A New New Zealand – Reinventing Wine in the Land of Haka
Paraphrasing very, very loosely the words of legendary gourmand Brillat-Savarin: tell me what you associate with New Zealand, and I will tell you what you are. Is it singer-songwriter Lorde? While you’ll never be royal, you might be a millennial pop lover. Is it the bucolic greenery of The Shire? Oh, you Tolkien head!
Is it crisp and grassy Sauvignon Blanc? Well, it is way bigger than kiwis in Haka-land: in 2016, 12,225 hectares were planted with the fruit that gives New Zelanders their nickname and 21,400 hectares nourished Sauv Blanc grapes.
But the country is eager to show the world it’s not a wine trick pony. In fact just days ago on July 27th, they granted official protection to 18 regions as the New Zealand Geographical Indications (Wine and Spirits) Registration Act came into force.
“The registration of these GIs will provide a solid platform for New Zealand wine producers to promote our wines and regions in international markets and ensure investment in our regional identities”, said New Zealand Winegrowers Acting CEO, Jeffrey Clarke.
We recently spoke with Chris Stroud from New Zealand Wine Growers, the organisation that represents the country’s grape and wine sector, as he visited Dublin for a tasting that showcased a new New Zealand.
New Zealand’s Beautiful Darkness
“Pinot Noir does well in New Zealand, we have the right climate and the grape has found a home here” says Chris and in fact, finicky PN is the second most planted variety in NZ with 9% of the total wine production in 2016 and not only its popularity is growing, the quality it achieves has earned it the ultimate compliment a Pinot Noir producing region can get: comparisons with the variety’s benchmark, Burgundy, leave the kiwi’s renditions in a very good place.
After Best Sommelier in Ireland, Julie Dupouy, visited Central Otago earlier on this year, she was convinced: “I truly believe that it is a region to watch closely as it has the potential to equal Burgundy in term of quality while embracing its own style but only time will tell”, she wrote, on a feature where she documented her experience in this up and coming region.
Yet Pinot Noir is not the only variety making waves in the island. Chris considers that the most promising grape variety right now in New Zealand is Syrah. “It’s still very small”, he adds, representing a meager 0.5% of total production, “but Syrah from regions such as Hawke’s Bay, Waiheke Island and even Marlborough and Wairarapa has generated great excitement.”
New Zealand Syrah tends to be refined and lean, and French oak is generally the wood of choice for maturing it. Just like in Syrah’s spirit homeland, the Northern Rhone Valley, it is sometimes blended with Viognier for added aroma and roundness.
One Grape to Rule them All?
Mainstream success tends to be inversely proportional to critical acclaim, and the country’s workhorse, mid-priced, stainless steel aged Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough has gotten it’s fair share of snubbing. The word naff has been heard and eyes have rolled.
As David Wrigley eloquently put it in an anti-ode published by Noble Rot last October: “monotonous and predictable, as bombastic as it is ubiquitous, it’s pretty much the U2 of the wine world.”
But while headbangers and Riesling punks cook in their own jus of contempt, Bono keeps filling stadiums with the same success as Kiwi Sauv Blanc fills glasses and truth be told, the entry level versions of wine are often the getaway drinks to more interesting bottles.
“People normally discover New Zealand through a glass of it, so the challenge is to show them a different Sauvignon Blanc, maybe then get them to try a Pinot Noir or other varieties”, says Chris, with the eagerness of a melomaniac that would introduce you to Iron Maiden before spiraling down to Sonata Arctica, Dragonforce or Nightwish.
After all, the goal is to present wine drinkers with new things without shooting themselves on the foot: New Zealand Sauv Blanc is Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” or Guns and Roses’ “Sweet child of Mine”, the power ballad that can actually get radio time and that, no matter how many experimental creations are launched, people will keep asking to hear over and over.
“When it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, we’re exploring sub-regions, barrel fermented wines, wild ferment and wines that showcase diversity within the variety”, says Chris and he points out that far from a “it’s not broken, let’s not fix it” attitude towards the variety, winemakers are also allowing it to express itself in different ways.
Other important steps towards diversifying their white wines include other grapes, Chardonnay shows great potential, but it’s the aromatics which Chris suggests “to watch out for”. Albariño, Viognier, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Grüner Veltliner… “we’re still learning, but this is something to look out for.”
Man O’War Dreadnought Syrah 2013
13.5% ABV – Waiheke Island, New Zealand
€28.36 (on offer from €35.45) – Available at O’Briens Wine
A world class Syrah and one of the highlights of the tasting. Peppery, with elegant aromas of ripe red cherries and blackberry preserve mixed with a delicate violet note and a subtle oak presence.
Lean yet strong tannins wrapped in velvet, this is a red of beautiful balance, that hits all the right spots.
Nautilus Estate Pinot Gris
13.5% ABV – Marlborough, New Zealand
€21.66 (on offer from €26.66) – Available at wineonline.ie,
A delicate and refreshing white that reminds you of Alsace’s approachable bottles with the aromatic variety. Aromas of white peach and juicy nectarines combine with the freshness of lemonade and the lightness and purity of fruit signature of stainless steel winemaking. Moderate acidity and harmonius, it’s a flower that stand out among the fresh cut grass.
Akarua RUA Pinot Noir 2016
14% ABV – Central Otago, New Zealand
€28.00 – Available at Mitchell and Son
A floral star. Violets and cherries intertwined in a delightful arrangement elegantly structured. Its tannins are silk soft and its body is delicate. Lovers of fruity and vibrant reds will be in for a total treat.
This is a great example of why Central Otago has become a reference for the variety.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.