New Zealand Presents Spring in December – Special Report

By David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by New Zealand Winegrowers.

In New Zealand it is now actually very late spring, almost summer. Here in Ontario we are steering into winter, bur wine lovers have an escape hatch thanks to the arrival of the largest, most diverse and top-quality batch of NZ wines at LCBO’s VINTAGES stores in recent memory. Historically, May has been NZ month in Ontario with an annual wine fair and the freshness of the new season resonating in the glass. But the COVID supply chain lag has delayed shipment of several wines intended for release earlier this year, that have now arrived. With credit where due, they would not have arrived at all if not for the purchase by a VINTAGES buyer very keen on New Zealand wine.

There are 22 New Zealand wines on the November 27 release. There are another four in the Dec 2 Classics Catalogue release, and another 8 on the December 11 release. If you count some still likely on shelf from the Nov 13 release (7 wines) that makes 41 new wines in less than a month. Some of the very best are Flagship Store exclusives in very limited quantities. No doubt there will be disappointment that some of those wines mentioned below may be very hard to find, but that does not mean we shouldn’t talk about them.

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What I would like to do is discuss New Zealand by grape variety, using examples recently reviewed by the WineAlign ‘cru’ to tell the story of NZ’s scope and evolution.  I have not travelled to New Zealand since 2017, but up to that point I have been there five times, and have followed NZs progress since my first visit in the early 90s, having visited every region. The range of wines now in Ontario was unimaginable back then.

The tiny, two island nation seemingly adrift in the South Pacific is anchored almost perfectly within the 30 to 50-degree temperate zone where vinifera grapes ripen, making it ideal for all but the hottest climate varieties. And New Zealand is clearly mastering the mainstream varieties like sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling, pinot noir, and more narrowly, red Bordeaux varieties (led by merlot) and syrah.

What is less apparent perhaps is the keen winemaking being brought to bear by very well schooled yet adventurous winemakers. And the importance of sustainable viticulture. Wine regions around the world are finally on to sustainability in our climate -aware era, but NZ’s Sustainable Winegrowing NZ (SWNZ) certification programme has been in place since 1995 and a whopping 96% of the country’s vineyard area is now certified.

For a deep dive into sustainability and regenerative agriculture in New Zealand tune into the November 11 Wine Thieves podcast by WineAlign colleagues John Szabo and Sara d’Amato.

So, on the main grape varieties being grown in New Zealand and featured on this release. Most wines mentioned and linked to the WineAlign website have been tasted by all four WA critics, resulting in thorough analysis, and very often, alignment.

Sauvignon Blanc

The most well-known grape of New Zealand has become a global brand in a sense, and at least a stylistic if not qualitative reference point for the grape. France’s Loire Valley (i.e. Sancerre) and Bordeaux remain reference’s as well, but for a much smaller portion of the market here in Ontario at least.  The vibrancy and intensity of NZ sauvignon is unmistakable with its complex set of sub-tropical fruit, citrus and fresh herbs and vegetables. Good mainstream examples include St. Clair and Lawson. But sauvignon’s obviousness and uniformity, especially in the Marlborough heartland has winemakers reaching for different interpretations in different regions, even within Marlborough in wines like Villa Maria’s Southern Clays. The cooler Nelson region accentuates the herbal elements with racy acidity as in the Seifried example. Some producers like Dog Point are creating less fruit driven more reductive/flinty styles in the Loire vein. While others are turning to wild ferments and barrel ageing to create more complexity and textural richness as in Greystone which reminds somewhat of white Bordeaux.

Saint Clair Family Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Saint Clair Family Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Lawson's Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Lawson’s Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Villa Maria Southern Clays Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2019

Villa Maria Southern Clays Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2019

Seifried Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Seifried Nelson Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2020, Marlborough, South Island

Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Greystone Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2018

Greystone Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2018

The Aromatics: Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer

Taken together in a stylistic grouping, the white grapes common to Central Europe – Alsace and Germany in particular – are increasingly important in New Zealand, and there is something about cooler climate meeting super clean winemaking that is right in their wheelhouse. Pinot gris is very strong with the style coming down more on the richer, softer Alsatian model than the Italian pinot grigio idiom. But there is a freshness and buoyancy in very typical wines like the Ant Moore that I really like.  Extrapolated into the Alsatian grand cru idiom of maximum richness, poise and depth there is the delicious Greywacke.

Riesling production is not huge in NZ but it has enclaves in three regions of the South Island: the more inland region of the Rapaura Valley in Marlborough near the town or Renwick, the Waipara Valley in North Canterbury near Christchurch as evidenced by the spectacular Greystone and in Central Otago farther south. There is a fruit intensity and vibrancy to NZ rieslings that it quite riveting and somehow more expansive than the rieslings of Germany or Ontario. Gewurztraminer is another strong suit, particularly in the North Island region of Gisborne, which we rarely see in Ontario.  But there is a lovely, pristine example currently available from Loveblock in the Awatere Valley sub-region of Marlborough.

Ant Moore Estate Pinot Gris 2020

Ant Moore Estate Pinot Gris 2020

Greywacke Pinot Gris 2017

Greywacke Pinot Gris 2017

Esk Valley Riesling 2019

Esk Valley Riesling 2019

Greystone Riesling 2018

Greystone Riesling 2018

Loveblock Gewürztraminer 2020

Loveblock Gewürztraminer 2020

Chardonnay

Ubiquitous, climate adaptive chardonnay is a natural up and down the North and South Islands of New Zealand. In the sub-topical north near Auckland there are excellent examples from Waiheke Island and the Kumeu River area. Gisborne produces quite lush tropical examples with Hawkes Bay farther south also a key performer. On the South Island chardonnay becomes a bit more Burgundian perhaps with higher acid, although still very fruit centric. Premium examples like Dog Point show the structure and depth that can be achieved. And the charming but very well hinged Neudorf shows the cooler Nelson styling and the rich, mineral Muddy Waters of the Waipara Valley shows what can be achieved farther south. There are great chardonnays from even more southerly, cooler Central Otago as well, although not currently at Vintages.

Dog Point Vineyard Chardonnay 2018

Dog Point Vineyard Chardonnay 2018

Neudorf Rosie's Block Chardonnay 2018

Neudorf Rosie’s Block Chardonnay 2018

Muddy Water Chardonnay 2018

Muddy Water Chardonnay 2018

Pinot Noir

New Zealand is the only country in the world that claims finicky, low yielding pinot noir as its number one red grape by volume (and I would argue by quality too), perhaps because the climate is so perfect for a grape that hates too much moisture, too much cold, too much heat and any other excesses. New Zealand’s pinots have style that is south of Burgundy and Canada, but north of Oregon and certainly California. And they are very well priced, comparatively, when it comes to the world’s most expensive grape.

In 2015 I published one of the longest, least-read articles ever written about NZ pinot noir right here. In it I tally 24 (unofficial) appellations for NZ pinot. So, if you want to open a bottle a read along this is the moment. If not here is a much shorter synopsis.

The South Island is the engine for pinot noir, but Martinborough on the southern tip of the North Island is where pinot was first planted and still turns out some stellar, ripe examples (although none currently on shelf here). Just across Cook Strait on the South Island Marlborough has become a major pinot region – a real sweet spot, with top notch producers like Cloudy Bay, Dog Point and Jackson Estate on shelf now – just cool enough to provide acid tension and warm enough to provide ripe raspberry fruit.

A bit farther south in the Waipara Valley Muddy Water is a great example of what this region can do with varied soil types especially on slopes and benches on either side of the valley itself.  Even farther south there is Central Otago, an inland, higher altitude, arid but cool region that reminds me a lot of B.C.s Okanagan Valley. It is arguably NZ’s most dynamic, intriguing pinot region, starting from scratch in the early 1990s and now home to over 100 wineries producing ebullient, often profound pinots. Wonderful to see the biodynamically grown Surveyor Thompson Explorer at Vintages.

Jackson Estate Vintage Widow Pinot Noir 2017

Jackson Estate Vintage Widow Pinot Noir 2017

Dog Point Pinot Noir 2017

Dog Point Pinot Noir 2017

Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2018

Muddy Water Pinot Noir 2018

Explorer Single Vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir 2019

Explorer Single Vineyard Central Otago Pinot Noir 2019

Merlot and Bordeaux Blends

The later ripening varieties that produce Bordeaux-styled reds only ripen well enough on the warmer North Island, starting in Hawkes Bay, a fascinating region on the east coast around the small city of Napier, where rivers have deposited significant gravelled soils. It is still a bit too cool for cabernet sauvignon, although some is planted in warmer pockets. It is however prime for merlot which anchors most of the blends from the region like the Trinity Hill, and the Te Mata Coleraine Red Blend now in Vintages Classics Catalogue and the Craggy Range Te Kahu Red Blend coming December 11 (the latter two not yet reviewed as of Dec 1).

Trinity Hill The Trinity Red Blend 2018

Trinity Hill The Trinity Red Blend 2018

Craggy Range Te Kahu Cabernet/Merlot/Cabernet Franc 2018 Single Vineyard

Craggy Range Te Kahu Cabernet/Merlot/Cabernet Franc 2018 Single Vineyard

And that brings our tour to an end. Who knew you might be inspired to drink New Zealand wine in Ontario in December. A rare moment. Seize the moment.

This feature was commissioned by New Zealand Winegrowers. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.