New Zealand sparkling wine has great potential: vintage Pelorus, No. 1 Family Estate and older vintages of both Deutz and Daniel Le Brun show that when it’s good, it’s very, very good.
But if New Zealand is such a perfect place to make sparkling wine, why have the major Champagne wine houses not arrived? Admittedly, Moet Hennessy-owned Cloudy Bay produces Pelorus but beyond that, where are Taittinger, Roederer, Mumm and friends? They’re all in California – as are the major Cava producers.
Is it a question of our climate, soils or know-how? It’s probably the fact that New Zealand’s at the end of the earth. Next stop, penguins and polar bears. Plus, there are little more than 4 million people here, making the domestic market not half as attractive as the United States.
Nevertheless, there’s a tendency to compare New Zealand sparkling wine to Champagne. Benchmarking is only natural but let’s look at the figures: there are just over 35,000 hectares of vines across the whole of New Zealand: nearly 60% of plantings are dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, followed by Pinot Noir mainly destined for red table wine, Chardonnay – mostly for still white wine, and pinot gris. The Champagne region has 35,000 hectares dedicated almost exclusively to producing sparkling varieties.
What’s more, there are just four producers dedicated solely to methode traditionelle sparkling wine in New Zealand. In Champagne, there are thousands of growers and hundreds of houses. Champagne is apples and New Zealand is pears – or kiwis.
If the country wants to be known for its high-quality sparkling wine, it’s going to need more than a small handful of producers focusing solely on the pursuit of beautiful bubbles. But that needs time and money, which many producers don’t have in abundance.
Nevertheless, a small group of producers in Marlborough have set up an association in a bid to take this category more seriously. Established in August, 2013, there are 11 founding members. Members of Methode Marlborough must make sparkling wine from the three Champagne varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – and the wines must spend 18 months on lees before disgorgement. It’s well intentioned and a good starting point although I would like to see the group grow to encompass other methode makers around New Zealand.
What’s more, there’s no minimum quality level. Surely, there should be an independent tasting panel of some sort to ensure that this group has the goods it needs to be taken seriously? But it’s still early days and these suggestions might already be on the cards. I wish them luck and hope that more New Zealand wine producers will fulfil the potential a small handful of Kiwi methode makers have shown.
Cheerleading isn’t my forte. Having never been much of a pom-pom shaker. it appears that I may have to start practising some chants for New Zealand Chardonnay.
Beyond a small clutch of impressive Kiwi Chardonnays, there have long been too many disappointments in a cool climate that should be conducive to making fresh, linear and elegant Chardonnays.
But a weekend spent in Marlborough showed there has been a lot of progress made by quality-conscious producers that are looking to make their Chardonnays more complex.
Stylistically the wines appear a lot more restrained, interesting and structured. How so?
Starting in the vineyard, there are a number of factors at play: putting the right clones in the ground, older vines, and not treating Chardonnay vines like they’re Sauvignon Blanc. Picking decisions also play an important role, explains Villa Maria winemaker Jeremy McKenzie: “In the past there were probably riper picking decisions – maybe more 14 percent plus alcohols. These days I feel there’s a lot more between 13.5 and 14 percent, and winemakers are a lot more conscious of that.”
Heading to the winery, there are plenty of tools producers are using. This non-aromatic variety provides a canvas for the winemaker to paint their stylistic signature. Pressing the grapes and then settling the juice to within an inch of its life isn’t conducive to characterful, interesting wines and there’s growing use of solids in ferments plus spontaneous fermentations.
But Marcel Giesen of Giesen wines notes that you can lose some of the fruit this way: “Winemaking with full solids and particularly the trend towards natural yeast, that certainly can add a rich layer of complexity. But you have to do a trade of fruit for complexity.”
What’s more, fermentation and maturation is increasingly taking place in second fill barrels, wooden cuves, or larger oak formats to bring greater integration of wood and fruit.
Whatever the vessel, once the alcoholic fermentation is finished and the new wine has completed the malolactic fermentation, producers appear to be holding back on adding sulfur, which acts as an antioxidant and antimicrobial. But sulfur early and you ‘fix’ that buttery character (diacetyl) created by the malolactic fermentation.
McKenzie notes: “What you’re seeing here is not a lot of diacetyl left in these wines…People are more conscious of that these days and maybe they are delaying their sulfuring and allowing some savory character to come through.”
This will be bad news for some Chardonnay drinkers who love butter in their wine but I’m not one of them and boy, am I glad to see us moving away from the Lurpak.
One of the major Marmite debates in Kiwi Chardonnay at the moment is sulfides. Yes, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they are du jour. Some people say it smells like gunflint but quite frankly I’ve never smelled gunflint so I compare it to struck matches – when it gets bad it can smell like eggy farts.
A little is good, a lot is often deemed faulty but it appears most people’s threshold differs. Giesen says: “A quick way to minerality is via the sulfide road. I think the level of acceptability is what we need to get a handle on. But how much is too much? I have to confess I am a sucker for sulfites. But I still want to see fruit and I want to see the message that the vineyard had of telling rather than the yeast or the lack of nutrients [in the fermentation].”
So, after that technical run-down in the current Marlborough Chardonnay movement, let’s get down to the good stuff…
I’ve picked a bunch of Marlborough Chardonnays you should get your paws on, including one particularly Marmitey wine that you really need to make your own mind up on…
2010 Auntsfield Cob Cottage Chardonnay
A classy wine: smooth and alluring on the mid palate with a taut and linear finish. A tad shy on the nose and palate not showing a lot of obvious fruit; more on the citrus side of things. Good quality french oak nuttiness lingers long on the lengthy finish. 18.5/20 or 93/100
2011 Giesen The Fuder Chardonnay
A powerful richly aromatic style with sulfide-derived struck match and white flowers, adding an attractive layer of complexity. Supple and full-bodied. Plenty of quality oak toast too. Fresh acidity. 18/20 or 90/100
2009 Spy Vally Envoy Chardonnay
An interesting wine. Complex, sulfide-driven, linear style, offering floral and white talc aromas followed by mouthwatering lemony acidity. Oak and alcohol well integrated, creating a harmonious and attractive wine. Long length. 18/20 or 90/100
2012 Nautilus Estate Chardonnay
Restrained nose. Supple and full bodied with integrated nutty oak. Moderate intensity lacking perhaps a little concentration to make it top tier. Fresh linear acidity. 17/20 or 86/90
2011 Dog Point Chardonnay
Sulphides overpower the nose. Amazing intensity of fruit and great structure followed by firm acidity. What a wine! Unfortunately it’s undrinkable at the moment – I can’t get over the burnt match and egg reduction but come back to this in a few year’s time and if those sulfides have turned to toasty notes, it’ll be one hell of a wine. Really hard to mark: 15/20 for drinking now 18++/20 if those sulfides blow off at some point in the distant future.
New Zealand’s national wine body, NZ Winegrowers, has published its annual report and the chair’s opening statement always proves to be a mine of information from the vital statistics in production and sales, to the mood of the country’s wine producers.
This year that mood is cautiously optimistic. There’s plenty of reason for optimism – export value has hit a record high of NZ$1.21 billion and botled exports are up while bulk has fallen. Admittedly, export volumes are down 3 percent but that can largely be explained by the fact there wasn’t a whole lotta wine after a small harvest in 2012.
But the cautious tone in the chair’s report cannot be denied. There’s a fear that we’ll repeat the mistakes of the past, failing to learn from the glut caused by the bumper 2008 harvest.
“It is vital growers and wineries and the industry as a whole, learn from the struggles of the recent past,” says Steve Green, on the first page of his chair’s report.
Hooray, things are going well, but don’t mess it up by making too much wine, he warns. “Optimism should never be unbridled but rather should be market led and fact based.”
It’s no surprise that Sauvignon Blanc remains the country’s major export: the variety accounts for 84.5 percent of all exports and Marlborough’s 18,000ha of Sauvignon Blanc is “more than double the largest Sauvignon Blanc region in France,” the Loire Valley. Yet, some local producers seem intent on discrediting it. “Bitch diesel” and “cougar juice” are just two of the terms, winemakers like to call their bread and butter (see my blog “The Sauvignon Blanc Smear Campaign” from March)
Green, who also owns Central Otago winery, Carrick, clearly feels this negativity surrounding Sauvignon needs to be nipped in the bud, reminding its members that unity and reputation are assets that the country needs to protect. The country is too small to have in-fighting.
He takes the platform to remind the country’s producers of the importance of this aromatic variety. “Without the heft of Sauvignon Blanc, the fight for other styles to establish a ‘New Zealand’ category in the global trade would be so much harder.”
Of course, the country doesn’t want to be accused of being a one-trick pony: “The wine world values the consistency of our flagship wine but it also craves diversity. And in order to be taken seriously at the highest levels New Zealand needs to offer prestigious examples of the most highly regarded wine styles including full-bodied reds and Pinot Noir.”
Certainly, Pinot Noir has made its mark on the wine world but there are world-class Rieslings, Chardonnays, Syrahs and Bordeaux blends that most consumers have yet to realise exist.
France named the owner of luxury goods company LVMH, Bernard Arnault, as the country’s most wealthy in last week’s publication of the annual rich list.
He’s the one that tried to do a ‘Gerard Depardieu’ and get another passport in a bid to avoid France’s 75% tax on millionaires. Perhaps Arnault could play a starring role in upcoming movie Green Card 2?!
While I’m no fan of a tax evader, the latest release from the LVMH-owned Cloudy Bay in Marlborough deserves a mention.
The 2010 Te Wahi is the winery’s first attempt at making Pinot Noir using fruit sourced from Central Otago and it’s decent booze.
While Te Wahi means ‘Our Place’, the fruit is sourced from a few places that are pretty far away from Cloudy Bay’s HQ in Marlborough. It’s actually a blend of three Central Otago sub-regions: Bannockburn, Bendigo and Lowburn and the wine speaks more of Central Otago than it does any of the three sub-regions.
The 2010 vintage was a stunner. The start of the season was cooler than usual, which led to small berry size and lower bunch weights, which would later produce wines with good depth of colour, powerful tannins (on the Pinot spectrum) and fruit concentration.
From January through to harvest, warm weather prevailed and the critical period of March and April provided settled conditions with little disease pressure and the luxury of picking when it suited.
The finished product is very impressive for an inaugural vintage, which is set for release in the U.S. in the coming months.
“Perfumed with vibrant red and black fruits, layers of violets and a distinct note of green herbs – thyme – and a puff of dustiness.
“Pure fruit with good density on the mid-palate yet remains delicate and silky.
“High level of concentration suggest low yields. Fine-grained tannin yet relatively powerful for Pinot with a mouthwatering level of fresh acidity. Oak is harmonious, well integrated and very subtle considering it is 40% new. A very complete and harmonious wine. Ready to drink now for its fruity appeal but the combination of fruit concentration, fresh acid and moderate tannin should see this continue to evolve nicely over the next 4-6 years ” 93/100
“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.
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.
Date: 4 March 2025
New Zealand was yesterday hit by the world’s rising waters, submerging the country’s 4 million people and 31m sheep. What a baaaastard.
The world must bid a fond farewell to New Zealand lamb, the All Blacks and Marlborough sauvignon blanc.
It is a sad loss. But let’s face it, New Zealand was a nation at the end of the world. Next stop, penguins on the South Pole. And will we really miss Kiwi savvy? The Chileans will be pleased to see their major competition literally sink – or how about Argentine Torrontes, which has been really making headway in the Russian market since Putin banned vodka production in 2020.
While global warming experts are proclaiming this is the start of the end of the world as we know it, conspiracy theorists are claiming that is all part of the European Union’s grand plan to finally win market share back from new world producers and reduce the wine lake once and for all.
It has been reported that Frenchman Philippe Fillop, agricultural commissioner for the European Union, is envious of the success of New Zealand’s pinots and sauvignon blanc in his native country. The federation of militant wine producers have recently been throwing Kiwi lamb chops at their local mairies in disgust at soaring sales of Marlborough sauvignon blanc in Carrefour.
Reducing the world’s wine oversupply has been top of Fillop’s list since he took charge in 2015. At that time, he was certain that China, India and Brazil were going to come to the wine world’s rescue, by drinking more and more wine. Instead, the BRICs continue to sup beer and spirits, sticking two fingers up at wine.
So, thinking that no one would really notice if New Zealand fell off the bottom of the earth – it was almost dropping off anyway – did the EU call in the heavies?
If so, it’s a sign of things to come. The Kiwis produced just 1 percent of the world’s wine. Yesterday’s submersion has not made one iota of difference to the world’s oversupply – particularly since New Zealand recently sent its entire 2024 vintage to the U.K. in bulk for Tesco’s own label Saver Sav, keeping the shelves piled high.
It would have been more effective to get rid of the Austrians or Moldovans, which produce more wine than New Zealand ever did but landlocked countries are a tricky proposition to obliterate.
Marlborough accounts for nearly half of all Pinot Noir plantings in New Zealand so why am I still unmoved by the majority of the wines that are emerging?
There was a lot of chatter from critics getting excited by Marlborough Pinot Noir at conference Pinot2013 in Wellington but I’m still not getting it.
Dog Point’s Ivan Sutherland admitted: “We are late starters” to the Pinot game and they “still have a long way to go.”
There are some encouraging wines from producers including Auntsfield and Fromm but they still haven’t yet managed to attain a level of complexity seen in Pinot Noirs from Martinborough, Waipara and Central Otago.
Hopefully, Marlborough will play catch up in the coming decade, as it takes the red variety increasingly seriously. The ambitious producers in the region have discarded the Pinot Noir clones that were planted for sparkling wine in favour of vine material better suited to decent red Pinot – and these vines are starting to reach some level of maturity.
Site selection is also playing a large part in Marlborough’s attempt to become serious Pinot Noir producers. The clay soils of the region’s Southern Valleys – including the Omaka, Brancott and Waihope Valleys – show promise. The wines from these clay soils show a greater density than Marlborough has ever achieved but Sutherland is right: The region still has a long way to go if it wants to become as well known for its Pinot Noir as its Sauvignon Blanc.
Local winemakers believe they are starting to get to grips with this demanding variety but on too many occasions, the fruit is overpowered by oak, not having the fruit weight to cope with the barrel treatment it receives.
I often prefer the lighter styles such as Jules Taylor’s 2010 Pinot Noir, which isn’t trying too hard to be something it’s not. It is an easygoing style, juicy and soft with lifted red cherry and bramble fruits. It’s one of those wines you could drink a lot of and would be delicious slightly chilled. I’d much rather have that than a Pinot Noir that tastes of toast.
However, I’d still much rather have a Central Otago, Martinborough or Waipara Pinot over Marlborough but patience might be all that’s required to change my mind.
2010 Fromm Clayvin Vineyard Pinot Noir
Attractively fragrant nose with attractuve herbal notes, lifted florals and black cherry. The fruit is pure, caresses the mouth and is focused on the mid palate. There’s only 10-15% new oak on this and it’s all the better for it – why can’t more producers in Marlborough follow their lead? Tannins are relatively abundant for Pinot but they are fine and mouthcoating. Long length. A very good effort 18/20
2010 Auntsfield Road Ridge Pinot Noir
Pure aromas reminiscent of damson and red cherry. Sweetly fruited on entry. Ripe and rich on the mid palate. Relatively firm tannin for Pinot with firm acidity providing a taut and linear finish. A well-made wine that is holding its 35% new French oak astoundingly well. 17.5+/20
“Nelson consistently wins more awards than other wine region in New Zealand, per hectare of vines planted,” the region’s wine association announces on the first page of its glossy wine tasting journal.
The journal arrived on my doorstep with 15 aromatic whites from the region, and I was hoping these wines would impress. I have been to Nelson just once despite living in New Zealand for nearly three years, and on that occasion, I left feeling disappointed with the overall quality of the region’s wines with the exception of Neudorf’s top wines and Seifried’s sweet Riesling. So, when this case arrived, branded as the “First XV” in a nod to the country’s passion for rugby, it was the perfect opportunity to give Nelson a second try.
Nelson sits in the northwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s just 90 minutes’ drive west of Marlborough, the country’s major wine-exporting region, which is now synonymous with zingy Sauvignon Blanc. Most Nelson wineries sit fewer than 6 kilometres from the coast, creating a temperate climate and the area also boasts the country’s most sunshine hours.
Unfortunately, the Nelson First XV were not nearly successful as the country’s rugby team, the All Blacks. Certainly, there were no world beating wines here – no Dan Carters kicking a goal or Richie McCaws leading the line-up. I couldn’t find any cause for excitement from the selection, which included a Gruner Veltliner, several Rieslings, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers.
In fairness, they are pure, fresh and have moderate alcohol levels but so do many other aromatic whites in New Zealand and the rest of the world. There’s no sense of the unique somewhereness that every wine lover searches for.
I enjoyed the 2011 Kahurangi Estate Dry Riesling, which had fine acidity, taut structure, and a raspberry coulis and white peach character while the 2009 Waimea Classic Riesling was similarly taut and linear with just 12% alcohol, and piercing lime, lemon and white peach characters, giving both a 17 out of 20 – so, a low silver in the medal stakes.
The selection of Pinot Gris were easygoing and balanced but had nothing to offer that I couldn’t find elsewhere while the Gewurztraminers were simple, lacking concentration, and on a number of occasions were unbalanced – managing phenolics and residual sugar are two elements that need attention. There were also pear drop and boiled sweet aromas in too many wines. This is a tell-tale sign of cool fermentation, and can be found in whites across the world. These characteristics say more about the winemaking than the region, and I’d like to see producers moving away from these low temperatures.
I shared the samples with my colleagues, which include a Geisenheim-trained, ex-Frescobaldi viticulturist, a French winemaker that has worked under the Lurtons and Michel Rolland in Bordeaux, and several sommeliers. Their verdict? Similarly underwhelmed.
“There’s nothing you can eat with these wines. There’s too much flavour, too much sugar,” said one.
“I’m not excited,” said another. Indeed the wow factor was lacking in the wines, in sharp contrast to the region’s scenery. Nelson is a beautiful region sitting at the top of New Zealand’s South Island and attracts plenty of tourists heading to the region to walk or kayak the Abel Tasman or kick back in this artsy community.
Most wineries in Nelson are small and sell all their production to a loyal local customer base and passing tourist trade. However, if they have ambitions to be as highly esteemed as the country’s rugby team on an international scale, there is still work to be done.
New Zealand has held a Pinot workshop in the spa town of Hanmer for more than 20 years. Following Pinot 2010 in Wellington, Marlborough producers decided to set up their own workshop to get serious about this fickle grape.
While Hanmer has sumptuous hot pools, Marlborough producers hold their get-together at a school campground! Whoever thought it would be a good idea to hold wine tastings at a centre with an adventure playground was asking for trouble. I am reliably informed injuries have been sustained in the name of Marlborough Pinot Noir.
Ben Glover, winemaker at Wither Hills, says: “This is modelled on the Hanmer experience but we really need to encourage our own region to take Pinot seriously.”
Indeed, Marlborough Pinot Noir has an image as simple and juicy. Serious Pinot drinkers have looked to Martinborough or Central Otago for complex, structured Pinot Noir. But Marlborough producers aren’t content with the status quo.
Anna Flowerday, co-owner of Te Whare Ra, says: “Marlborough gets accused of being too fruity and not complex but that’s a vine age thing. Now we have really good clones and really good sites and that’s why I think Marlborough Pinot has improved.”
Certainly older vines and sites, particulary in the southern Wairau Valley such as Benmorvan and Clayvin vineyard, are showing promising results but this year’s campground convention concentrated on stems in Marlborough Pinot Noir.
Flowerday explains: “We have a whole day when people bring trial wines. This year everyone brought stem trials from the 2011 vintage. We did some really great flights with no stems, 20% stems vs 50%. We found some interesting stuff.”
“Some people swore blue murder that they would never used stems and now they are considering it,” she adds. “Stems is more of a finesse thing giving wines an extra layer. You get secondary characteristics. The stems give the palate width and a floral perfumed character.”
Across the road at Wither Hills, Glover has also been experimenting with grape stems. He was cautious at first, worried that stems would bring green flavours and astringency. Today, the winery’s standard Pinot generally has 5-12% stems in the ferment. He has also done barrel trials with up to 100% stems. “It was pretty cool. It really swung the pendulum, giving the wines white pepper, lifted notes…It kept the bright fruit at bay.”
While I personally love stems in my New Zealand Pinot Noir, providing structure and line to the soft fruit, it doesn’t always work. Let’s face it, no-one wants astringency in a Kiwi Pinot. Flowerday adds: “We need to do it very cautiously on younger vines because they don’t have the concentration of fruit.”
In addition to vine age, the weather also appears to play a part. “Lignification is seasonal; a Frenchman would say it’s terroir. Personally, I think longer hang time is conducive to lignification,” says Glover. He also notes that some blocks tend to lignify early while others don’t. Clay soils, in his opinion, inhibit lignification too.
With the 2012 harvest now in full swing, those “serious” Pinot producers will again be doing stem trials to take back to the 2013 edition of Marlborough’s campground convention. Let’s hope someone packs the first aid kit.
This blog has also been published on Pinot NZ 2013