Going The Distance – New Zealand
You’ve heard it said that “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing,”…When it comes to wine, particularly, for our purposes here, wines from New Zealand, I would suggest that a little bit of knowledge is a limiting thing.
Limiting one’s exploration of a region’s vines will simply result in a myopic view of the country’s wines. The only one who loses in that equation is you.
Knowledge Equals Taste
In the next couple of paragraphs you will get a concise explanation of why there’s more to New Zealand than only Sauvignon Blanc. The intention is that you will be the richer – in taste, anyway – for it.
Spanning 10 degrees in latitude (1600 km), New Zealand’s terroir changes dramatically from the sub-tropical north to the cool climate, mountainous south.
When wine geeks get together, invariably talk turns to “terroir.” New Zealand has its own terroir and they even call it by its own name, “Mana Whenua,” – Maori for that indefinable French term, terroir.
“Mana Whenua,” explained Paula Ramage of Waitiri Creek vineyards in Central Otago, N.Z., refers to “the power of the land and the people who work it,” and how that permeates the bounty and harvests from that land.
Paula was born and bred in Central Otago, one of New Zealand’s main wine-growing regions, and the region that boasts its most continental climate with hot summers (~35 c.), cold winters and dry autumns. It also lays claim to being the world’s most southerly wine region. Central Otago is fragranted with a profusion of wild thyme which not only perfumes the air, but also infuses, many claim, the wine with a distinct spicy flavor that you can “smell in the glass.”
Young Vines, Mature Wines
It’s extraordinary to consider that 70% of New Zealand’s vines are ten years old or less. And while Sauvignon Blanc thrives better in New Zealand than pretty much anywhere else on the planet, the explorations and discoveries of what Pinot Noir, Syrah and Gewurztraminer can do in the land have the N.Z. winemakers hot under the collar.
Syrah – Hawke’s Bay
There’s an area on the North Island that gets long hours of sunshine and profits from a warm summer and a dry autumn. That are is called Hawke’s Bay and they are producing some of the New Zealand Syrahs that people are starting to talk about and take notice of.
The winemakers of the region will tell you that it comes “purely down to site selection in Hawke’s Bay.” All the fuller-bodied wines are coming from Hawke’s Bay, a region that stretches from coastal to inland. Any conversations around Syrah and red blends from the region and you will hear about Gimblett Gravels, a sub-region that’s inland, as well as Bridge Pa which is home to Paritua Vineyards, “One of the most beautiful vineyards you could ever visit,” said Michelle and Michaela of House Wines.
“We are different from the Gimblett Gravel Vineyards,”explained the Paritua Vineyards managing director and co-owner, Gary Fisher. “They’re only about 5.6 km away. That whole region is an old alluvial River Bed. Where we are, the soils are a lot older; silt loams hold the water nicely. We use less irrigation, the roots of the vines go a bit deeper. We don’t throw new French oak at our wines.” Their Hawke’s Bay ‘Red’ ’07 is a soft, rich, voluptuous blend.
Elephant Bay’s “Rhone-like” style Syrah, rich berry, plummy and black peppery with a hint of violets, is showing an elegant, more restrained style of Syrah from the region. Gunter Thies of Elephant Hill Estate Winery explained that Te Awanga, where their winery is situated, is a coastal region so the fruit gets the hot days and but is cooled by the ocean breezes in the afternoon.
Staete Landt, in Marlborough, on the South Island has also planted a few rows of Syrah. It’s an unusual grape for the region, which is known mostly for its Sauvignon Blanc and now its Pinot Noirs. Dorien of Staete Landt explained, “It’s a wine we like drinking ourselves.” She and her husband-partner Ruud, planted six rows of the vines. It’s their second vintage only, the Staete Landt ’08 Syrah. They planted in riverbed soils which yielded a full, smooth Rhone-style Syrah. They produced only 100 cases for the world.
Man O’ War Ironclad on Waiheke Island is also growing Syrah. This region is just off the coast of Auckland; you take a ferry to get to it. They have 90 vineyard sites on their property where they also harvest honey, maintain olive groves and sheep flocks. They’ve made a “Bordeaux Blend,” which is mostly cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
By 2012 100% of New Zealand’s wine will be produced under approved, independently audited, sustainability schemes. That’s what the country’s entire wine industry committed to in 2007. Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand promotes best practices across a broad area of sustainable resource management, including water usage, energy consumption, waste management and biodiversity. Currently 75% of winery production and 85% of vineyard area are participating in the SWNZ program.
New Zealand’s Gewurztraminer
There’s a guy, in the region of Gisborne on the North Island, Nick Nobilo, who is so passionate and so committed to growing the world’s best Gewurztraminer, that he’ll surprise you with his dedication. Gisborne varietals are known for being highly approachable, soft and lush. This Gewurz is opulent and its lychee, rose-petal notes will delight. Nick grows his Gewurz on gravelly soil in an area known more for its Chardonnay. Expect to have any and all preconceived ideas dashed.
New Zealand Pinot Noir
There’s something happening in New Zealand these days and it’s more than just their Sauvignon Blanc. In a country whose wine industry made it on the map largely thanks to the Sauvignon Blanc grape, many are now predicting a shift towards Pinot Noir becoming the dominant varietal of this island wine-producing nation.
Marlborough is one of the regions where Pinot Noir has been planted. “Some of the Pinot Noir vines in Marlborough are only 5, 6, 7 years old. It’d be great to spotlight our Pinot Noir wines in another 10 years,” said John Ferris of Villa Maria Estate Cellars. “We have about 30 vineyards in the Southern Valleys. The vineyards hold water well. The wines will age well; they have a lot of structure.”
Wairarapa is another region growing Pinot Noir grapes. It’s in the southernmost part of the North Island. It’s a “small region with a big reputation,” and is already “especially acclaimed for its mouth-filling, richly flavored Pinot Noirs.” Paddy Borthwick vineyards planted some Pinot Noir vines in rocky soil, where the “rocks were bigger than me,” fifteen years ago, said Robin Borthwick.
Gladstone is another winery in the region growing the grape. Their label, 12,000 Miles is reference to how far it was to sail from Scotland to Wairarapa when they came and first settled the land. Christine Kernohan makes the wine and David, her husband, runs the fully sustainable and bio-dynamic winery.
Wild Thyme To Be Had In Central Otago
Central Otago is the region in the South Island that is perfumed with the fragrance of wild thyme. Winemakers from across New Zealand have been buying grapes from Central Otago for some time, though it has mostly been the Sauvignon Blanc grapes in past years. Now the winemakers who are savvy to consumer trends are buying up the Pinot Noir harvests from the area.
Waitiri Creek Wines is run by Central Otago born and bred Paula. She is currently excited about some new plantings in an area called the Terrace in the region. She liberally refers to her Pinot Noir’s “wonderful florality,” has nicknamed it “Dirty Sex,” and describes it by saying it exhibits, “magnificent beasts on the nose; you’re not sure if you should drink them or wear them and that’s only IF you can keep your hands off it.” She first planted her vines in 1993.
There are 643 wineries spread across 10 major winegrowing regions in New Zealand. One in every 200 bottles of wine produced in the world comes from New Zealand. 95% of N.Z. wines are under Stelvin or “screwcap” enclosures to ensure quality. N.Z. wine is known to be food-friendly wine.