Record Gold Haul at IWC for Kiwis
Tuesday 14 May
New Zealand winemakers showed they make damn good wine at the 30th International Wine Challenge winning a record 38 gold medals
Thirteen of the golds went to Kiwi Pinot Noir.
Gold medal Pinot winners include two wines from the Waitaki Valley: the John Forrest Collection 2010 Pinot Noir and Ostler’s Caroline Pinot Noir 2010. As usual, Central Otago fared well with golds for Tarras Vineyards, Brennan Wines, Grasshopper Rock and Kingsmill. While Marlborough producers have admitted Pinot Noir is still a work in progress in the region, it still managed to take a few golds with its leading red variety.
Great value Sauvignon Blanc also scored very well at the IWC. Winemakers Vidal produced a Gold medal White Label Series Sauvignon Blanc (2012) as did Villa Maria with their Single Vineyard Southern Clays 2012. Both wines retail for less than ten pounds.
Lesser-known grape varieties are also faring well on the international show scene. Yealand Estates picked up a gold for its Grüner Veltliner 2012 while Stanley Estates produced a gold medal winning Albarino (2012) from its 0.5 hectare site in Marlborough’s Awatere Valley.
There were also wins for lesser-known producers, showing its not just the big guns who are making good wine.
Charles Metcalfe, co-chairman of the IWC, says: “The New Zealand gold medal wines at this year’s International Wine Challenge have been stunning. We’ve come to expect excellent Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc from them, and as usual they have delivered, but their ability to cultivate foreign grapes shows their mastery of their craft. These wines have been tasted against thousands of contenders so it is a tremendous achievement that will catapult their product to an international audience.”
New Zealand’s Gold Medal winning wines:
Blind River Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Brennan Pinot Noir 2010
B2 Pinot Noir 2011
Coney Pizzicato Pinot Noir 2012
Delegat Awatere Valley Marlborough Pinot Noir 2012
John Forrest Collection Brancott Pinot Noir 2010
John Forrest Collection Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir 2010
Framingham Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Grasshopper Rock Central Otago Pinot Noir 2011
Huntaway Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2012
Julicher Estate 99 Rows Pinot Noir 2010
Kingsmill Tippet’s Dam Pinot Noir 2011
Tohu Mugwi Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Lawson’s Dry Hills Chardonnay 2009
Lawson’s Dry Hills Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Lone Goat Canterbury Late Harvest Riesling 2007
The Kings Favour Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Matua Valley Single Vineyard Marlborough Chardonnay 2011
Mills Reef Elspeth Cabernet Merlot 2009
Mills Reef Elspeth Trust Vineyard Syrah 2011
Mission Estate Martinborough Pinot Noir 2012
Nautilus Estate Marlborough Chardonnay 2011
Ostler Caroline’s Pinot Noir 2010
Otu Sauvignon Blanc 2012
O:TU 102 Single Vineyard 2012
Church Road Reserve Chardonnay 2011
Saint Clair Pioneer Block 5 Bull Block Pinot Noir 2011
Waipara Springs Premo Pinot Noir 2010
Stanley Estate Albarino 2012
Tarras Vineyards the Canyon Pinot Noir 2009
Vidal Reserve Series Syrah 2010
Vidal White Label Series Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Villa Maria Private Bin Syrah 2010
Villa Maria Single Vineyard Southern Clays Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Mansion House Bay Vineyard Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2012
The Best of NZ Chardonnay
Wednesday 8 May
The standard of New Zealand Chardonnay ought to be better.
After living in Middle Earth for more than three years, there are few Kiwi Chardonnays that have escaped my glass. Unfortunately, an astounding number have been about as inspiring as a day out with a librarian.
It’s sad but true that the vast majority of Kiwi Chardonnays have thus far failed to reach their potential. We have a cool, maritime climate with abundant sunshine. If Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir thrive here it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Chardonnay should be right at home.
Why, then, are so many New Zealand Chardonnays soft, sweetly fruited, buttery as Lurpak (or Challenger for American readers), and overpowered by oak?
It could be suggested that the overpowering butter/milk flavor and textures are due to high malic acid levels found in New Zealand Chardonnay - a result of the cool climate. Put the wine through the malolactic fermentation and the whopping malic acids are converted to a whole lot of lactic acid. The result? Butter, cream, and milky notes. The sweet fruit characters probably derive from the intense sunlight in New Zealand and the Mendoza clone isn’t probably helping matters.
Then again, perhaps this overt style isn’t anything to do with malic acid. There are plenty of malo-inducing bacteria that don’t produce diacetyl, which is responsible for the buttery character. Anna Flowerday of Te Whare Ra believes it’s also a stylistic choice that winemakers are taking. “There are people that do like lots of butter and the honking, big-everything kind of Chardonnay-style.”
But there are a handful of producers making some astonishingly good Chardonnays in New Zealand in a more reductive mould, which are hugely successful, proving that this non-aromatic varietal can excel here.
What are they doing that others are not?
Many producers use whole bunch pressing in a bid to retain delicacy and keep the phenolic content low; wild fermentation in barrels and larger 500-liter puncheons are du-jour followed by time on lees in barrel.
But these techniques are used by both those making the great Chardonnay and those that are distinctly average. What is it that truly sets them apart? The vineyard?
Or, is it a great winemaker? Chardonnay is seen as a winemaker’s grape – a blank canvas to stamp a signature upon. Is it surprising, therefore, that two of New Zealand’s Masters of Wine (Michael Brajkovich at Kumeu River and Alastair Maling at Villa Maria) consistently make some of the country’s best Chardonnays year after year, in regions that aren’t renowned for their greatness?
When New Zealand Chardonnay is good it’s great: pure, taut and fine. The best examples show off the country’s cool climate white stone fruit and citrus with a supporting cuddle from hazelnut-like oak. They have focus on the mid-palate, linearity and poise.
Unfortunately, too many distinctly average Chardonnays are made in New Zealand, which doesn’t do the producer nor the country any favours.
The Top 5 Chardonnay producers in New Zealand (IMHO)
1. Kumeu River, Auckland
Okay, no surprises here but the Brajkovich family keep pulling it out of the bag year-in year-out in a region that fails to attain greatness otherwise. There are five Chardonnays in the range, starting from the its “village” chardonnay, which kicks the butt of other Kiwi Chardonnays at this price point. Its single vineyard wines, particularly Mate’s Vineyard – named after Michael Brajkovich’s late father – are superlative, and show that New Zealand can be taken as seriously as Burgundy in the Chardonnay stakes - now and again.
2. Villa Maria
They may be a rather large operation, producing some ordinary Chardonnays at its commercial tier but the Chardonnays from its Keltern and Ihumatao (good look pronouncing that one) Vineyards consistently perform.
3. Pegasus Bay
Better known for its ass-kicking Riesling, this party-hard family-run business turns out complex Chardonnay from low yields with interesting aromatics and taut linear structure. Steer clear if you don’t like sulfides though. The wineries more ‘commercial’ brand Main Divide is pretty impressive at the price.
4. Black Estate
I think I may have a crush on this relative newcomer. Everything they have turns to gold at the moment: from their broody Omihi Pinot Noir and Beaujolais-like Netherwood rose to their Omihi Chardonnay. They can’t put a foot wrong at the moment. Keep your eyes - and lips - on this Waipara outfit.
Owners Judy and Tim Finn have developed a reputation for classy Chardonnay - and rightly so. They are the go-to winery in Nelson and their Chardonnays are finely woven and restrained.
Current Release Tasting Notes (for those of you that like reading this sort of thing)
2011 Black Estate Chardonnay, Waipara
Relatively aromatic for a non-aromatic varietal (!) Talcum powder, white flowers and white stoned fruit provide a rather Riesling-like aromatic profile. There’s also a high level of sulfites – but in a good white Bordeaux struck match way.. Linear structure, taut, focused. Delicate on the mid palate and fine acidity belie its cool climate origins. Nutty oak and alcohol well integrated. 18.5/20
2008 Pegasus Bay Chardonnay, Waipara
Hugely powerful Chassagne-like style with superb concentration of fruit suggesting low yields. Intense aromatically lime toast-like reductive notes dominate at first giving way to white stone fruit and perfumed white talc notes. Structured and focused with a fine line of steely acidity on the finish. Punchy yet classy - 18.5/20
2011 Neudorf Chardonnay, Nelson
Fine and pure nose with lemon citrus, white peach and French oak derived subtle hazelnut-like nuances. Delightful texture: delicate, taut and linear. Tastes like a good Maconnais Chardonnay. 18/20
Waitaki Waves Goodbye To Key Producer
Thursday 18 April
The Waitaki Valley aims to make its name as New Zealand’s 11th wine producing region.
Wine growers have been attracted here by its cool climate and outcrops of limestone.
At this early stage in its development, the region has already managed to impress with elegant, finely structured aromatic whites and pinot noir. And, it seems an ideal location to make traditional method sparkling wines in the future.
The Pasquale family was one of the first to take the plunge. Leaving northern Italy for New Zealand in 1997, academic Antonio Pasquale saw the potential of the Waitaki, and its offshoot - the almost unpronounceable Hakataramea Valley. “The cool climactic edge here, along with the limestone soils, is ideal for wines of crispness, concentration and lasting minerality,” predicted Pasquale. “Great wines can be made here.”
But it hasn’t been plain sailing. The climate is marginal, making grape growing a risky pursuit. Spring frosts are common; cool weather and winds can ruin flowering, slashing potential yields. In 2007, some producers didn’t set a berry while Central Otago, just 180km away had a small but high quality crop. In addition, Waitaki’s harvest period is the latest in the country: most regions have finished picking by the end of April but it can be as late as mid-May here. While that’s a big risk for growers, it also means that the wines can have incredible aromatics, firm acidity and moderate alcohol levels.
American-owned Craggy Range released some impressive crisp whites in 2008 and 2009 but soon called it a day in the Valley. It simply didn’t make economic sense to produce wine in the region.
And that’s one of the major reasons why one of the region’s pioneers, Antonio Pasquale, has also decided to throw in the towel after 14 years.
Pasquale has planted over 100,000 vines in the Valley and, in 2009, built and equipped the area’s first and only winery.
The winery’s aromatic whites were particularly exciting and its Marcel Deiss-esque blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer - Alma Mater - stood out as interesting and unique.
However, it’s not just the challenging climatic conditions that make life difficult for local wine producers to make money.
Kurow Winery’s general manager Renzo Miño says its location (in the village of Kurow a.k.a. Nowheresville) was also a factor. “Small wineries rely on having a good proportion of direct sales, and our location really is the middle of nowhere with limited passing traffic, despite the development of an attractive cellar door and café. The cost of growing and hand-harvesting our low-yielding vines is reflected in the high quality and cost of the wine in bottle. Our pinot noir vines, for example, have only 20 percent of the yield found in Marlborough, and hand-harvesting is dramatically more expensive than using machines. The third factor is the risk, mostly from weather, that can wipe out a harvest every four or five years.”
What happens to the region’s only winery is undecided. It may see the region revert from wine production back to a purely grape-growing area with its wines made elsewhere, admits Pasquale. Alternatively, local growers may take ownership of the winery themselves.
It’s a sad reality that this potentially exciting region may not get to fully realize its potential. Let’s hope those remaining - Ostler, Valli, Forrest and friends stick it out.
Next Level Sauvignon Blanc
Thursday 11 April
“Brightness of fruit and acidity is the signature of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” says Brancott Estate’s winemaker Patrick Materman.
This signature style has put the New Zealand region on the world wine map but its makers aren’t stupid: they saw what happened to Australian Chardonnay and it wasn’t pretty.
While Materman admits that “99%” of Brancott’s production will continue to be the exuberant thiol-driven style we are familiar with, Kiwi producers have been experimenting with different techniques in both the vineyard and winery in an effort to retain our interest in the longer term.
“Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has been about clean fermentation, hands off [winemaking], stainless steel, cultured yeast, with very little winemaker influence,” explains Materman.
“The movement in the last few years has been how do we add extra elements of interest, including palate weight, a textural element, complex sulphides.”
And how to do that? The use of oak has been on the increase since Sacred Hill launched Sauvage in 1992 and Cloudy Bay released its first Te Koko four years later. Producers started with small barrels – and many continue to do so – but larger formats including puncheons and older oak seem to be more compatible with this aromatic varietal.
Wild ferments are also considered to be an important contributor when it comes to adding extra layers of savoury complexity. Malolactic fermentation and lees work can also play a large role stylistically on the final wine. The malolactic leads to a fall in acidity and linearity while lees stirring adds palate weight and texture. These are stylistic decisions the winemaker must take: do you want to produce a linear style or a more voluptuous Chardonnay look-alike?
There’s also another factor involved in creating a more complex style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: money.
“Marlborough stands out in the world stage but we have not commanded high prices for the wines.”
The question, Materman asks, is: “How do we command aspirational prices?”
Unfortunately for Sauvignon Blanc, it isn’t a varietal that commands high prices – Didier Dagueneau and notable Pessac Leognan estates excepted.
Good luck to Brancott Estate, which is charging $80 for its new Sauvignon Blanc, Chosen Rows. Apparently it’s a hand-sell but there will need to be some pretty intense arm twisting to persuade customers to spend that sort of money on a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, no matter how good it is.
The Sauvignon Blanc Smear Campaign
Friday 15 March
Imagine that you are in Mendoza. You’re visiting local wine producers in the region but it becomes apparent that they don’t think much of Malbec – and they’re not afraid to be vocal about their disdain for the wine region’s most important export. It doesn’t seem like a wise marketing technique, does it?
But that’s what is happening in New Zealand.
Sauvignon Blanc, which represents more than 80 percent of the country’s wine exports by volume, is being derided very publicly by the very people that make it. It won’t be long before the derisory phrases such as “Bitch diesel” or “Cougar juice” filter down from the industry to the public domain. And then what?
The very down-to-earth New Zealand wine industry could create an image of an elite serving up wines they wouldn’t drink themselves to an ‘ignorant’ consumer. Warning: the consumer doesn’t like to be belittled. They’ll find someone else’s wine to drink who values their custom and their tastes. It’s a PR disaster that needs to be stopped right now.
I admit I’m no cheerleader for the exuberant passionfruit and herbaceous sauvignon blancs that have put New Zealand on the map. Drinking it is comparable to meeting a really intense person at a party: fine for the first 10 minutes but you wouldn’t want to spend the whole night with them.
But my livelihood doesn’t depend on selling the variety.
While I appreciate producers are passionate about their delicious off dry Rieslings and fine Pinot Noirs and want to sell more of these styles, they don’t pay the bills.
So for those who don’t like Sauvignon Blanc but sell it – and the minority that don’t make it and are part of the New Zealand wine industry – keep your opinions to yourself.