions of Sauvignon Blanc in the world. So, I’ll just leave it at that.

CP: Agreed. That’s a very good point. I completely agree. It’s certainly not as much of a one-trick pony, as it’s…You know, as people think it is. Yeah, it’s an exciting category, I think, and more so than, than it’s given credit for amongst the wine community. So glad you pointed it out.

CT: Yeah. And, you know, with Marlborough in particular, I think that there is so much cool stuff going on there too, of course within Sauvignon Blanc, but outside of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir being one of them. But also, you know, sparkling wines as well are really, really exciting coming out of there, and one of the most prominent sparkling wine producers, No. 1 Estate, is based there and also varieties that no one ever thought could get ripe there.

You know, I was talking to a number of prominent producers that kind of focus on Sauvignon Blanc, and they said, ‘Oh yeah, back in the 70s we had Cabernet Sauvignon planted. It wasn’t that silly.’ And then you go to taste the lines of Hans Herzog

CP: Yeah.

CT: And that like totally shatters all, you know, preconceptions of what should be grown and what can be grown.

CP: Yeah. Hans Herzog being, yeah, being one of these producers that just experiments, and plants everything, and so much of it works so well doesn’t it?

CT: Yeah. I mean you look at his vineyard map, you know like what’s planted where, and what block, and it’s bananas.

CP: I know.

CT: There’s just everything that you would never expect. I mean from, you know, Italian to Spanish to, you know, obscure French varieties, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, man, this is gonna be a train wreck, you know,’ and then you sit down and you taste the lines you’re like, ‘Wow, these are really, really interesting and well-made and delicious, and yeah, maybe they don’t taste always like, you know, the classic regions from which they’re from, but they’re still delicious.’

And a number of them do taste like they should from a classic region. So, you know, not that everything has to taste like classic, but it was just really eye-opening, and I think you know that was one of the label moments for me, looking at other varieties and saying you know, well, there’s a lot of potential here.

CP: Yeah, I think that’s exactly the right word, potential. And I think that’s sometimes it’s a little bit frustrating, I think even for the winemakers themselves, because you know you’ll taste the odd Riesling, and Chenin Blanc, and sparklings, and go, ‘Why aren’t you making more of this? You do it so well!’ And they kind of go, ‘Uh, Sauvignon Blanc.’

You know, I think that they even feel a little bit stuck within this sort of mono-variety called, you know, it’s a country that has just built such a reputation off of one grape variety, you know, more so than probably anywhere else in the New World, anyway, just in terms of such a massive amount of what they produce is from this one variety. But, you know, there’s so much potential down there, and I think that, you know, it is changing a little bit, slowly, but I mean that’s partly why I wanted to do this podcast episode: to get people to know that, you know, there’s more out there!

And, yes, use New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as a springboard, right, as a sort of gateway to also explore these other varieties because the more that we drink them and buy them and talk about them, I think the more that then producers will maybe be given a little bit more liberty, by the powers that be, to say, ‘Hey, can we, you know, try that Riesling that worked so well? Can we maybe you know try that again this year? Up the production or whatever because it’s some,’ yeah, it’s such a blank canvas in a lot of ways.

There’s so much more that they could be doing there in terms of these other varieties, other cool climate varieties in particular. Anyway, we have digressed. Let’s focus on Pinot Noir for a little while.

CT: Sure.

CP: I want to just use this one wine that is in our buying guide, and so listeners can kind of go back to the WineMag.com website and go back to our buying guide and get my review and a little bit more of my take on it, but also, you know, to use as a launchpad to explore other wines, other Pinots from New Zealand, from this region and from others.

So, the one we’re going to start talking about is Escarpment, and the specific wine you can find in the buying guide as the 2017 Kiwa single-vineyard from Martinborough. And I gave it 95 points. It’s $60, so we’re not talking an everyday, you know, these wines we’re gonna recommend today are not everyday drinking wines but, you know, I thought, look, let’s talk about the good stuff and talk about why these guys are really leading, leading the game. And then, you know, we can give you alternatives.

Are you familiar with Escarpment, I should say first? You know this wine, this producer?

CT: I am, yeah. Yeah, I went there and met with Larry McKenna, and what I thought of Martinborough before going there was, was way different. It’s actually a really concentrated and dense growing region. And it’s not kind of as vast as a lot of the others, and kind of, for whatever reason, the image in my head I had it being like a lot bigger. But it’s essentially like this super cute little town that’s all based on the square, that has a lot of similarities to Sonoma Square, but it’s smaller and everyone knows each other, and it’s all about Pinot Noir for the most part.

I mean you talk about, you know, mono-varietal kind of wine culture, it’s like that here, but with Pinot Noir for the most part. There are outliers, of course: some really great like Alsace varieties, Germanic varieties from Dry River in particular, but Pinot Noir is the name of the game, and they’re all being produced there at a really, really high level, for sure.

CP: Yeah, I agree. I also had the same impression the first time I was in Martinborough, which, confusingly, we should say that the region is actually the Wairarapa, and this can get very confusing in New Zealand, because there’s a lot of “wais”, and the Wairarapa is the region that includes two other subregions there. But really Martinborough kind of dominates there, and geographically we’re talking about just…What is it, like an hour, hour and a half outside of Wellington? Down these, like, crazy nausea-inducing roads. Did you drive there, or did you take the train?

CT: I did, I drove, yeah. I drove from there to Wellington. It was so fun. I had a little, like, you know, SUV, and I was wishing I had a Porsche or something. The roads are just magnificent. There’s actually still snow up there on the roads, too…

CP: Wow. Oh, wow.

CT: Because I was there, you know, at the height of winter essentially. So, I think that’s also something people maybe don’t realize is that the, you know, the whole spine of the Alps is really, really, influential for all of these regions because a lot of the weather comes up from the Antarctic. And for these sites, if you didn’t have that spine of the Alps there, it wouldn’t…you know, viticulture just wouldn’t be possible.

CP: Absolutely. They provide kind of a rain shadow. Same in Otago with the Southern Alps down there too.

CT: Yeah, a range that, but also like a windbreak more so.

CP: Although Martinborough is still so windy. Was it windy when you were there?

CT: It was, yeah. It wasn’t crazy windy but, yeah, they definitely talked about that.

CP: They talk about it a lot. They talk about it a lot. But no, I agree, it is a small region and, you know, considering how much attention the wine world pays to, to it, you know, I also considered it being you know a much bigger region. Because, you know, we’re taught, I remember like way back with the WSETs being taught, you know, that Martinborough was just a major Pinot Noir region in the New World, and it still is, and rightfully so. And like you say, the level is so high, but it’s actually so small: there’s such a small, you know, tiny amount of producers you can bike to 80% of them or something within…

CT: Absolutely. Yeah.

CP: Five minutes.

CT: And that’s a big part of the wine tourism there is renting these bikes for people to cruise around. And it’s also not only small by its geographical footprint: it’s also small by viticultural pressures there. So, you know, average yield for Pinot Noir is three tons: not per acre, per hectare, okay?

So, for your listeners that you need that in perspective, essentially, because we generally talk about tons per acre in the U.S., you know, a hectare is 2.5 acres, essentially 2.47 to be technical. So, when you look at the yield spread across, you know, that larger footprint of land it’s nothing. It’s so hard to make that pencil out. But they do it because they love it. And also, it lends itself to really high quality. You know, you don’t have to have low yields to have high quality, but with Pinot Noir in particular it really does make a difference, and that’s because of the pressures of their climate and their soil, but their climate is mainly for, for these low yields which is pretty remarkable.

CP: Yeah, and they talk about the thick skins, a lot of the berries there too, so how does that, I’m interested. I mean I have an idea of the style of Pinot that I see from this region. I think it’s a really distinctive style; often when I’m, you know, all the wines I’m tasting in the office are blind, and often when I’m doing a flight from there I kind of know, you know? I have a suspicion like, ‘Oh I think this is Martinborough for a Pinot because it’s got such a distinctive tannin profile, and such a spiciness.’ But how do you how do you find it, stylistically?

CT: Yeah, I would agree. I think that overall, they tend to be a little more muscly with tannin. They also tend to be kind of a little more perfumed and elegant at the same time. When you compare it to certain parts of Otago those tend to be, because they’re a bit more protected there, the wines tend to be a little bit more plush. Whereas I feel like Martinborough is a little bit more perfumed, and not quite as ripe as you would see in Central Otago generally. But, yeah tannin is I think first and foremost the quality that jumps out to me most. Which also makes sense because of the high wind pressure and all of that.

CP: Yeah. Those things can, and yeah I always describe them as sinewy or leathery. They’re just, they’re very they’re a bit of a tough tannin, and often those wines need they’re meant for cellaring, you know, and the price points reflect that too. Can I ask you, just because we’re going to move on, just to give us, and this is a hard task, I know,  but just to give us just a Cliff’s Notes on some of the other producing, Pinot-producing regions? So, let’s say on Marlborough and Central Otago, Central Otago probably being the most well-known, on how you see… You touched on a little bit, but the style differences there, and then I just wanted to name some, some of my favorite producers from those regions and yours as well.

CT: Mm hmm, yeah. Also I would say Wairarapa, or Canterbury, would also be kind of, I think, well, it’s now not as well-known because there’s just not a critical mass of producers there yet.

CP: Yeah.

CT: There’s still some really amazing wines being produced most notably from Bell Hill. I really enjoyed those wines a lot. Two Paddocks, and probably the most well-known, Felton Road. But you know, Felton Road for me has always been a little bit of a roller coaster over the years, in terms of you know how I like the wines. And man, when I was there recently they were just all on fire. So, I don’t know if it’s just my own, you know, changing or if the wines have changed or not but man, they were just so, so good this time around.

CP: And Marlborough, you know, for a long time Marlborough had the reputation of producing much fruitier Pinot. I mean, this is the New World. So, you are going to get more fruit-forwardness than you are than in Burgundy, for example, and it’s different soils as well than in Oregon. So, you are going to get more fruit-forwardness, but I think Marlborough has long had a reputation of being the fruitiest of the Pinot-producing regions.

But I’ve actually found recently that particularly with some of the producers who are working maybe in a more European style, like Clos Henri, for example, in Marlborough, it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes, between like Otago and Marlborough. So, and I guess I mean that as a compliment to Marlborough, that the wines are just getting more interesting, where I always kind of associated Otago as being the one with like a little more complexity, a little more like floral and savory and earthy notes. And now I’m seeing more of that from Marlborough. I don’t know. What were your thoughts?

CT: Yeah, I think, you know, if you taste, of course, Clos Henri wines are incredible, all across the board and also Mahi, I really enjoyed his Pinot Noir quite a bit. And I think that, yeah, I would agree they’re getting more in line with stylistically but really, it’s about finding, it’s about site more so than anywhere. Well, more so than Otago, just because they’re so exposed there in Marlborough. And so, I think that’s a big part of it for them is finding the right places and, yes, fine age but also clone is I found making a big difference, too, in terms of the finish style.

I think clones are important and not important at the same time. I think, you know, initially, they make a big impact, and then there’s really no substitute for time in the ground because a vine will adapt and change, and the base material will have lesser and lesser influence as time goes on. So, you know, the big thing for a lot of lot of these regions, and more so in the north and in the south, is the Abel clone. Which, for me, has a lot of similarities to,  if anyone’s had, like, Wädenswil, which is a Swiss clone grown a lot in Oregon.

But I often get this kind of citrus-y type character on the wine, like blood orange, or pink grapefruit, or things like that. And for me, I was seeing especially in the younger plantings like that was the bigger influencer than maybe, not bigger, but as big as the climate as well. But, yeah, I would agree that Marlborough has really come a long way with, with Pinot. Some of them were still a little bit too “savory” for me, you know, depending on the vintage and the site. But in the right site they can definitely be just as good as Otago, and I think in terms of stylistically, probably more acid driven than Otago. And for me, overall less spicy is what I kind of my impressions were.

CP: So let’s move on now to Chardonnay, another really big topic that it’s hard to just rush through. Chardonnay is not as prominent in New Zealand as it is in Australia, for example, where it’s the most-grown grape variety, and it’s huge in Australia. But it is important in New Zealand and those, you know, like anywhere with Chardonnay because it’s such a blank slate of a grape variety, it is being made in all different ways, so it’s really hard to say ‘This is the style of sharing me in New Zealand.’

CT: Yeah. You know, I’ve tasted a lot of Chardonnay and I’ve liked the majority of it. I think that you do you do still see a few of those, like, really opulent, kind of forward, oaky, flash-ripe styles. But for the most part, yeah it’s, they’re figuring it out. I mean you have you know icons like Kumeu, you know, kind of setting the stage for what Chardonnay in New Zealand should be. And I think a lot of people have looked to them, and of course to other, other producers outside of the country and both Australia, California, and obviously Burgundy. There’s a lot of Burgurdian influence for sure, and a lot of winemakers that have had the opportunity because of the opposite hemisphere to go work in a lot of Northern Hemisphere places that specialize in Chardonnay.

But so, I think they’re making a lot of strides very quickly, in terms of making top-notch Chardonnay. And some ones that come to mind right away would be to Te Whare Ra in Marlborough is really, really good, again, Bell Hill, and also Neudorf in Nelson, which is a region that I think isn’t given enough attention. Yeah those are the ones that kind of pop out right away.

CP: Yeah. Dry River is a good one.

CT: Yeah. Dry River, of course.

CP: Te Whare Ra, I love that you mentioned Te Whare Ra, or TWR, because their aromatic whites just across the board are just awesome. Like they do a beautiful, beautiful Riesling and Pinot Gris and, yeah, they’re great. So, I’m glad that you mentioned them. So, the wine I threw at you for this specific wine, Pyramid Valley, I was like, that could go either way. It’s a winery that I’ve adored for years and of course, we’ll talk in a second about the transition with Pyramid Valley now but it, you know, I think it’s, it’s long been a wine geeks’ wine. But, you know, it’s definitely not for everybody. What are your feelings on Pyramid Valley?

CT: Yeah, I feel like over the years I’ve either really loved the wine, or been confused by the wine. And I’ve never disliked them, it’s just kind of like, ‘Huh, that’s kind of a little crazy.’ But I think that the whole region is just really exciting for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

CP: Yeah, I agree. It’s so just, geographically again to get your bearings, so this is North Canterbury, or Waipara, just north of Christchurch. Like 45 minutes north. So, it’s pretty close. And the Pyramid Valley area, it’s actually the area, as well as the name of the wine, is kind of like off sort of on its own a little. I think it’s west of North Canterbury, isn’t it? And you when you drive in it’s,  I mean, it’s only like 15 minute drive or something, but it’s like these giant limestone boulders, right? I was driving in like, ‘Oh my god, this is something from another world.’ And also, just my thought was, ‘Why isn’t this all just covered in vines?’

CT: Yeah.

CP: It just felt like, wow. We’re at the beginning of something, right? This should be this should be much more planted than it is. But the two wineries that have been there, and are making wine from there, is Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley and both of those are just such incredible producers.

So I know it’s kind of wanky now in the wine world to talk about like tasting terroir in wine, but these wines to me, the Pyramid Valley wines to me, they may not be polished and perfect but they’re always so expressive and soulful, and I guess that’s why I wanted to talk about them today because, you know, they’re tiny producers, they’re going to be less tiny. So, the new owners: the Aotearoa New Zealand Fine Wine Estates have taken them over and they have some, you know, some plans in the works to expand, and they’re going to be sourcing some grapes from Otago. So they’re going to be different wines in the future, so I think it’s really cool now if you can get your hands on the Mike and Claudia [Weersing] wines, and then in a few years get the, you know, the current wines, and just to see the difference and to see it’s just an interesting experiment.

CT: So, the wine that you picked, Field of Fire, which is absolute fire in the glass is so good, it’s actually my favorite of the of the lineup of Chardonnay that they do. So, they have the Field of Fire, and then they also have the Lion’s Tooth.

CP: Yes.

CT: And for me the Field of Fire was the one. It was just — they’re both good, but the Field of Fire was just like… It had some kind of New World, almost like verging on tropical elements, but they’re all like far tropical, and like just enough of that tropical-ness to give it like a lovely another layer of complexity on top of the classic citrus, tree fruit, etc. But also, it had like this herbal component that I really love, too, that was this it made it just savory enough to be like, ‘Hmm. If I was tasting this blind, where would it be from?’ You know, it’s kind of a complex, definitely complex, wine in that way.

CP: Totally agree. And you already mentioned Kumeu river: another excellent Chardonnay producer who are kind of a little bit off on their own north of Auckland but those are much more classic style wines, and can be very long-lived wines, but those are definitely worth getting a hold of.

Let’s move rapidly on, as we run out of time, to Syrah. We’re going to talk about Te Mata here to start, and then we can talk about the Gimblett Gravels because Te Mata, I don’t believe, and I could be wrong, maybe you can correct me here, are not really in the Gimblett Gravels there. They have more sort of sandy loam over sandstone, and over clay. So, I don’t think that they are a Gimblett Gravels?

CT: No. So, and actually where this wine originally was being sourced from was Bridge Pa — the triangle is actually outside of Gimblett Gravels. It’s like, I believe , well, what direction is that? I think it’s north and west a little bit?

CP: Okay.

CT: And it’s kind of, it’s outside like all that kind of “popular,” you know, famous regions of Hawke’s Bay. But these are coming from super old vines that are the second oldest in the country for a Syrah. And now they are blending it with other sites in Gimblett Gravels. So yeah, like killer, killer cool climate Syrah.

And with Hawke’s Bay it’s, I would say, like I talked about diversity before, this is probably one of the most diverse regions in all of the country. Just because of the landscape,  you can get really close to the sea here in terms of planting, or you can be tucked up into the hills. And there’s all these offshoots of the hills that kind of create these special terroirs that are, in some cases, quite a bit warmer. And then you pair that with the soils, like Gimblett Gravels is just that. And, you know, just these big alluvial fans of influences from rivers over the years, and they’re super deep. I mean, some areas this gravel goes way, way down, like 15 feet.

CP: What’s kind of cool about Gimblett Gravels, too, is that it’s one of the only New World wine regions where the boundaries of the region are actually demarcated from soil type. I think that’s a good spot, a good place to wrap things up. This is — we covered a lot of ground, right? It’s a big conversation in New Zealand; it’s a really exciting wine making country, and there’s so much more out there even within the Sauvignon Blanc category. And I was glad that we at least were able to scratch the surface of some of the other amazing varieties and regions and winemakers that are out there and worth seeking out. So, thank you Chris. I appreciate you sharing a little sliver of your immense knowledge of the wine world with us.

CT: Any time. Happy to do so. Thanks for having me.

CP: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Wine Enthusiast podcast. We hope we inspired you to pick up a bottle of New Zealand Pinot, Chardonnay, or Syrah. Here are the three recently reviewed wines that were mentioned in the episode: Escarpment 2017 Kiwa single-vineyard from Martinborough, $60 and rated 95 points; Pyramid Valley 2016 Field of Fire from North Canterbury, $90 and rated 96 points; and Te Mata 2015 Bullnose from Hawke’s Bay, $40 and rated 91 points.

Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you like today’s episode, we’d so appreciate a five-star review and comment, and please tell your friends to check us out too. For more wine reviews, recipes, guides, and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at WineMag.com. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Marina Vataj and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.

Published on October 2, 2019
Topics: Podcast


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