New Zealand Whites: The State of Play

“New Zealand sits in wonderful isolation in the middle of the South Pacific. In an uncertain world that has been gripped by a pandemic, it has become one of the safest places on earth, closing its borders to all but those who are willing to spend two weeks quarantining in a hotel room and pay NZD$3,100 (USD$2,100) for the privilege. As a result, it has recorded just a few deaths and, at the time of writing, life in New Zealand has largely returned to normal. When New Zealand reopens its borders to visitors and flights resume, the country will go back on the bucket-list destination and the country’s roads will, once again, be filled with camper vans. Its major attraction is undoubtedly its natural beauty: snow-capped peaks, lush native forests, a movie about a ring and a flightless bird. There’s no doubt that the local wine producers benefit positively from being set in this spectacular country, but this halo effect will only glow brightly if its wines offer the depth and purity of its glacial lakes. There are more than 700 wine producers in New Zealand and it’s fair to say that as few as 10 percent are truly polishing that halo although the same could be said of other wine regions around the world. That doesn’t deny the fact that there are now a lot of high cropped, homogenous Sauvignon Blancs filling the shelves. They are often bulk shipped and bottled in an industrial estate on the outskirts of a nondescript town thousands of miles from the vineyard. They are then given a made-up place name or, worse still, commit an act of cultural appropriation by adopting Māori words and designs purely for profit. This is a relatively recent phenomenon: the rise of the bulk wine market occurred after a bumper 2008 crop of modest quality Sauvignon Blanc. It was a perfect storm coinciding with a global financial crisis leading to an oversupply situation, which created the rationale for increasing bulk shipments. Bulk exports jumped from just 4.3 million liters in 2008 to 18.3 million liters in 2009 and today that figure stands at around 100 million liters, equivalent to 40% of exports. This has been a fundamental shift for New Zealand and the resulting wines on shelf are certainly not maintaining its halo. The country’s credentials as a fine wine producer aren’t helped by the fact that the country’s success has largely been based on a grape variety that many wine collectors love to disparage, unfairly, in my opinion. Sauvignon Blanc accounts for 88% of wine that leaves New Zealand ports but 63% of what’s in the ground, which has led to countless accusations that New Zealand is in danger of being a one-trick pony and over-reliant on one variety. Curiously, there is little concern relating to Sancerre’s Sauvignon-centric status. However, there’s no escaping the fact that Sauvignon Blanc is also subject to abuse: the variety retains its signature aromatics at audaciously high yields but there’s no hiding the dilution that such intensive viticulture provides. Supermarket-level wines are commonly cropped at 15t/ha and yields can go even higher for bulk wines. Master of Wine Steve Smith says, “Sauvignon Blanc should not be denigrated and relegated to a high-cropped, refreshing white. It can be much more than that, you just have to try harder: look at Dagueneau, Pavillon Blanc and Cheval Blanc’s new white.” As these wines show in the right hands, Sauvignon Blanc can offer both finesse, depth and longevity. There is a perception that this is a variety that cannot age and does not deserve a position in the ranks of fine wine grapes, which needs to be corrected. In an attempt to protect Marlborough’s reputation and distinguish the quality-oriented producers from the high-cropped, bulk-shipped wines, a group of local producers launched Appellation Wine Marlborough in 2018. Approved wines must be 100% grown in Marlborough with a maximum yield imposed (which, at 15t/ha seems a little on the generous side) before being bottled in New Zealand and approved by a tasting panel. It’s still a work in progress but for members like Dog Point, which crops its Sauvignon Blanc at around 8t/ha, it is clear that not all Sauvignons are equal, and that message needs to be conveyed. “We need to protect the tip of the sword and that’s why we got involved in Appellation Wine Marlborough,” says Dog Point’s Matt Sutherland. It is the distinctiveness of Marlborough Sauvignon that first won over drinkers in the 1980s. It’s not just marketing: research has shown that the region’s wine can be distinguished by their “fruity and green-perceived characters”. A key component of this distinctive style is the region’s high concentrations of thiols. These sulfur-containing compounds, formed by yeast during fermentation are responsible for some of the variety’s distinctive aromas such as passionfruit, boxwood (cat’s pee) and grapefruit characters. Research has shown that thiol levels in Marlborough are much higher than Sauvignons made in other parts of the world and, in combination with other wine chemistry and this cool climate’s bright acidity, they are truly distinctive. There’s not yet conclusive proof why Marlborough has such high levels of thiols compared with other Sauvignon specialists. It is likely to be a combination of factors including the climate, soil and potentially the MS clone, which is the source of most Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. However, scientists have discovered that machine harvesting Sauvignon can increase the level of thiols by as much as five to ten times compared with hand-picking the fruit. The classic style that this creates has attracted many drinkers who know what they’re going to get when they buy a bottle. Success inevitably attracts those looking for a piece of the action.” --Rebecca Gibb MW, New Zealand Whites: The State of Play, November 2020 To read Rebecca's first report and learn about the temperature of the New Zealand white wine scene, check out the full article on Vinous now. Below is a selection of notes from the report.

Villa Maria

Taylors Pass Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2019

Delectable Wine
9.2

A supple and pure Chardonnay with delicate fruit reminiscent of sweet nectarine, fig and citrus. Wild yeast, barrel fermentation and time on lees have imbued the wine with additional layers of texture and savory, oatmeal-like flavors, but the winemaking does not dominate the fruit. The creamy midpalate is given definition on the lengthy finish by a racy line of citrus-like acidity. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, November 2020) — 10 months ago

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Kumeu River

Estate Chardonnay 2019

Delectable Wine
9.1

The estate Chardonnay is a blend of six different vineyards with approximately 20% fermented in new oak barrels. Texturally, this cuvée offers a sense of flow; it is relaxed in its own skin but provides welcome tension on the precise finish thanks to a line of firm acidity that will leave you smacking your lips. The 20% new oak is well integrated, contributing delicate nougat flavors, and allowing the subtle nectarine and honeydew melon flavors to shine on the medium-length finish. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, November 2020) — 10 months ago

Cloudy Bay

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Delectable Wine
9.1

Delightfully textured and smooth with balanced yet mouthwatering acidity, this wine veers into the green hedgerow spectrum of Sauvignon; think nettles and elderflowers rather than flamboyant tropical fruits. That said, there's a subtle flavor of passion fruit running through this wine. Midweight with some decent concentration, it offers nice grip on the medium-plus-length finish. Don't chill the hell out of this or you'll miss the best bits. I've given a drinking window of 2020–2025 but having tasted a delightful 14-year-old Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like a mature Sémillon, I can say that you’re not in any danger if you leave it longer. (Rebecca Gibb MW, Vinous, November 2020) — 10 months ago