Sweet and sour Syrah
Sunday 31 January
One drop of rotundone is enough to make an Olympic size swimming pool smell peppery. One gram of this potent stuff could make the entire Australian Shiraz harvest smell peppery too. This compound was identified last year and was one of the more technical topics tackled at Hawke’s Bay’s Syrah symposium.
While there were a few tedious talks due to the bumbling nature of several speakers, it was an interesting day.
Tastings from around the world proved a point that New Zealand Syrah is pretty distinctive and can be picked from a line up of the rest of the world’s other Syrah producers. The Northern Rhone has its own unmistakeable style while South Africa can generally be picked for its burnt rubber/Stilton/gamey/call it what you will savoury notes. But New Zealand has its own New World version of the Rhone. It’s an elegant riper style with black pepper and ripe brambles, dusty firm tannins and a lovely freshness.
British speaker Tim Atkin MW published an article back in 2007 claiming ‘Syrah could save the day in Hawkes Bay’. He encouraged more planting of the variety three years ago but the call clearly fell on deaf ears as a mere 10 hectares have been planted across New Zealand since then! He stood up yesterday and told them the same story – to take Syrah more seriously.
If Sauvignon Blanc, which makes up more than 80% of New Zealand wine exports falls out of fashion in the same way that Australian Chardonnay did, New Zealand needs a plan B. Yes, it has other varieties planted but they’re a bit of a sideshow at the moment. New Zealand really has an opportunity to take the world by storm with Syrah. It could be as successful as its Pinot Noir. Let’s hope someone’s listening this time.
On another note, while I love some Australian Shirazes, there’s clearly a problem of over-acidifying. In a line-up of the top Shirazes in the country, the line-up was marred by sourness on the finish that I can only explain as overzealous acid additions. Think sucking on a lemon. Paringa Estate, Shaw & Smith and to some extent Clonakilla displayed this and they really need to rethink it.
The wines are clearly top quality with great concentration and texture but this sourness is not acceptable. Many New Zealand winemakers came up and agreed with me after I’d stuck my neck out at the seminar but I think it got some Australian backs up. What’s wrong with honesty?
Well it seems, honesty is a bad thing. I didn’t realize that this was a particularly sensitive issue in Australia at the moment after fellow English wine journo Andrew Jefford made a speech at the National Wine Centre in Adelaide in November about this and other things (click here to see the speech in full) He said “Misjudged acid addition is, for me, the defining fault of the Australian wine industry, and I regret the fact that it is rarely if ever viewed as a fault here. I’ve tasted hundreds of wines since my arrival here which I truly feel are defaced by acidity. Potentially fine wines which would, in other words, have been much, much better with much softer, less assertive levels of acidity. Lower acid levels would lead to flavour profiles of greater delicacy, expressivity and finesse, and a much subtler sensual appeal. One of the most frequent criticisms of Australian wine from both consumers and the international press is of homogeneity, and no single factor tends to reinforce this sense of sameiness more than acid adjustment as it’s currently practiced here.”
Guess I’m not alone.
Hawke’s Bay gets a Chinese lesson
Friday 29 January
Today’s Cabernet Merlot forum in Hawke’s Bay was pretty technical and I won’t bore you with the in-depth canopy management and Cheval Blanc’s study on the clonal variability in Cabernet Franc. It certainly gave my brain a work out.
The forum didn’t start out well with a speech from producer Corbans turning into a PR exercise. Oh no, please let this not be another WineFuture. But Hong Kong’s Simon Tam allayed my fears, giving the industry an entertaining insight into the Hong Kong and Chinese market. If his career in wine ever goes sour, he could turn to stand-up.
Everyone wants a piece of the burgeoning Asian market and the ripe Bordeaux-style produced in Hawkes Bay is well-suited.
“Hong Kong is a free-for-all as long as you have something good to sell,” Tam told Hawke’s Bay and New Zealand producers.”
“The latest trend in Hong Kong is Portuguese wines because they got off their derrieres and went to Hong Kong. If they [consumers] can wrap their tongues around bacalao then they can certainly say Hawkes Bay.”
But jumping headlong into the Chinese market before testing the waters in Hong Kong is a big mistake, he warned. “It’s a bun fight to get into China,” he said. “Hong Kong is so easy: use it to acclimatize. If you can master Hong Kong, when you go into China you will be much more culturally savvy.
He also pointed out many wineries sold their wines in China through international hotel chains but did not actually sell wine to the Chinese! Producers must get off their backsides if they want to make any inroads.
The Hawkes Bay showcase tasting at the end of the day drew something rather disappointing marks and comments from UK wine experts, Neal Martin, Matthew Jukes and Oz Clarke. Having tasted a range of wines from the region just six weeks ago I am inclined to agree that the wines weren’t up to expectations today. Too much new oak masking what was great fruit. Hopefully producers will take note.
New Zealand’s export hot shots
Wednesday 27 January
And the winner of the 2009 New Zealand export championship is…Sauvignon Blanc.
Yes, a whopping eight out of 10 bottles of wine leaving Kiwi ports are Sauvignon Blanc. Not altogether surprising you might think but its dominance is pretty worrying if an ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ backlash shifts to Sauvignon.
According to the latest figures from New Zealand Winegrowers, overall exports were up 34% to 130 million litres. It’s difficult to know how much of that increase can be attributed to bulk Sauvignon shipped out in flexitanks to be bottled as an anonymous supermarket brand but there would certainly be plenty of it. Unfortunately, there’s no value figures available yet so I’ll just have to speculate that value rises will be nowhere near the 30% mark. It’ll be interesting to see the year-on-year price per litre too.
On a more positive note, it appears the Kiwis have invaded China in the past 12 months. China didn’t even feature in the 2008 top ten export destinations and it is now sitting pretty in position number 5 with more than 1.2m litres shipped. With the Far East’s penchant for reds, Hawkes Bay and Central Otago are ideally positioned to take advantage of this market.
A Gris day
The other major mover in the export charts is Pinot Gris. Anyone visiting the country’s wine regions can’t fail to notice that most producers now have a Gris in their range. A surge in plantings has been followed by a 63% rise in exports in the past year to 2.4m litres. Winemakers tell you they hate making this rather neutral, low acid, high alcohol variety but people sure do like drinking it. It’s a pretty startling rise when you consider that as late as 2006 only 400,000 litres of Gris were exported. My GCSE maths tells me that’s a sixfold increase - Carol Vorderman has nothing on my numeracy skills.
It’s sad to see that Riesling hasn’t shared in the success of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Exports have remained pretty stagnant and it’s had to watch a lesser variety (in my opinion) leapfrog over it. Booooooooo.
Anyway that’s enough numbers from me. I’m off to the much-anticipated Cabernet/Merlot forum and Syrah Symposium on Friday and Saturday. I’ll be posting blogs on the hot topics plus keeping you updated everyday at Pinot Noir 2010 in Wellington next week.
From Everest to Waitaki
Sunday 24 January
Many doctors give up their career to concentrate on improving their golf swing and playing with the grandchildren but Jim Jerram is not your average medicine man.
After 29 years as a GP in New Zealand and as far afield as Kunde hospital, on the trail to Everest Base Camp, Jerram moved to grape growing in 2001 in a venture with his brother-in-law, Jeff Sinnott (Amisfield’s winemaker).
You wouldn’t get me setting up a vineyard in a million years – it’s way too much like hard work and drains your coffers before you can even get a grape off the vines. To make things even more difficult, they planted in an area where no-one had planted vines before.
In a previous blog, I have written about Waitaki – a new and upcoming region on the edge of viticultural possibility. Jerram set up shop here with eight hectares of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir on limestone soils.
“Our mission was to do Pinot Noir on limestone,” said Jerram, who sells his wine under the label Ostler. “We saw the site and thought it was a mini Cote d’Or. It’s on an escarpment too above the main valley floor so we get away from frost pockets.”
Some of the big companies have checked the area out and decided it is too marginal, Jerram revealed, and in 2007 there was barely a berry harvested in the valley thanks to rain ruining flowering.
Jerram clearly has exacting standards and this is an area that really needs attention to detail with cool weather, frosts, powerful winds and bronze beetles ready to pounce every day. Touring the region’s vineyards, it’s evident that absentee owners are not going to succeed: vines are looking very sorry for themselves and growth is slow.
The proof is in the glass with those who care most reaping the rewards. Ostler’s ‘06 Caroline Pinot Noir and ‘08 Audrey Pinot Gris getting a 18-18.5 out of 20 while; the 08 Valli Pinot Noir also getting an 18+. Pasquale also scored highly with its whites, particularly the 08 Alma Mater – a blend of Riesling, Gewurz and Pinot Gris - but its reds were a bit heavy on the oak (great fruit but 40% new French is too toasty for me). Craggy Range also makes some good wines here.
Hot on the heels of its first winery and cellar door opening in November, Jerram has set up a Regional Tasting centre in Kurow. The Vintners Drop opened at the end of December and you can taste wines from every producer in one place for the first time. I hope all the producers support it, as the region needs to improve its profile.
Sparkling solution to Sauvignon surplus
Thursday 21 January
Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc was the fizz of choice for many Kiwis this Christmas and following Montana’s UK launch at the recent New Zealand annual wine trade tasting, it is probably coming to a shelf near you.
Of course, it’s smart marketing. Still Sauvignon sales are booming with exports up 37% last year and no sign of that stopping: the latest figures from retailer Majestic show Oyster Bay was its biggest seller at Christmas. Sparkling is a natural brand extension and you can’t blame them for it. It doesn’t taste that bad - if you like those green pea and capsicum flavours combined with bubbles. I won’t be buying it but the supermarkets have been piling it high and putting it on offer at NZD $8.99 (£4-ish). Consumers have lapped it up.
It’s also a genius way to empty the tanks and mop up some of that oversupply that is still hanging round like a bad smell. Many think the supply-demand situation will be back in balance within 12-18 months and if you can sell off excess stock by putting a few bubbles in it, why wouldn’t you?
I’ll be interested to see how it gets on in the UK. Montana is the biggest selling brand by volume in the UK (Nielsen, MAT 03/10/09) so it has plenty of traction with consumers but is up against a hell of a lot more competition in the sparkling market: Cava, Aussie sparklers, Prosecco, and great Champagne deals. Will it hit the right price point and suit the UK consumers’ palate or is this a step too far?
Another extension of Sauvignon comes from Southbank Estate – with its rosé Sauvignon Blanc. I rolled my eyes when I saw an advert for it recently but that’s probably because I’m a cynical journalist. The Italians are doing the same with Pinot Grigio and having plenty of success with it so why can’t the Kiwis do it with their most successful grape variety?