THE WORLD’S MOST ISOLATED COUNTRY, separated by three hours’ flight time from its nearest neighbour Australia, New Zealand lies between 36° and 45° south. Indeed it is the planet’s southernmost wine-producing nation and boasts also its most easterly wine region, Gisborne. In northern hemisphere terms it stretches from Bordeaux to Gibraltar, although New Zealand is much chillier than this piece of trivia would suggest.
The climate is temperate maritime, except semi-continental Central Otago, and the land’s long, thin form means that vineyards are never that far from the reviving ocean. A spine of mountains that runs through the centre of the country protects the mainly-eastern vineyards from the prevailing ‘Roaring Forties’ winds, and associated rains.
Kiwi wine has come a long way since it was known as ‘Dally Plonk’ a century ago, a reference to wine-making Dalmatian settlers. Most domestic wine was for local consumption until 1973 when Montana (now Brancott) sunk vines in until-then virgin Marlborough. After a few teething troubles with ill-chosen varieties, and phylloxera, Marlborough Sauvignon exploded in the ‘80s and ‘90s (helped in no small way by iconic producer Cloudy Bay), a singular wine style that was lionized for its exuberant – hyperactive even – intensity.
As wine writer Oz Clarke has described it: “No previous wine had so shocked, thrilled, entranced the world before with such brash, unexpected flavours of gooseberries, passionfruit, lime and crunchy green asparagus spears.”
Its outrageous success has meant that even though New Zealand makes a puny 1% of the world’s wine, the country enjoys an enviably-high profile. Whatever it is about the pretty archipelago – bright sunshine, cool nights, unpolluted air, the schist and greywacke soil – New Zealand has succeeded in creating an extraordinary interpretation of Sauvignon that no other country has come close to replicating (and not due to lack of trying).
Fully 70% of production is pristine, pungent Sauvignon. Dismissed by some critics as an uninteresting, monochrome category, the wine-buying public has by contrast been steadfast in its devotion to Marlborough Sauvie. The wine has of late, in fairness, evolved, as vines and winemakers have matured to incorporate barrel fermentation, wild yeasts, subregional diversity and more into their exciting story, broadening the wine’s flavour profile.
Pinot Noir, the country’s second most-planted grape, has a stellar reputation that belies its tiny volumes. At its zenith in spectacular Central Otago (Lord of the Rings territory), it is grown in pretty much every region and offers a sweet-fruited, opulent portrayal of Pinot. Impressive Bordeaux blends and Syrahs are made, too, in warmer parts of the north island: Hawkes Bay and Auckland; and the ‘aromatic varieties’ – Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer –are widely cultivated across the south island. Premium sparkling is big business too.
A confusing point regarding New Zealand wine regions – which aren’t really regulated like European ones – is their tendency to use dual names: for example, Gisborne is sometimes seen as Poverty Bay, while Martinborough appears at times as Wairarapa.
The clean cut, consumer-friendly, premium-oriented Kiwi wine sector is something of a poster boy for the wider industry but it has had its troubles too and was in fact until recently in crisis. The culmination of a long period of convulsive planting coincided with the financial meltdown and a freakish bumper crop in 2008 to create for the first time a serious glut, with attendant depressed prices. Some producers didn’t even bother to harvest their crop and others exited the industry altogether. Thankfully supply and demand are back in alignment and the sector is in rude health.
The current year, 2013, is absolutely superb across the board, with many winemakers describing it as a ‘Golden Vintage’. It’s a great time to drink New Zealand.
3 to try
The Cloud Factory Sauvignon Blanc €12.39 on promo
Textbook Marlborough vitality and zip, with effusive fruity and floral flavours of lime zest, elderflower, mango and melon. Quaff on its own or use to wash down lemon sole with asparagus and avocado mash for a healthy(ish) lunch.
Two Paddocks ‘Picnic’ Riesling €15.99 on promo
Fragrant and feminine Riesling with gorgeous aromas of spicy ginger, lime juice and pineapple. The intensely-flavoured, mineral-driven palate is classically zingy, with piercing, laser-sharp flavours of candied citrus, honey and grapefruit. Great life, energy and verve!
Little Beauty Pinot Noir €26
Exquisite red that is the Kiwi by-the-glass Pinot at the Savoy Hotel. Quite sweet-fruited – syrupy, even – on the palate, with deliciously rich flavours of boysenberry, overripe blackberry, peat and undergrowth. Enjoy on its own or have alongside rack of lamb.