2014 was an unusual year for reviewing wines. Being pregnant for the first half of the year and then having a mini person to feed meant large scale tastings were off the cards. However, I’ve still managed to get through a heck of a lot of delicious – and a lot of why did they …
“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.
Back in May, I complained that while the New Zealand wine industry prided itself on its green credentials, it had thus far failed miserably on environmentally friendly packaging (making me somewhat unpopular with various members of the NZ trade!)
While the rest of the wine world has turned to lightweight bottles, plastic (a.k.a PET) bottles, and tetrapaks, Kiwis had been stuck in the twentieth with heavy bottles. The lightest bottle available in New Zealand was 450g yet the Aussies were already down at 330g, reducing energy use by 20% and water by 12%.
At the time, Mike Needham, national sales manager for glass bottle manufacturer O-I, admitted it was expensive technology to install, and New Zealand was a relatively small producer of wine. “I don’t think people will go down to 350g or 300g. We have found very few people that are interested. The industry has not been as demanding here as in Australia,” he said.
Yet there was interest from producers. And this week, Nelson organic producer Richmond Plains has bottled its first wine in a 325 gram bottle.
Lars Jensen, owner of Richmond Plains, says, “It has been a big challenge to find suitable lightweight bottles in New Zealand. The lightest bottles we have been able to use previously were 40% heavier. So these really do make a big difference to the environment and across our business.”
The bottles are 20 mm shorter which means it is possible to stack more cases onto a pallet and fit more into a container. Taking fewer resources to produce and transport, reducing fossil fuels consumption significantly. They are also much lighter for trade and customers to handle with a case weighing 1.5 kg less at just 13kg.
Jensen adds, “Maximising the use of our resources and minimising our impact on the environment is a global issue so we’re very excited to be leading the way by using such lightweight bottles.”
I hope that others will follow their lead.
Unfortunately, consumers often feel they are getting better value for money and a better wine if it is packaged in a heavy bottle.
However, a WRAP study found bottle weight differences of up to 40% (for an empty container) and 20% (for a full container) were not noticed among a significant number of those surveyed, so perhaps if the proportions of the bottle mimic those of a heavier equivalent there will be little impact in perceived values.
The 2011 Rugby World Cup finally kicks off in Auckland on Friday night. Thank God for that – it’s been all the press and politicians talk about for the past two years!
On the streets of Auckland, there’s a palpable sense of excitement. Residents and shop owners are flying the flags of the competing countries. Friends are planning opening ceremony parties to coincide with the city’s biggest ever fireworks display. And a winery has built a rugby ball out of grapevines. As you do…
Nelson’s Te Mania wines has built the World’s biggest grapevine rugby ball (although I suspect it’s probably the only one ever made) to celebrate the World Cup. The ball measures a sizeable six metres by four metres.
They’ve also released a wine to commemorate the tournament: ‘Big Balls’ Syrah 2010. And it’s pretty tasty. It doesn’t have the balls of a Barossa Shiraz but it is a fruity little number with plenty of peppery spice. A great quaffer for taking round to a rugby party, and drawing a few smiles. After all, isn’t wine meant to be about bringing a bit of joy to our lives?
The world’s biggest grapevine rugby ball and other sculptures will be on display till Christmas at the Te Mania cellar door in Richmond, Nelson. Oh, and the Big Balls Syrah will set you back $21.99
Calling all New Zealand and Australian winemakers that need a hand getting into the UK market.
Naked Wines wants to hear from any winemakers who have a great product but don’t have the funds to market it or winemakers who currently consult or make wine for wineries and want to start their own project.
This year, there’s a £10 million investment pot to support winemakers but they need to find you…
They’ve already helped Bill and Claudia Small, an Aussie couple making wines in NZ get their project off the ground. Naked have sold 47,000 bottles of their wine in the UK and the latest shipment sold out in just 48 hours.
Since launch in December 2008, Naked has recruited over 100,000 customers, who between them invest over £1m each month towards funding winemakers.
So, what are you waiting for?
Go to Naked Wines to apply online.
The New Zealand wine industry has got its knickers in a twist over Jancis Robinson’s remarks about the country’s beloved Pinot Noir in a recent blind tasting.
She didn’t like them too much and was ‘disappointed’.
‘Bright and breezy, the wines were rarely subtle,’ she said, ‘even though there were representatives from the Kiwi Pinot aristocracy such as Ata Rangi, Dog Point, Fromm and Felton Road,’ she said in her column in the Financial Times.
The Kiwis aren’t too happy since they are trying to carve a niche for themselves as the New World’s best Pinot specialist. Oregon whipped New Zealand’s butt and it’s major news in New Zealand wine circles.
So, the timing of a blind tasting of New Zealand Pinot Noirs yesterday couldn’t have been better. Media, MW students, winemakers and sommeliers trooped down to a wet and windy Wellington to taste and rate Kiwi Pinots.
While there were a handful of crackers including (unsuprisingly) Ata Rangi, the Kiwi wines were all beaten by two Burgundies that they’d slipped in sneakily. In general, we were all rather underwhelmed by the standard despite some of the respected names like Seresin’s Sun & Moon, Bell Hill, Pyramid Valley, Neudorf Moutere Home Block and Felton Road’s Block 5 taking part. When you can’t see the bottles and there are no preconceptions, they were suddenly getting low marks.
Did we find much ‘terroir’? Well, the Central Otago flight (we didn’t know it was a Central flight at the time) was dark in colour but that was about all the sense of place I got. John Saker, Cuisine magazine’s wine writer claimed the ‘deep, dark fruit’ was ‘a true expression of what Central does effortlessly’ whereas others saw them as ego wines. The expression of winemaker seemed to be more obvious in the wines than any sense of ‘this is Marlborough, this is Martinborough’ and so on.
However, Larry McKenna, dubbed the ‘Prince of Pinot’ argued: ‘When we see what district is what then perhaps we can find a thread through each of the flights and I think there is enough comment to find that the last flight was Central Otago.’
He added: ‘There’s one more point to make that at the moment all New Zealand districts do varietal character in abundance but in 20, 30, 50 years’ time, you will see more presence of place than expression of varietal.’
But are we trying to find terroir too soon in New Zealand? It’s still relatively young and these things take time. In addition, when you think about Marlborough or Central Otago, these regions are enormous compared to say the Cote D’Or in Burgundy. There are different climates in different valleys, different soils, vine ages, different clones and no appellation laws to help make the wines seem more ‘Pommard’ like.
Personally, I’d like to see a lot of winemakers lay off the new French oak. Many wines don’t have the fruit content to handle all these new barrels. I don’t want a Pinot to taste of lime toast or coffee and I certainly don’t want it to look like a Merlot.
I’ll put some of my tasting notes up and marks up in the next blog with the wine revealed afterwards.
So, my Wine of the Week is Pyramid Valley’s 2008 Earthsmoke Pinot Noir. Itâ€™s quite unlike anything Iâ€™ve tasted from New Zealand but then theyâ€™re doing things a little bit differently here.
The Burgundy-trained Californian, Mike Weersing, has been biodynamic since planting in this virgin territory in 2000. Before coming to New Zealand, he lived in a camper van â€œcadgingâ€ jobs off his heroes: Alsaceâ€™s Jean Michel Deiss, the Moselâ€™s Ernie Loosen and Burgundyâ€™s Nicolas Potel. People thought he was mad leaving his winemaking job at Neudorf to set up in the unknown Pyramid Valley but he seems to have proven the sceptics wrong.
What is it that makes his wines so different to the rest of the country? Perhaps itâ€™s the soil. Weersing said, â€œWe could not locate the combination of clay and limestone anywhere else in Waipara.â€
Or could the explanation lie in low crops? The two-hectare vineyard planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is planted at an Old World density of 1m by 0.8m with only 400g of fruit per vine. Elsewhere, itâ€™s common to see 3.5kg of fruit on a vine â€“ and 5kg for Sauvignon Blanc. The concentration comes through in the wines.
Whatâ€™s more, 95% of his vines are ungrafted and he has found that those that are grafted on to American roostocks are the first to suffer drought. Heâ€™s also discovered that the roots of the ungrafted vines can penetrate the limestone whereas the grafted ones get to the limestone and stop burrowing down, missing out on all the mineral goodness of the limestone. While most would worry about the threat of phylloxera, this vineyard is pretty isolated and Weersing has little concern about the vine louse.
Weersing doesnâ€™t irrigate either unlike many other New Zealand grape growers. In Marlborough, some producers on free-draining gravel soils have told me they irrigate twice a day with 400mm of water at the height of summer. But this goes against his idea of terroir. â€œYou are not just expressing the soil, you are expressing the season,â€ he says, â€œ and if thereâ€™s a bit of drought stress then so be it. For example, if you love Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, you want to see it in all its manifestations.â€
He makes his wines in a shipping container rather than a swanky winery. He doesnâ€™t add anything including sulphur (until bottling) and when he does bottle his reds, he doesnâ€™t fine nor filter, so expect a slightly cloudy wine but with all the good bits still in it. Considering his wines have a high pH (4.1 for his 08 Pinot Noir), this should mean that the wines are really unstable and prone to microbial spoilage. It goes against all the wine books that his wines should work. But they do.
Some people might think Weersingâ€™s a hippy. Perhaps he is, but who cares? The wines are impressive and Iâ€™m slowly coming around to biodynamics. The proof is in the glass.
Nelson has had plenty praise from the wine literati. The regionâ€™s press pack proudly contained quotes like:
â€œNelson is home to New Zealandâ€™s finest aromaticsâ€
-Steven Spurrier, Decanter UK
â€œNelson produces outstanding Pinot Noir which can equal the best from anywhereâ€
-Nick Bulleid MW, Australian Gourmet Wine Traveller
As youâ€™d expect from such comments, I went there with high expectations. Apart from a few shining stars, I came away slightly disappointed by the general standard. Perhaps I was having an off day or it was the 2008 that let the region downâ€¦
What did excite me was Neudorfâ€™s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir â€“ but then thatâ€™s nothing unexpected. It has had write up after write up for its Puligny-like Chardonnay. Iâ€™ve turned up late to join the party of admirers. The 2008 (18.5-19/20) has a beautiful streak of acidity coupled with elegant nectarine fruit, minerality and well integrated hazelnutty new French oak (Â£14.50, Richards Walford). I also started waxing lyrical on my tasting notes for its â€™08 Tomâ€™s Block Pinot Noir and â€™07 Moutere Pinot. In brief, both were tight and focused with good mid-palate weight with fresh acid and firm chalky notes and savoury complexity. I wonâ€™t bore you with the other tasty adjectives.
Another shining light is Richmond Plains/Te Mania. Same winemaker, two labels. Richmond is biodynamic; Te Mania isnâ€™t but sticks to organic principles. Thereâ€™s clearly been a lot of work put in here since converting to Rudolf Steinerâ€™s tenets from making compost tea to regular oil sprays against powdery mildew. Iâ€™ve seen many vineyards recently and even if they grow cover crops down the middle of the rows, under the row youâ€™ll still see a strip of bare earth where weeds have been hoed or killed with herbicides. Not here. The vineyard is almost meadow-like. The vines look incredibly balanced here with shoot growth appearing to be much less vigorous than in other vineyards Iâ€™ve visited.
Balance in the vineyard is reflected in the wines. The majority of my notes included the phrase â€˜great balanceâ€™, which many wines fail to achieve. Alcohol levels are in check – as low as 12% in the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc â€“ with structure and some old world-esque restraint.
Neudorf, Richmond Plains plus Seifriedâ€™s Decanter trophy-winning â€™08 Sweet Agnes Riesling showed what Nelson can do when itâ€™s on form but many lacked the wow-factor that I had come searching for.
Across the board the Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs didnâ€™t do it for me when compared to Central Otago, Waipara and Marlborough. The Sauvignons were certainly more food friendly than those of Marlborough, which tend to jump out of the glass and bop you on the nose. But from the cross section I tasted in the region, many wineries need to up their game to warrant the praise Nelson has received, rather than basing their reputation on a small clutch of award-winning wines.
Harsh? Maybe, and I’d like to be proven wrong.
So, Iâ€™m in Nelson â€“ a 90-minute drive from Marlborough. Itâ€™s very different to Marlborough with most wineries less than 6km from the sea, 50% more rainfall and less diurnal temperature difference. Everyone you meet here will tell you that it is the wine region with the most sunshine hours too â€“ apparently Marlborough tries to make that claim in the same way as Australia and New Zealand fight over who invented the pavlova, but Mike Brown, GM of Waimea Estates and chairman of Nelson Wineart (the regional winegrowersâ€™ association) set the record straight: â€œIn the last seven out of eight years we had had the most sunshine.â€ Iâ€™ll let you fight it out amongst yourselves.
The region is pretty small, making up just 4% of the countryâ€™s total production and boasting only 24 wineries. Most producers are small too. Seifried who produces 130,000 cases each year and Waimea Estate are the major players and even that pales in comparison to other major wineries, says Chris Seifried: â€œWe are tiddlywinks compared to Kim Crawford, Wither Hills, Cloudy Bay and the likes.â€
With all these small players, making a greater push internationally has been a hard task. Seifried added, â€œWe have not been as loud as other regions. Many wineries sell all their production locally so they donâ€™t need to go to the international wine shows. Nelson needs more people telling our story.â€
Its story is currently focused on aromatic white varieties. But, you could argue so is Waipara’s and Marlborough’s, so Iâ€™m not sure how thatâ€™s a point of difference. Nevertheless, it isnâ€™t Marlborough and, according to Brown thatâ€™s a big positive. â€œWhere thereâ€™s a swathe of Marlborough wine on offer, people want something different. Many distributors are taking us on because we can offer that.â€
Even though they arenâ€™t Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc leads the charge for the region, followed by Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. However sales of SB havenâ€™t been without difficulty this year, says Lars Jensen, director of sales and marketing at Te Mania Wines. â€œThereâ€™s huge demand for Sauvignon but small companies canâ€™t compete with the big boys. Our distributors are looking for something else to sell. We sold everything but Sauvignon to our US distributor and we had to really work on him to take a pallet of it on consignment.â€ Thereâ€™s always two sides to the story.
Tomorrow: did I set my expectations too high in Nelson?