By Rebecca Gibb MW | November 10, 2020
New Zealand sits in wonderful isolation in the middle of the South Pacific. In an uncertain world that has been gripped by a pandemic, it has become one of the safest places on earth, closing its borders to all but those who are willing to spend two weeks quarantining in a hotel room and pay NZD$3,100 (USD$2,100) for the privilege. As a result, it has recorded just a few deaths and, at the time of writing, life in New Zealand has largely returned to normal.
When New Zealand reopens its borders to visitors and flights resume, the country will go back on the bucket-list destination, and the country’s roads will, once again, be filled with camper vans. Its major attraction is undoubtedly its natural beauty: snow-capped peaks, lush native forests, a movie about a ring and a flightless bird. There’s no doubt that the local wine producers benefit positively from being set in this spectacular country. Still, this halo effect will only glow brightly if its wines offer the depth and purity of its glacial lakes. There are more than 700 wine producers in New Zealand, and it’s fair to say that as few as 10 per cent are truly polishing that halo although the same could be said of other wine regions around the world.
That doesn’t deny the fact that there are now a lot of high cropped, homogenous Sauvignon Blancs filling the shelves. They are often bulk shipped and bottled in an industrial estate on the outskirts of a nondescript town thousands of miles from the vineyard. They are then given a made-up place name or, worse still, commit an act of cultural appropriation by adopting Māori words and designs purely for profit. This is a relatively recent phenomenon: the rise of the bulk wine market occurred after a bumper 2008 crop of modest quality Sauvignon Blanc. It was a perfect storm coinciding with a global financial crisis leading to an oversupply situation, which created the rationale for increasing bulk shipments. Bulk exports jumped from just 4.3 million litres in 2008 to 18.3 million litres in 2009, and today that figure stands at around 100 million litres, equivalent to 40% of exports. This has been a fundamental shift for New Zealand, and the resulting wines on the shelf are certainly not maintaining its halo.
The country’s credentials as a fine wine producer aren’t helped by the fact that the country’s success has largely been based on a grape variety that many wine collectors love to disparage, unfairly, in my opinion. Sauvignon Blanc accounts for 88% of the wine that leaves New Zealand ports but 63% of what’s in the ground, which has led to countless accusations that New Zealand is in danger of being a one-trick pony and over-reliant on one variety. Curiously, there is little concern relating to Sancerre’s Sauvignon-centric status.
However, there’s no escaping the fact that Sauvignon Blanc is also subject to abuse: the variety retains its signature aromatics at audaciously high yields, but there’s no hiding the dilution that such intensive viticulture provides. Supermarket-level wines are commonly cropped at 15t/ha, and yields can go even higher for bulk wines. Master of Wine Steve Smith says, “Sauvignon Blanc should not be denigrated and relegated to a high-cropped, refreshing white. It can be much more than that, and you have to try harder: look at Dagueneau, Pavillon Blanc and Cheval Blanc’s new white.” As these wines show in the right hands, Sauvignon Blanc can offer both finesse, depth and longevity. There is a perception that this is a variety that cannot age and does not deserve a position in the ranks of fine wine grapes, which needs to be corrected.
In an attempt to protect Marlborough’s reputation and distinguish the quality-oriented producers from the high-cropped, bulk-shipped wines, a group of local producers launched Appellation Wine Marlborough in 2018. Approved wines must be 100% grown in Marlborough with a maximum yield imposed (which, at 15t/ha seems a little on the generous side) before being bottled in New Zealand and approved by a tasting panel. It’s still a work in progress, but for members like Dog Point, which crops its Sauvignon Blanc at around 8t/ha, it is clear that not all Sauvignons are equal, and that message needs to be conveyed. “We need to protect the tip of the sword, and that’s why we got involved in Appellation Wine Marlborough,” says Dog Point’s Matt Sutherland.
It is the distinctiveness of Marlborough Sauvignon that first won over drinkers in the 1980s. It’s not just marketing: research has shown that the region’s wine can be distinguished by their “fruity and green-perceived characters”. A key component of this distinctive style is the region’s high concentrations of thiols. These sulfur-containing compounds, formed by yeast during fermentation are responsible for some of the variety’s distinctive aromas such as passionfruit, boxwood (cat’s pee) and grapefruit characters. Research has shown that thiol levels in Marlborough are much higher than Sauvignons made in other parts of the world and, in combination with other wine chemistry and this cool climate’s bright acidity, they are truly distinctive. There’s not yet conclusive proof why Marlborough has such high levels of thiols compared with other Sauvignon specialists. It is likely to be a combination of factors including the climate, soil and potentially the MS clone, which is the source of most Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. However, scientists have discovered that machine harvesting Sauvignon can increase the level of thiols by as much as five to ten times compared with hand-picking the fruit. The classic style that this creates has attracted many drinkers who know what they’re going to get when they buy a bottle. Success inevitably attracts those looking for a piece of the action.
Chardonnay – Less Is More
New Zealand has stamped its gumboot-clad foot on the world wine map with its idiosyncratic expression of Sauvignon Blanc. However, there’s a strong case that Chardonnay produces New Zealand’s finest white wines. Admittedly, it’s more difficult to build a reputation based on Chardonnay. It is, after all, the world’s second most-planted white wine variety. Grown in more than 40 countries, there is a swathe of ambitious producers across the globe using similar winemaking methods on Chardonnay’s non-aromatic canvas in an attempt to reach the heights of Grand Cru Burgundy. While there are some New Zealand producers having great success with Chardonnay, New Zealand has something truly unique and identifiable in its Sauvignon Blanc – and that’s a concept that’s easier to promote and sell.
That said, nature is on New Zealand’s side: the climate is conducive to making Chardonnay with finesse. Burgundy and Marlborough might be thousands of miles apart, but their climates share several similarities. There is very little to split the two when it comes to growing season temperatures (15.1˚C in Burgundy, 15.2˚C in Marlborough), Growing Degree Days (1068 vs 1118) and annual rainfall (approximately 700mm for both). Admittedly there are many differences too – annual sunshine, UV radiation, soil types, viticultural practices to name but a few – but there are enough indicators to show that Chardonnay has found a home away from home in New Zealand – whether on the South Island or the more temperate North Island.
Indeed, Chardonnay was the country’s number one variety for a short while. It took over the mantle from the hybrid Müller-Thurgau in 1996 and enjoyed pole position until 2002 when the tide of Sauvignon Blanc surged forth. Since then, plantings of Chardonnay have experienced a small decline (to 3,222ha) while Sauvignon Blanc has increased more than sixfold (25,160ha).
Kumeu River has long been the spearhead for New Zealand Chardonnay. However, few overseas wine merchants and collectors venture beyond the point of the spear, making Kumeu River their start and finish line. This is a narrow view of New Zealand Chardonnay that needs to be redressed. While Kumeu must be on your shopping list, you could add the following if you want to go on a journey of discovery around New Zealand Chardonnay without taking the long-haul flight: Villa Maria’s Keltern, Sacred Hill’s Riflemans, Novum, Neudorf’s Moutere, both the Reed and Escaroth cuvees from Blank Canvas and Felton Road Block 2.
However, there continue to be stylistic issues. The days of too much oak are largely a distant memory in the realm of New Zealand Chardonnay, but the reduction is now an issue. A little whiff of flint on the nose and palate can add a layer of complexity, but there are too many examples that are dominated by struck match flavours, overpowering the wine’s fruit and creating a hardness on the finish. It’s not going unnoticed. Tamra Washington, the winemaker at Kelly Washington Wines, was astonished to find so many examples when she participated in a panel tasting for a New Zealand-based food magazine, Cuisine. “We found two camps of Chardonnay: very clean, fruity, one-dimensional style and at the total other end of the scale, wines that have gone past the stuck match into sulfides, which overrides the wines. There are some fantastic Chardonnays all around the country, but a lot of people are trying to find their way stylistically, and they are often chasing a style. It’s about the fruit and the vintage and keeping yourself out of the way of wine not trying to build something into the wine that’s not there.”
On the Fringe
A small but rising tide of so-called ‘alternative varieties’ is creeping on to the New Zealand wine shelves. The country’s cool climate has shown it is well suited to producing vibrant aromatic whites in the form of Sauvignon Blanc, so why not other fresh, fruity white varieties? There’s been a lot of talk about Albariño and Grüner Veltliner waiting in the wings in anticipation of the Sauvignon juggernaut finally getting a puncture. However, Albariño and Grüner collectively represented 0.15% of the national crush in 2020, so news of their ascendancy has been greatly exaggerated. Compared with Australia, where Mediterranean varieties now vie with Shiraz and Cabernet in new vineyards, alternative varieties remain a fringe show. Quality of these new whites is highly variable too although there are some Albariños definitely worth a look from Nautilus, Neudorf and Cooper’s Creek. However, the growers of Rías Baixas don’t need to lose sleep just yet.
Meanwhile, Pinot Gris plantings continue to rise – much to my frustration. From just 149 hectares in 1997, there are now more than 2,500 hectares planted, equivalent to almost 15% of the national vineyard. The country’s first government-appointed viticulturist Romeo Bragato praised Pinot Gris in 1906 and suggested that it might have a home here. At the end of the century, the country’s wine producers finally took his advice on board, but the vast majority of the resulting wines have little to commend them. The wines are often dilute and off-dry with faint aromas of pear or apple. It will be piled high and sold by the container load, but where’s the pride in that? There are, of course, some judicious producers who actually care for their Gris but there are too few of them. The small band includes Prophet’s Rock (made by Paul Pujol, who was the winemaker at Kuentz-Bas in Alsace for three years), Te Whare Ra, Dry River and Ata Rangi.
During my Master of Wine studies, ‘purity of fruit’ was commonly used as a descriptor to help justify choosing New Zealand as the country of origin in the blind tasting exam. However, this purity and squeaky-clean preservation of fruit can, at times, be a little predictable. I don’t want dirty wines, but a bit more daring wouldn’t be unwelcome. That said, experimentation has increased exponentially since I moved to New Zealand in 2009, whether that’s allowing a spontaneous fermentation or swapping a stainless-steel tank for a foudre or concrete egg, but there’s still a feeling of safety.
New Zealand is considered one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to women’s rights, the environment and employment rights. In a similarly progressive vein, the local wine community has embraced innovation from screwcaps to lighter alcohol research, but science does not imbue wines with soul. It may be too early in New Zealand’s development as a wine nation to find this by the tank load: the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was produced in 1979, and it was another eight years before pioneering individuals crafted Central Otago Pinot Noir. This very new New World country doesn’t have a wealth of old gnarled vines, unlike the producers of Swartland or the Barossa Valley. Yes, vines are maturing, much like the first-generation of producers, many of whom are handing over the reins to their children. This transitional period will not only see personnel changes but new ideas.
The predominance of clean, pure wines could also be a product of an industry that has developed out of a conservative dairy-farming community that possessed an abundance of stainless steel. It is also a product of its own success: the popularity of Marlborough’s naturally fresh and fruity expression of Sauvignon Blanc shows no sign of slowing and if it ain’t broke why producers should fix it? Running a winery is a business, and classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is good for business: it produces abundant crop levels, there’s no need to invest in expensive oak, and the entire vintage’s production can be sold within the year. Accountants in Montalcino can only dream of such rapid returns.
From Deluge to Drought
New Zealand is often on the flight path of tropical cyclones, forging a course from the Pacific Islands towards the country’s wine regions at the same time as pickers are dusting off their secateurs and heading out into the vineyard to pick the crop. In both 2017 and 2018, the remnants of tropical cyclones whipped up winds and lashed parts of the country at the worst time possible. “They were somewhat challenging harvests,” says Clive Jones winemaker and general manager of Marlborough’s Nautilus Estate. “During those two vintages we were making a decision based on pending weather events: it’s going to rain in two days, is this parcel good enough to go? You had to take a pretty pragmatic approach”.
The ensuing pair of vintages couldn’t be more different: 2019 and 2020 were exceptionally dry summers for large parts of New Zealand. In Marlborough, which accounts for around three-quarters of the national production, the start to the 2020 summer season was inauspicious with cool days and significant rainfall between December 16 and 19. Still, it was these spring rains, and a wet winter, that provided the soil, dams and rivers with the reserves that allowed the region’s winegrowers to navigate the dry months leading up to the 2020 harvest. That was not a luxury they had enjoyed the previous season: during the summer of 2019, Marlborough recorded its lowest rainfall since records began in 1930. The Ministry for Agriculture declared a drought across large parts of the country in early March 2019 as just 20mm fell in these months (compared with a staggering 315mm in 2018). Some irrigation systems were cut off in the weeks leading up to the harvest due to low river flows, causing “crippling water stress” for those affected.
With such dry conditions in both 2019 and 2020, there was little disease pressure, particularly fungal disease, which was a marked contrast to 2018. Matt Thomson, the co-founder of wine label Blank Canvas, says: “2019 and 2020 shared low botrytis levels in common. The weather from veraison onwards was very dry in both years. In 2020 we had quite low bunch numbers but spectacular flowering so the bunches were quite full in terms of berry numbers and we were worried that the bunches would be too tight, but it was so dry there were no problems.” In a wetter season, these high berry numbers combined with bigger berries could have led to bursting berries and split skins leading to botrytis infections and bunch rot.
The heat summation of the 2020 season (1344 Growing Degree Days) was a little above the long-term average but well below the figures of the warm 2019 vintage (1464 GDD). In March 2020, the key harvest month, it was dry and dished out cool nights, dipping to a rather brisk 3˚C (37.4˚F) in mid-March, a marked contrast to the warm evenings of March 2019. Kevin Judd, the founder and winemaker of Greywacke, says: “It looked like 2020 was going to be warm and early for the second year in a row, but then it cooled down quite significantly. It was like someone had turned down the thermostat and the acids hung in there. As a result, the 2020s are a little tighter than the riper, slightly lower acid 2019s.”
Taking the temperature of the winemakers and tasting the latest white releases, there seems to be plenty of evidence that the 2020 vintage might usurp 2019, but further 2020 releases will provide a fuller picture. There seems to be a sense of harmony and tranquillity to the emerging 2020 wines. The sense of calm in the wines could be down to the steady growing season: unlike 2019, there were no heat spikes and less water stress on the vines Anna Flowerday of Te Whare Ra Wines says: “2020 was a Goldilocks season: not too hot, not too cold, and even summer with no big heat spikes; dry but not too dry.” In 2019, it did get too dry for some: water stress, which can lead to leaves dropping from the canopy exposing the fruit to the bright sunshine, can be perceived in an angular, phenolic expression and pinched aromatics. That said, the big picture is that 2019 is an outstanding vintage for whites. There’s no shortage of ripeness, but there are several wines, particularly in the more temperate Hawke’s Bay that is riper than their usual selves and, as a result, lack some of the energy and a sense of purpose that makes New Zealand wines so lithe.
2020: The Vintage That Almost Wasn’t
While the vineyards seemed to avoid too much stress in 2020, it was, instead of the growers that were pulling their hair out as a national lockdown loomed in the middle of harvest. The escalation of New Zealand’s response to the COVID pandemic and several days of uncertainty over the possible downing of secateurs and shuttering of wineries meant some rushed to pick Sauvignon Blanc rather than face the prospect of leaving it to the local birds.
The country took the unprecedented step of enforcing a nationwide lockdown on March 25 at 11:59 pm. However, in last-gasp talks, the national wine association convinced its government to classify wine operations as an essential business. The streets were deserted in a scene akin to a post-apocalyptic zombie movie, but the harvest was able to continue albeit with strict rules imposed. Winemakers were forced to leave their families for weeks as strict bubbles were created. Offices became bedrooms; winery car parks became caravan sites and, for the lucky few, the luxury vineyard accommodation normally reserved for wealthy tourists, became their new digs. Wherever you turn, there is a story of sacrifice and separation. This is just one: “Our foreman Grant hadn’t been away from his wife for more than one night in 45 years of marriage, and he had to be away from her for the whole of vintage,” says Dog Point’s Sutherland.
Thankfully, the cool, dry weather meant that there were few complications, and both pickers and winemakers could take their time, unlike 2017 and 2018. “My take on 2020 is that it didn’t matter when you picked – today, tomorrow, it didn’t make a lot of difference. The flavours developed nice and slowly,” says Jones. “I think we picked our Sauvignon Blanc over a period of 20 days and, in non-COVID conditions, we would’ve taken another four or five days. In normal circumstances, you’d say ‘let’s pick tomorrow and go to the pub now’, but we couldn’t go to the pub, so we kept picking.”
While the pubs have since reopened, the borders remain closed to all but those willing to isolate for two weeks and pay the price of their quarantine stay, which leaves a potential hangover for wine producers during the 2021 harvest – who will pick the grapes and work the hoses?
Marlborough is the powerhouse of New Zealand wine, but there’s a whole lot more to New Zealand than a corner at the top of the South Island. In the country’s second-biggest region, Hawke’s Bay, the vines were on track for an early finish from the starting gun. The 2020 vintage was slightly warmer than the long-term average but cooler than the past three vintages. With just 72mm of rain from January through April, representing less than one-quarter of the average rainfall, drought spread across the North Island including Hawke’s Bay with locals talking of the ‘big dry’ causing misery for farmers. Wine producers suggest that wet weather before the new year (as well as irrigation) was key to keeping the vines going. Warren Gibson of Trinity Hill says: What I think also is a positive versus say [the hot and dry] 2013 is that it was not so dry leading up to January, so the vines stayed healthier with good canopies. Whilst it is something of a joke to say that we have had four vintages of a generation in eight years [2013,’14, ’19, 20] it really has some truth.” In such warm seasons, picking dates play a large part in preserving the freshness of new release whites: Sacred Hill’s highly regarded Rifleman’s vineyard was picked two weeks earlier than normal in 2020 after a warm February. It seems the case is true with the newly released 2019 Chardonnays from Hawke’s Bay: they display the warm, fruit-filled vintage although, in some instances, lower natural acidities can leave a slightly sluggish impression.
New Zealand Chardonnay virtuosos Kumeu River also have an interest in Hawke’s Bay since buying a vineyard in 2017 to add to its Auckland estate. Rising property prices in the country’s biggest city and urban sprawl meant an expansion in Kumeu was no longer viable. Their focus on Chardonnay on the warmer North Island and early flowering meant that the Auckland fruit was safely in the winery before lockdown hit. While the 2019s have just been released, winemaker Michael Brajkovich MW suggests the best may be yet to come: “2019 was fabulous than 2020 came along and was better. They are so balanced in barrel already.”
While 95% of the country’s vineyards sit within 50 kilometres of the coast and are mainly located on the country’s eastern seaboard, Central Otago is an anomaly. The world’s most southerly wine region is located at a latitude of 45˚S, giving wonderfully long days, which are crucial to its viability as a wine producer. Surrounded by mountain ranges, protecting it from rain-bearing westerlies, it is normally home to New Zealand’s driest spot. Still, normality seems to be a concept that existed in the distant, pre-COVID past. In the summer of 2019, for example, while the rest of the country’s growers faced water restrictions, Central Otago, was having a relatively soggy time. Nigel Greening, the owner of Felton Road, says: “It was way down on sunshine and way up in rain events through the season. People kept saying ‘What a horrible summer we’re having’ but we typically get rainfall at night in Central and in 2019 vintage we had it during the day. The temperatures weren’t particularly low, and the heat summation was about average.” A run of settled weather into harvest kept the disease at bay and, based on my tasting; the Chardonnays are pristine and characterful with full flavour ripeness and a firm line of acidity offering refreshment.
Meanwhile, the 2020 season provided plenty of anxiety for producers on top of the lockdown. The cooler conditions meant that by late March, producers were wondering if the fruit would ever ripen fully – what there was of it, as yields were down almost 30% across the region. However, above-average temperatures in April and early May shunted the grapes to the finishing line. At Felton Road, the harvest took a lengthy 42 days later – one more day and the team would have picked over three months: March, April and May.
You’ve Come a Long Way
If New Zealand wine were a planet, it would just be completing its first orbit such is its youth. In that time, the country has placed itself firmly on the world wine map and made up ground on its European counterparts at lightning speed. I have a developed fondness for the people behind the wines: they are down-to-earth, warm and welcoming and are more likely to receive visitors in shorts and ‘jandals’ (flip flops) than suit and tie. In my new role at Vinous, I will endeavour to bring you closer to this beautiful land at the bottom of the earth, exploring developments on the ground, keeping track of trends and offering praise where it’s due – as well as calling out the duds. On the domestic scene, several cheerleaders dole out high praise to anything that’s been bottled, and that does both the drinker and the maker a disservice. I won’t shy away from offering objective opinion and hope that, as a result, Vinous will become the go-to global site for New Zealand wine coverage.