“New Leland : Wine in kiwi land”
[Note: the kiwi here does not refer to the fruit but to a native New Zealand bird, one of the country’s symbols. The nickname was used from the First World War onwards to describe the islanders].
Imagine yourself in front of a lake with turquoise water, on which the reflection of snow-capped mountains dances, overlooking plains punctuated by rows of vines as far as the eye can see. All this under a bright sunshine, nuanced by a refreshing sea breeze. Where are you? New Zealand of course! A perfect compromise between the “new world” and the “old world”, a country whose wines combine the exuberance of fruit so characteristic of the former with the natural freshness of the latter. The reputation of the wines of this country, which has 5 millions inhabitants compared to 30 million sheeps, continues to grow, and its Sauvignon Blanc is colonising the shelves of wine shops and supermarkets throughout the world. In fact, it is to this grape variety that New Zealand owes its fame. Or is it the other way around? The fact remains that it is here that the world’s most famous Sauvignon Blanc is made. When I make this observation, people get excited: “What about Sancerre, what about Pouilly Fumé? Of course, the Loire has been growing this grape variety for much longer, but who, apart from a few connoisseurs, knows that Sancerre blanc is made exclusively from Sauvignon blanc? On the other hand, every wine lover knows that New Zealand grows it – it’s the first information on the label! So much so that some consumers think it originates from New Zealand! New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has indeed become a brand in its own right.
A few facts
Today, vines have colonised the country from north to south, over a length of 1,600 km. Nevertheless, it is a small wine-producing country in terms of surface area, with 41,603 hectares, a third of the surface area of the Bordeaux vineyards. It produces less than 1% of the world’s wine production but exports more than 2/3 of its production. Sauvignon Blanc alone accounts for 26,559 hectares, or 64% of the planted area, and 85% of exports. The majority is vinified in the fresh and exuberant Malborough style. Pinot Noir overtook Chardonnay a few years ago to become the country’s second most important grape variety, vinified in styles as different as Martinborough and Central Otago. Next in line are Riesling, both sweet and dry, and Pinot Gris, both of which are becoming increasingly popular, especially in the South Island. Bordeaux grapes and Syrah are of course grown, but the climate does not always allow it.
New Zealand’s secret: a cool climate and a bright sunshine
New Zealand is two small islands, lost in the middle of the ocean. The climate is therefore cooler than the latitudes suggest. And the grape harvest, in this country down under, takes place between February and May, sometimes even in June for Central Otago. Most of the vineyards are on the east coast, the west coast being too wet for wine growing. The North has a subtropical climate, while the South is not far from Antarctica! The soils, when they are not too draining and require irrigation, are often rich and rainfall can be high. The country’s great challenge has therefore been to implement viticultural techniques against excessive vigour. This is where Richard Smart comes in. “The flying vine doctor », a viticulture expert for the New Zealand government between 1982 and 1990, reveolutioned wine growing thanks to his work on canopy management techniques, and greatly participated in increasing the quality of the wines in the country.
A little history
If there is one country that deserves the name “new world country”, it is New Zealand. Viticulture was introduced here by settlers, as in the rest of the world, but only two short centuries ago. The first vines were planted in 1819 in the Bay of Islands, north of Auckland, by the Reverend Samuel Marsden, a British Protestant missionary. As elsewhere, vines were planted to evangelise the indigenous people.
James Busby, the “father of viticulture” in Australia – he had introduced a collection of cuttings from Europe a few years earlier – established a commercial vineyard not far from there in 1836. Viticulture gradually spread throughout the country but its development was quickly halted by the arrival of phylloxera in 1885. The vineyards were gradually replanted with hybrid grape varieties, such as those grown in France at the same time, or with highly productive varieties such as Müller-Thurgau. It was not until a century later that the New Zealanders discovered their country’s potential for viticulture.
What propelled New Zealand to the forefront of the international wine scene was the success of the Malborough wines in the South Island, which had previously been considered too cool to grow vines. In 1973, the first hectares of vines were planted there by the Montana company, which has now become Brancott Estate (Pernod Ricard). In 1979, the first Sauvignon Blanc was marketed. Montana was soon followed by Australian David Hohnen, then head of Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, who founded Cloudy Bay in 1985. With the advice of Richard Smart, he developed a recipe that would become one of the industry’s biggest success stories.
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a Sancerre on steroids
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc’s distinctive feature is its exuberance. According to some specialists, this aromatic explosion could be explained, among other things, by the bright sunshine in this part of the world, where the ozone layer is fragile and the UV index can be 40% higher than in certain areas of the northern hemisphere. As an example, the main valley of Malborough Te Wairau produces ripe, intensely aromatic fruit. Its Maori name ‘Kei Puta te Wairau’ means ‘the place with a hole in the clouds’. The sky is clear, the sun is intense, the nights are very cool. The result: an aromatic bomb, an exotic punch in the face. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a Sancerre on steroids, with a unique aromatic profile: a stunning contrast between the herbaceous and the exotic character, often obtained by blending grapes from plots of varying exposure and ripeness.
Although often very technological, generally presenting only primary aromas, these wines are complex, offering a vast aromatic array: citrus fruits: grapefruit, lime; aromas from the vegetal family: green pepper, freshly cut grass, asparagus, boxwood, gooseberry; from the animal family: cat’s pee, sweat; exotic fruits: passion fruit, mango; from the floral family: elderflower, white flowers…
The « savvy » recipe
It is a well-tried commercial recipe: a UCD1 clone (90% of the surface area) on rootstock, very low planting densities (2,000 vines per hectare compared to an average of 7,000 vines in Sancerre), much higher yields (75-85 hl/ha, sometimes up to 110 hl/ha, compared to a maximum of 65 hl/ha authorised in Sancerre) in the vineyard.
Malborough Sauvignon Blanc aims to express varietal character more than terroir. As a result, commercial yeasts to enhance this profile are commonplace. The wines are fermented at low temperature, in inert tanks and under strict oxygen protection, to preserve fruitiness at all costs. The vegetal character and high acidity are usually compensated by a touch of residual sugar. Bottling is immediate and the wines are sealed with a screw cap, as is the case for 90% of New Zealand production.
The success of these wines is such that this style has become an international benchmark. So much so that in 2003, some South African producers were caught for adding artificial green pepper flavours to their wines to increase their attractiveness on the international market!
New Zealand from north to south
North of Auckland, despite an unfavourable subtropical climate, vines were first planted by Croatian pioneers. A cloud cover helps to temper an otherwise overly sunny climate. Rain at harvest time and fungal diseases are a problem. The paradise island of Waiheke, a short ferry ride from Auckland, offers better conditions and is the source of some very nice Bordeaux blends.
Gisborne, on the east coast, has long been one of the country’s top three producing regions, but has recently been overtaken by the increasingly successful Central Otago. At the same time, its flagship Chardonnay variety is suffering from the growing demand for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris grown in the cooler parts of the South Island, and Gisborne has been gradually deserted by the big producers.
Further south, Hawke’s Bay’s reputation has been built on Cabernet Sauvignon. A series of very successful vintages in the 1990s proved that the region could stand comparison with Bordeaux, although the average temperatures are lower. The Cabernet Sauvignon therefore sometimes struggles to reach optimum maturity and often needs to be reinforced by Merlot, which has gradually replaced it. The Gimblett Gravels, 800 hectares of gravelly soil in the former Ngaruroro riverbed, is the most suitable location for black grape varieties and has been the subject of a series of frenetic investments in recent years. It is one of the few wine regions in the world, along with the Graves in Bordeaux, to take its name from its soil. Syrah also shows a lot of potential here, and can look very Rhone Valley like.
Continuing our journey, some 250 km further south, we encounter Wairarapa. This region, whose Maori name means “glistening waters”, probably in reference to its many lakes, was the first to become known for its Pinot noir wines. Martinborough, the most famous of its sub-regions, is protected from the weather by the mountain range to the west, providing healthy growing conditions despite low temperatures. Yields are the lowest in the country and the vineyards are mainly run by small producers who are concerned with quality and the idea of terroir. The wines are very Burgundian and lively, thanks to the consistently cool climate.
Crossing the Cook Strait, a magical crossing at dusk, we arrive in the South Island. Passing Malborough, which has made the country’s reputation and represents more than 70% of the country’s wine-growing area, we reach in Canterbury, further south, which relegates Sauvignon Blanc to 4th place, behind Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, which are increasingly grown in this part of the island. Summers are long and dry with constant winds, which keeps the grapes healthy. Water is scarce and irrigation is usually required. The vineyards immediately near Christchurch are very exposed to the weather, but Waipara, an hour’s drive north, is better protected by the mountains. The vineyards are mainly boutique wineries, very small producers.
We end our road trip in the southernmost wine region of the world: Central Otago, which had only a handful of producers a decade ago and has become the third largest region in the country in a short time. The climate is continental, which in this respect sets it apart from all the others. Summers are very sunny and dry, but temperatures are low and frost is a risk all year round. Its signature grape variety is Pinot Noir. It gets a lot of sun here and offers an exuberant fruitiness with often high alcoholic volumes.
For this far away country, isolation is a challenge. Production costs can sometimes be very high, notably because of the importation of certain raw materials, yeast, barrels, corks, etc. However, this has not prevented New Zealand from joining the ranks of renowned wine-producing countries, and many professionals, both current and future, flock to discover its wines and winemaking techniques. Most of the production is dominated by large companies, but alongside these giants, very small winemakers distinguish themselves with their wines, which unfortunately we’d have to go and taste to the other side of the world to get the proof!
Written by Annabelle Mispelblom Beijer