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Part 3 of a New Zealand tasting

by Thor Iverson

[riesling at kahurangi estate]Here’s part three of a New Zealand Winegrowers trade tasting; the first part covered sauvignon blanc, the second with pinot noir, and everything else will appear in the fourth installment. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety due to the format, so please read them in that context.

Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice” 2008 Riesling (Marlborough) – Varietally true, but that’s about all to be said about it. Light, with an equally light sense of sweetness. Drinkable but dull. (3/09)

Babich 2007 “Dry” Riesling (Marlborough) – Loaded with mercaptans. Sharp as a razor, but fruitless. Flat. Boring. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2007 Riesling (Marlborough) – Slight sweetness, apple, gritty steel, and a few drips of petrol. Long. Not bad, albeit simple. (3/09)

Palliser Estate 2007 Riesling (Martinborough) – Intense lime, lemon, and limestone, but the wine is balanced rather than enormous or top-heavy. In fact, the balance is rather impressive. A wine of substance. The quibble is the a lack of complexity, though it’s young and there’s plenty of time. (3/09)

Dry River 2007 Riesling Craighall “Amaranth” (Martinborough) – Vivid. Crushed glass and rocks, both liquefied. Excellent acid/sugar balance. Incredibly pure. Very, very, very long. Incredible, and clearly the best wine of the entire tasting. (3/09)

Waimea “Spinyback” 2007 Riesling (Nelson) – Wet and fun. Slate. Fruit-forward, with slight tropicality. A bit simple, but good, with some potential upside as the wine ages. (3/09)

Neudorf 2007 Riesling Brightwater (Nelson) – Slightly reduced but still accessible. Mineral-dominated (gravel and sand). Dried Granny Smith apple. High-quality. (3/09)

Allan Scott 2007 Riesling (Marlborough) – Grassy. Light green plum. Synthetic finish. Very simple. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Cellar Selection” 2007 Riesling (Marlborough) – Ultra-clean and “perfect,” but it lacks the additional intensity and/or complexity it would need to achieve greatness. Long, dry, and mineral-overwhelmed (mostly because there’s not much else), with little future indicated. Still, a good enough wine for early drinking. (3/09)

Mud House 2007 Riesling (Waipara) – A hollow balloon of dusty minerality, lime rind, and grapefruit. Short. (3/09)

Mount Grey 2007 Riesling (Waipara) – Rich, silky, and tropical. Not enough acidity. Some plastic weirdness, as well. (3/09)

Amisfield 2007 “Dry” Riesling (Central Otago) – A smoked crystal core with a hint of cherry. Dark, brooding, and earthy. Quite enticing. (3/09)

Felton Road 2007 Riesling (Central Otago) – Lots of sugar, front-loaded and obvious, but with the requisite acidity to match it. An explosion of apples follows. Big and long. Wow. (3/09)

Forget sauvignon blanc. The future of New Zealand white winedom might be riesling.

Of course, it will take a long while before we’ll know whether or not this is true. For one thing, the vines tend to be very, very young (the oldest in New Zealand are in the hands of an unfortunately commercial winery). For another, they’re not always planted on the best sites (that is to say, few know where the actual “best sites” are, as yet). Additionally, the market for riesling is a fickle and frequently absent one, even in the best of cases. But New Zealand riesling plantings and exports continue to rise on a slow-but-steady incline, according to the data. So while there’s not explosive demand or supply, there’s a growing interest. Slow, steady growth suits this slow, steady grape.

Stylistically, most New Zealand riesling of note is off-dry. Dry versions of quality are rare. Fully sweet and/or botrytized versions tend to be better, but are ubiquitous enough that there’s a lot of tedium and indifference, much of it overpriced, some of it well-priced to no good effect. Outright sweet riesling is harder than people think.

Regionally, there’s no one source of excitement. Martinborough, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara/Canterbury, Central Otago…all have promising (and less so) wines to show to the world. Potential diversity is thus suggested, but it will take years to work out the shape of that diversity.

In this tasting, it’s clear that the median point for riesling is higher than it is for any other grape on offer (and based on my historical tastings, this is generally true). I don’t believe this indicates something fundamental about inherent varietal quality, but rather a disinterest in mucking about with this particular grape as a function of its lack of popularity. Were these sauvignon blancs, they’d be focus-grouped to death, with the concomitant cellar machinations following. But riesling? Many wineries will ask: what’s the point? The result is, overall, better wine, with fewer lows. And the highs? Slightly higher as a percentage of the total, I’d say, though that’s an unscientific assessment.

Obviously, the Dry River and the Felton Road are the stars of this tasting, though the Amisfield, Neudorf, and Palliser Estate are all high-quality wines. The Dry River needs to be good at its price, which is nearly twice that of any other wine. Is it worth it? Yeah, probably.

Finally, a note: in 2002, Villa Maria told me that they were exerting a special focus on what they referred to as “Alsatian varieties.” Villa Maria is a huge, sometimes industrial, producer, but as they’re family owned, they don’t have to engage in the ridiculous market-whoring contortions that many publicly-traded wineries suffer. As such, I think their “Alsatian” focus represents an honest belief that there’s real potential for that particular palette of grapes in New Zealand. Villa Maria knows their market and their country’s overall potential as well as anyone, so theirs is an opinion I take seriously.


Copyright © Thor Iverson.