New Zealand: Beyond Sauvignon Blanc

Matt Pym proves that there is more to New Zealand wine than Sauvignon Blanc…

One of the joys of a life in the wine trade is the ability to travel to exotic locations, where one meets great people, eats amazing food and if you plan it right, can fit in a spot of fishing/golf/cricket watching at the same time. Not to mention enjoy the odd glass or two of wine. No doubt you could package the whole thing up and sell it to Millennials as a ‘life experience’, but hey, this is my job.  Someone has to do it.

Mid-June saw me swapping the vagaries of the English Summer for the Antipodean Winter, as I headed down to New Zealand to visit a group of wineries that I consult to. These are a smart outfit, consisting of four wineries across the length and (admittedly not very broad) breadth of New Zealand, namely Hawke’s Bay, Nelson, Marlborough and Central Otago.  What is especially interesting is that this gives them the ability to experiment with all sorts of varieties in different locations, to be able to marry up the best soils and micro climates to the most appropriate grapes.

As the more observant reader will have spotted, my ramblings here are going to be dedicated to wine made from grapes other than Sauvignon Blanc. Now, let me be clear on one thing: I like Sauvignon Blanc. In some Wine Trade circles, that’s quite an admission. Not quite as offensive as saying I enjoy a spot of incest occasionally, but not far off. Sauvignon has become so successful, and so popular, that many of those in the trade with a penchant for wine snobbery (AKA Wine Wankers) feel it is beneath them; it is simply ‘too commercial’. Me, I’ve made a career out of buying (and now selling) the stuff. In terms of ‘bang for your buck’, it’s hard to look past Kiwi Sauvignon. There is bags of fruit, fresh acidity, and that distinctive nose of cut grass, gooseberries and passion fruit. At the ‘commercial level’ New Zealand offers some of the best value for money wines available, and at the more premium level they are showing real class and sophistication from the best sites with excellent winemaking. Considering that the first Sauvignon grapes were only planted in Marlborough back in the 70’s, this has been a phenomenal success story.

Awatere Valley vineyards, overlooked by Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku

Unsurprisingly, by far the most widely planted grape in New Zealand is Sauvignon. But look more closely and one can see that the locals have started to pay more attention to how well New Zealand does with other grapes. While a whopping 86% of all the wine New Zealand exports is Sauvignon, they drink just as much Pinot Gris at home and are increasingly experimenting with a wide variety of varieties and styles. The global love affair with Kiwi ‘Savvy’ ain’t ending any time soon, but it’s clear to me that we should all be asking, ‘’what else can you do?”

Sileni Estate Winery

Suitably fresh, relaxed and full of energy after a mere 30-hour journey via Shanghai and Auckland, my first stop was to see Sileni Estates in Hawke’s Bay, on the East coast of the North Island. Founded in the 90s by Medical publishing mogul, Hawkes Bay ambassador and all round good guy Sir Graeme Avery, it is named for the Sileni who, in Ancient Greek mythology, were companions of Dionysus, the god of all good things – wine, vineyards and theatre. When there was something to be celebrated, the Sileni were always on hand to encourage the enjoyment of food, good wine and ‘social interaction’. They sound like a fine bunch.

Hawke’s Bay is probably best known internationally for red wines, along the lines of Bordeaux. Gravel soils here, similar to the Mèdoc, give elegant, perfumed wines with real finesse and ageing potential (with what some might nebulously call ‘breeding’). And, true to form, I thoroughly enjoyed their ‘Triangle Merlot’, which is silky and finely balanced.  Interestingly I also loved the refined yet punchy ‘Lodge Chardonnay’, which was a revelation to me – notes on these below.

The view from the terrace over Tasman Bay

Next stop on my whistle-stop tour was Nelson, on the North Coast of the South Island. The sunniest spot in New Zealand, Nelson has always been known for its Bohemian, arty culture, and a thriving food, wine and craft beer scene. I was here to visit Waimea Estates, one of the best producers in the region and a winery I’ve worked with since the early Noughties.  The vineyards overlook the beautiful Tasman Bay, and the back of the Marlborough Sounds – it really is a beautiful place to be.

Before getting stuck into the tasting of the new vintages, I had a spot of lunch with the Scottish born head winemaker, Hamish Kempthorne, at a little waterfront place in the town of Mapua (also known as Little Britain for the huge number of ex-pats living there). Over smashed pumpkin and feta on rye, (avocados are so last year) he explained how Nelson is so suitable for many of the less well-known European varietals that love the sunshine but also appreciate the cooling effect of the maritime climate.

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Waimea has long championed these more esoteric styles, and now they are reaping the benefits as wine drinkers become more confident and experimental. We actually tasted the wines on the terrace of a newly purchased winery, just up the hill from the existing Waimea one. Known internally as ‘The Gravity Project’, this state of the art, gravity fed winery will be the home for most of the group’s top wines, and particularly for Pinot Noir. Not having to pump wine between barrels, tanks and into bottles gives a gentleness of touch that protects and preserves the delicate juice, giving it the best chance possible to shine. I’m excited by what will be produced here.

Back to the present though – we tasted through the range on the terrace, including samples straight out of barrels and tanks to see what the new vintage was like. I was suitably impressed with most of the wines, but the aromatic grapes, Albarińo, Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Gris stood out for me.

As an aside, if you get the chance to visit, do try to eat at The Urban Oyster Bar and Eatery in Nelson – even if you don’t like Oysters, the Pacific Rim fusion food has been stunning every time I’ve dined here.

Louis Vavasour, a keen horseman, at home in The Awatere Valley

Last stop was Marlborough, a sensationally picturesque two-hour drive over the Whangamoa Hills and past the Marlborough Sounds.  Then again, most drives in New Zealand are sensationally picturesque. I was here to catch up with my old mate Louis Vavasour, whose ancestors include Norman Earls and Barons, and very possibly the real life character behind Maid Marion (Maud le Vavasour).

What is more certain is that his family are synonymous with Marlborough; his parents were the first to plant grapes in the Awatere Valley in the south of the region, now recognised as one of the premier places to grow grapes in New Zealand. While Louis obviously makes Sauvignon Blanc – and very good it is too – he has created a range of wines that are decades in their planning and creation.

The ‘LV by Louis Vavasour’ range of wines are the culmination of decades of knowledge, experimentation, trial and error, success and failure. By 2016, Louis was finally convinced that he had found the best place to grow world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and recently has released the first vintages of these wines. He only makes minute quantities of these, around 3,600 bottles of the Méthode Traditionelle fizz, and only 2,000 each of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and they will only be made if the vintage is deemed good enough. They get every care and attention a wine could wish for and, importantly, a lightness of touch. So many so called ‘icon’ wines are simply ‘look at me‘ wines, with more alcohol, more oak, more power, but often less charm and enjoyment. Not so here; these are wines with the concentration of fruit and flavour to express their roots and terroir, and to age gracefully, but not to over-power the lucky drinker. As Louis puts it “These are classic styles, made in a bold manner. The focus is on purity, texture, concentration and longevity, with a hell of a lot of personality!”  We’re fortunate that an allocation makes its way to our shores, but stocks are very limited so you may need to act quickly to secure any of these.

A wild Stag, in the Awatere River just below the vineyards

Regrettably I didn’t have chance to make it down to the Central Otago vineyards this time, and after a long catch up with Louis over dinner (with a few of interesting bottles purely in the name of research), I headed home, reflecting on what a great place New Zealand is, what wonderful wines they make and what a good bunch the Kiwis are.

I have lots of friends over there from my twenty years in the trade, and I didn’t hear a single complaint or whinge regarding the extraordinary World Cup cricket final.  Imagine if it had been the Aussies we’d beaten in that manner….

Lodge Chardonnay 2017, Sileni Estates, Hawke’s Bay

This wine is fermented and aged in French oak, 35% of which is brand new.  Some of the fermentation happens with wild yeast, which occur naturally in the winery.

Very much like the way top end Burgundy is made and this does have a feel of good white Burgundy about it – toasty, hazelnut and almond notes, rich lemon and stone fruit, and a fine acidity.

Available online from various retailers c. £16 (for current 2016 vintage)

 

Triangle Merlot 2018, Sileni Estates, Hawke’s Bay

This was tasted straight from barrel. Delicious rich notes of plum and blackberry, creamy texture with fruitcake spice and a touch of vanilla from the oak, which will soften and integrate wonderfully in the coming years.

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Current vintage available in the UK is 2015, which should be perfect right now.

Available online from various retailers c. £15 (for current 2015 vintage)

 

Waimea Estates Albarińo 2018, Nelson

This grape originates from Galicia, in North West Spain where it typically grows within sight of the sea. It’s a perfect natural fit with Nelson, where it delivers delicious limey citrus and salty flavours, with hints of sage.

It’s the grape of choice for fresh seafood – only 6,000 bottles made (more is being planted!) so snap it up while you can.

£10.99 at Majestic Wine

 

Waimea Estates Grüner Veltliner 2017, Nelson

Grüner is most associated with the thrilling wines it produces in land-locked Austria, so I can’t make the same ‘natural fit’ claims here!

However it seems to thrive in Nelson – this is concentrated and still quite taut, with lots of power and underlying richness that is starting to come through. Hints of white pepper spice and ripe limes, and a delicious, quenching acidity on the finish.

£10.99 at Majestic Wine

 

Waimea Estates Pinot Gris 2018, Nelson

The best known whites (other than Sauvignon) of NZ are generally Pinot Gris, which appear in a wide range of styles, but typically sit in the middle ground between the lean, crisp style of Italy (Pinot Grigio) and the richer, often off-dry style of Alsace.

A good guide is to go on bottle shape – if it’s in a fluted, Germanic bottle the chances are that it is more along the Alsace style.  And that’s the case here – it’s delicious!  Just off dry, though most won’t notice or care, this is a wonderful aperitif wine or matches well with many Asian dishes.  Soft and voluptuous, with a pallet of ripe pears, apples and a touch of honey.

£10.99 at Majestic Wine

 

LV by Louis Vavasour Méthode Traditionelle Sparkling Wine, Marlborough

Made in the classic Champagne method, from a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, this is a sleek and stylish wine that eclipses many well regarded Champagnes.

A pure and tight knit palate, with notes of biscuit and toasted brioche alongside red berries and lemon sherbet. This wine is delicious now, but it’s only going to improve for at least the next five years.  3,621 bottles produced in total.

Exclusively imported by Charles Mitchell Wines – £599/12 bottle case

 

LV by Louis Vavasour Chardonnay 2016, Marlborough

All hand-picked fruit, and fermented and matured in mostly new French oak barrels, largely fermented by natural wild yeast and with full malolactic fermentation, this is a sumptuous and bold take on classic Chardonnay. Think top quality Meursault in terms of style and elegance, but with that pure new world fruit expression and richness; all nutty, creamy, lemony deliciousness.

Any true Chardonnay lover needs to taste this, but again there’s no rush to do so as this is built for the long term.  2,330 bottles produced in total.

Exclusively imported by Charles Mitchell Wines – £695/12 bottle case

 

LV by Louis Vavasour Pinot Noir, Marlborough

Again, made in a classic Burgundian style, this has two years maturation in largely new French oak puncheons (big, 500L barrels). This is so silky in texture, with such pure Pinot fruit.

It has a lot in common with very high end red Burgundy, but also with the best Pinots from California that also attain that supple, rich fruit purity. Alongside these fresh red fruits, there are hints of cinnamon and spice, and enormous length – this is an epic wine!  2,221 bottles produced in total.

Exclusively imported by Charles Mitchell Wines – £795/12 bottle case

 

Matt Pym has over twenty years in the wine trade. Starting on shop floor, mostly as a buyer, he rose to run the buying team at Majestic, the UK’s largest wine specialist chain. His extensive experience across all regions and styles has seen him act as the senior judge at many international wine competitions, including International Wine Challenge, International Wine and Spirits Competition, and Decanter World Wine Awards. He now works as a freelance consultant to wineries around the world as well as writing for CALIBRE.

He can be contacted via his website, Pym My Wine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.