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Brits can’t get enough of New Zealand’s fruity Sauvignons and savoury reds, but what else does the country have to offer? Tom Cannavan journeys to the land of the long white cloud to find out.
We Britons are currently having something of a love-in with New Zealand wines. The country’s zesty Sauvignon Blancs and elegant Pinot Noirs are regularly finding their way into our shopping baskets. In fact our passion led to sales increasing by almost 60% last year.
Yet New Zealand is still a very young country in wine terms. Whereas Bordeaux, Burgundy and other European classics have refined their wines for centuries, New Zealand has little more than 30 years under its belt. New grape varieties are still being introduced, new regions being planted and different wine styles being explored.
When I visited recently, the word ‘diversification’ was on everyone’s lips. The Kiwis continue to refine their understanding of the islands’ climates and soils, and are keen to keep the New Zealand story moving. Even Sauvignon Blanc, the bedrock of the country’s industry, is being tweaked and re-engineered.
Marlborough on the South Island epitomises the clear, green purity that makes this little country so fascinating. This is home to the explosively pungent, herbaceous style of Sauvignon Blanc that has taken the wine world by storm. Few other wines can deliver such a mouth-wateringly distinctive punch.
But even their most ardent fans would admit these are not the most subtle wines. Many producers are tinkering with the Sauvignon Blanc formula to produce variations on the theme.
Seresin Estate is a perfect case in point, where Sauvignon is farmed biodynamically, blended with Semillon, aged in oak barrels and fermented using wild yeasts. These refinements add texture and complexity, and many top estates are adopting at least some of these techniques.
At Winegrowers of Ara, winemaker Damian Martin was first turned on to wine while playing professional rugby in France. His top Sauvignon Blanc is a concentrated, steely interpretation, achieved by cropping his vines low, fermenting in small steel barrels and stirring the lees to add richness. It makes a great food wine with an affinity for goat’s cheese, the intensity and texture to take on roast chicken, and the crispness to complement seafood.
Marlborough also wants to show there’s more in its repertoire than just Sauvignon Blanc, so there’s a big push for Pinot Noir and lots of experimentation with Riesling, Pinot Gris and other varieties.
This desire to define what a region can do best is echoed elsewhere. Central Otago’s reputation for Pinot Noir is well established, but winemakers continue to refine the style. There was once a tendency to think ‘bigger is better’. Now, top wines from producers such as Felton Road and Mount Difficulty can beguile with their luscious clarity of fruit.
On the North Island, the wines of Martinborough are some of New Zealand’s most sophisticated. Try the Pinot Noir from Craggy Range or Martinborough Vineyards – though Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are also well worth investigating.
There’s a red revolution going on in New Zealand, too. Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are well established on the North Island, but a decade ago they tended to be rather green and under-ripe. Perhaps it’s a side effect of climate change, or simply improved viticulture, but there are now red wine hot spots in New Zealand.
Gimblett Gravels, a sub-region of Hawkes Bay, has arguably the biggest reputation and Syrah is proving a hit. The ripe but peppery cool-climate style from Te Mata, Craggy Range, Esk Valley and Trinity Hill, among many others, is winning admirers.
The New Zealand story is not over yet. Indeed, it has barely begun. There’s every chance the country’s best vineyard sites have yet to be planted and its best wines yet to be made. If New Zealand is exciting us now, who knows what the future holds?
Five to try
Craggy Range, Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2008, Martinborough
Ripe, refined raspberry fruit notes meld with smoky oak for a fleshy, pure palate.
£12.99, selected Marks & Spencer and marksandspencer.com
Lofthouse, Riesling 2009, Marlborough
Tight citrus aromatics; the palate teases with sweetness before a mouth-watering lime finish.
£9.99, Corney & Barrow
Mount Difficulty, Roaring Meg Pinot Noir 2008, Central Otago
Smoky, seductive oak, strawberry fruit and gently gamey character.
Trinity Hill, Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2007, Hawkes Bay
Cool, long and polished, with ripe and sweet black fruit, but grippy tannins and acidity.
Winegrowers of Ara, Resolute Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Marlborough
Crushed oatmeal richness and a certain
lemon rind waxiness. The palate has lovely texture too. £13.99, Majestic