Kiwi cornucopia

[mid-veraison grapes]Here’s the final installment of a New Zealand Winegrowers trade tasting; the first part dealt with sauvignon blanc, the second with pinot noir, and the third with riesling. Everything else is here. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety due to the format, so please read them in that context.

Kim Crawford 2008 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Gisborne/Hawke’s Bay) – Sweet tropical candy. Dried fruit. Rainier cherry? Eh. (3/09)

Babich 2008 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Bitter but clean. Rinds and gravel. Seems off-dry. OK. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2008 Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Ripe orange and fig with a hint of butter. Big, clean, and nice. This is what cheap chardonnay should taste like. (3/09)

Oyster Bay 2008 Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Spice and milk. Is there fruit? It’s hard to say. Worked to death, and no fun. (3/09)

Chardonnay is being abandoned as a commodity grape in New Zealand. That’s not a reflection of plantings – it’s quite widely-grown, though it pales in comparison to sauvignon blanc, and isn’t even quite as popular as pinot noir – but a reflection of its marketing, which is mostly nonexistent in the States. (In New Zealand itself, things are a little different.) And – I can’t believe I’m about to say this – it’s a shame.

The unoaked style has fresh potential on the ground in its country of origin, but as an export wine isn’t of much use; it’s probably not worth the tariff to get these friendly, simple wines to other shores. However, the fruit intensity of the better New Zealand chardonnays (most of which are oaked to some degree) is so vivid and pure that it would be a shame to abandon the grape. None of which are represented here, in my opinion, and it’s true that the world hardly needs more chardonnay, but I think there’s real potential that, while not going untapped, is perhaps going unrealized by worldwide consumers.

One caveat on the preceding notes: these chardonnays were tasted immediately after the sauvignon blancs, and (in my opinion) suffered in contrast with the acidity and green intensity of that grape.

Hans 2007 Viognier (Marlborough) – Lanolin and pretty flowers. Oil, peanut, some spice. Oak? I’m not sure. Fantastic flavors, though they’re sticky and thick. Lurid, as many viogniers are. Not bad? Particular, for sure. (3/09)

I keep tasting interesting viogniers from New Zealand, and then returning to find they’ve fallen on harder times. It’s a cranky grape, for sure, with as many detractors as fans. But if there’s potential, and someone can figure out how to retain some acid in the wine, there’s probably a market.

Nobilo “Regional Collection” 2008 Pinot Grigio (East Coast) – Big yellow/white/green fruit with a flat finish. Simple and boring. (3/09)

Nautilus 2008 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Very sweet and spicy. Wobbly Wine as Pop Rocks. (3/09)

Te Mara 2008 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Sticky pear, spice, and minerality. Good intensity. Vivid. Neon-electric. I’d call this a CGI pinot gris, and in a good way, but it’s not for everyone. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2007 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Grass, pear skin. Balanced but insignificant. (3/09)

Hans 2007 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Lotion, dried pear. A lingering impression of something being fried, though it’s not clear what. Weird and not very good. (3/09)

There has been an explosion of pinot gris in New Zealand. Why? Ask winemakers. When they’re being honest, they’ll tell you that it’s a mystery to them, as well. But they’ll be in the process of making one while they tell you that. Whether there’s an insatiable demand for the grape, or just a demand “created” by the fact that there’s rather a lot to sell, the fact is that New Zealand is awash in the stuff.

Fruit-forward, a little sweet, and flaw-free. That’s the recipe for a successful commercial white wine, and so much pinot gris from New Zealand is made this way that its cash-cow role is rather clear to see. But there’s a problem. It’s not that so few rise to any real significance, it’s that even among the bottlings that don’t try, few of them are of much interest at all. In fact, some winemakers will – with an embarrassed tone – tell you exactly that, if you ask. And yet, they’re producing the wine in ever-increasing quantities. By the numbers, less than 200 hectares in 2000 have become over 1300 hectares in 2008, and exports have skyrocketed from 200,000 liters in 2004 to almost 1,300,000 liters in 2008. Who’s buying this stuff? No one I know. Yet there must be a market somewhere. Asia? The UK? Australia?

Pinot gris can be interesting in two ways: rich, mineralistic, and spicy in the mode of Alsace (and the only successful wine of this tasting, the Te Mara, is in that style), or mineral-driven but clean and clear, in the mode of regions Germanic and northeastern Italy. Otherwise, it’s a boring grape that makes offensively inoffensive wine.

Much more is going to have to be done with the grape to convince me that it’s worthwhile for so much of it to be produced in New Zealand. For now, it’s their California chardonnay. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Spy Valley 2005 Gewürztraminer (Marlborough) – Mercaptans. Old cashews and tin. Useless. (3/09)

While I’ve often said that gewürztraminer is a grape with which New Zealand could make a big international splash, had they only the will, the fact is that there’s no worldwide clamor for alternative gewürztraminer sources. (In fact, New Zealand’s exports of gewürztraminer fell last year.) Certainly this wine will do nothing to convince anyone. Look to Gisborne and Martinborough for much, much, much better examples, the best of which hold their heads high in the company of Alsace, the unquestioned best region for the grape.

Monkey Bay 2007 Rosé (East Coast) – Disgusting synthetic aromas and flavors. Blech. (3/09)

No comment.

Oyster Bay 2007 Merlot (Hawke’s Bay) – Watermelon Jolly Rancher. In a merlot? No thanks. (3/09)

Kennedy Point 2005 Merlot (Waikehe Island) – Blueberry soup with biting tannin. Ick. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2007 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Hawke’s Bay) – Herbed blueberry and blackberry. Simple, clean, and good according to the nose. But the palate? Baked. And the finish is horrid. (3/09)

Trinity Hill 2006 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Gimblett Gravels “The Gimblett” (Hawke’s Bay) – Chunky peanut butter, which melds with a gravelly texture. Incredibly rough. Uninteresting despite the terroir signature. (3/09)

Hans 2001 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon “Spirit of Marlborough” (Marlborough) – Ripe fruit (mostly black), fresh tobacco, smoke, and black dirt. A bit short and unsubstantial, but OK. (3/09)

There are quality wines made from the Bordeaux varieties in New Zealand. Obviously, none are represented above (and the prices being asked for these wines are ludicrous in relation to their quality), but they absolutely do exist. And not just from Hawke’s Bay, though that’s where current attention is focused. Waiheke Island has its stars, certainly, but the rest of the (largely unknown in the U.S.) Auckland-surrounding and Northland appellations have potential. Elsewhere, it’s very much a producer-by-producer thing.

Kennedy Point 2007 Syrah (Waiheke Island) – Cassis, blueberry, and cranberry with a long, sugary finish. No good. (3/09)

Trinity Hill 2007 Syrah Gimblett Gravels (Hawke’s Bay) – Blueberry, bark, smoke, and dirt. Drinkable. (3/09)

The Australia-New Zealand rivalry in so many things rarely intrudes on matters vinous. In fact, for a long while the industries complemented each other’s markets: New Zealand imported a lot of hefty Australian reds, while Australia provided a ready market for New Zealand’s crisp, clean whites. Each seemed to be able to fill a perceived hole in the other’s stylistic range. Often, the only time Australia would come up in discussions with New Zealand winemakers would be as contrast to a fairly widespread belief that, given New Zealand’s climates, looking to Australia for viticultural advice would be a mistake. Yes, New Zealand is very clearly a New World producer, and this is reflected in their wines, but in terms of philosophy it was decided that Europe would be the model.

In making this choice, New Zealand chose a difficult path for itself, because the slow advance of vine age, the painstaking revelation of terroir, and the endless search for complexity, balance, and soul necessary to model an industry after Europe (for whether or not one agrees with these characterizations, those are the beliefs being pursued) are not aligned with the most commercially successful New World winemaking practices. New Zealand’s successes have, in fact, come largely along those latter lines: fruit-forward, varietally-designated wines that make an immediate impression. Yet it’s clear, especially from the relentless focus on pinot noir – that most difficult of grapes – that the aspiration to do otherwise remains. And each year, a few more New Zealand wines enter into a conversation in which they can hold their own with their inspirations. Not equality, yet, but quality.

In that process, a minor revelation has snuck up on New Zealand’s winemakers: they can produce high-quality syrah. And that while, at its best, it doesn’t taste like European syrah, it tastes a lot less like Australian shiraz. Power, intensity, concentration…these are not its calling cards. But earth? Underbrush? Sensitivity to terroir? They’re coming along.

New Zealanders can barely contain their glee. No, they’re never going to “beat” the commercial dominance of Aussie shiraz – they could never produce that sort of quantity, even if they uprooted all the sheep and replaced them with syrah vines – but they could, perhaps, drive a deep wedge into a notion that the source for quality New World syrah is their much larger neighbor to the northwest. And they can do it by directly appealing to those who find many Australian shirazes (and some of their Californian and South African counterparts) too brawny. As anyone familiar with the Aussie/Kiwi rivalry can imagine, there’s not much resistance to this idea.

Supposition? Speculation? Not really. Consider: the grape is, almost universally, called syrah – not shiraz – on New Zealand bottles. That’s no accident.

As for the wines in this tasting? They obviously won’t convince anyone of anything.

One Comments

  • J

    April 20, 2009

    Lovely to see your comments about my wine Te Mara Pinot Gris. Very intersting your other comments about other NZ Pinot Gris ours is a unique wine its in the Alsace style as we have found consumers really like that style. NZ is making more Pnot Gris as its a grape that is very suited to the climate. It does most of its repening and therefore gain most of its flabour late in the summer and NZ typically has a long lingering summer. Harvest is happening now down under check out the web site


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