NZ winemakers ‘not just from the Hobbiton Shire of Sauvignon Blanc’

Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir will always rule the roost in New Zealand, at least for the foreseeable future, but new opportunities are emerging for its lesser-known aromatic varieties – the country’s “next discovery” – believes one winemaker.

Today Sauvignon Blanc dominates New Zealand wine exports, accounting for 85.6% in 2016 and 74% of its total production, with the majority coming from Marlborough. Driven by Sauvignon, the value of New Zealand’s wine exports increased by 10% in 2016 to NZ$1.57 billion. Imports into the US overtook those of Australian wine for the first time, rising 24% to $460.6 billion, while the UK market grew 8% in value to $381.8m.

But while Sauvignon Blanc has defined New Zealand’s winemaking landscape over the past 10 years, the country’s winemakers have far more to offer. Earlier this year New Zealand Winegrowers hosted a two-day Aromatics Symposium for international journalists, sommeliers and buyers in Nelson, exploring New Zealand’s oft-unsung array of aromatic white varieties. These include the Alsatian noble varieties of Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling, but also Albariño, Grüner Veltliner and Viognier, to name a few.

Aromatics ‘next discovery’ from New Zealand

“We are busy down under, continuing to work hard to master these ‘other’ varieties, their nuances through site selection, vine age, and through innovative youthful winegrowing,” says Ben Glover, winemaker at Zephyr, and former winemaker at Accolade, pointing out that New Zealand’s winemakers are “not just from the Hobbiton Shire of Sauvignon Blanc”, referencing the country’s other unshakeable association, The Lord of the Rings. (Glover, for example, is also experimenting with orange wine, having producing a field blend of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc called Agent)

“I believe the next discovery, the next tease, from New Zealand, is our aromatics coupled with the regions they are grown and the people behind them,” said Glover, whose Zephyr family winery bills itself as an aromatic specialist and produces Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, alongside Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

“These wines have been simmering on the stove for some time now. New Zealand lends itself to these styles. We have a range of maritime and continental climates; moderated by a cool breeze, with high diurnal temperatures (especially in the Southern Island). This provides purity, structure and brilliant acidity, perfect for the aromatic family.”

While Pinot Gris is the biggest of New Zealand’s aromatics, accounting for 2,440ha – more than treble its closest aromatic partner, Riesling, at 752ha – it is Albarino that is, for now, creating a lot of buzz, despite accounting for just 27 hectares.

“It’s a great grape variety, suits NZ conditions well and early indications are that it promises to be a high performer,” says Bob Campbell MW, critic and expert on New Zealand wine. “On the other hand it is tricky to pronounce. Consumer acceptance is going to be the key and there is simply not enough Albarino being produced at this stage get a good fix on the wine’s marketability.”

Coopers Creek, which has vineyards in Auckland, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough and Central Otago, was the first winery to plant Albariño 2009, with ambitions to expand its offer on international markets. Other wineries now working with grape including Kono Beverages (Aronui), Stanley Estates, Neudorf, Nautilus, Waimea, Astrolabe, Rod Macdonald, Matawhero, Villa Maria and Sileni.

“Albariño seems very happy in our environment,” said Simon Nunns, winemaker at Coopers Creek. “The wines are distinctive, yet clearly varietal. It matches our summers and our culture. Smelling NZ Albariño makes one think of sun, surf, seafood, summertime and sand – it is a vinous passport to a summer holiday and the beach.”

Explaining the grape’s stylistic diversity across New Zealand, Nunns points toward its acid structure as the defining factor, noting that the variety “holds acid well in our warmer climates”, with that acid becoming more noticeable as you move into cooler regions such as Marlborough, compared with Gisborne. “As a result warmer regions produce Albariños with more apparent flesh and richness and cooler regions produce wines that are more linear and precise.”

Ben Glover, winemaker and ‘janitor’ at Zephyr wines in Marlborough

‘Consumers need to be interested in something beyond the six quid Sauvy’

Currently, the majority of aromatic varieties are consumed by New Zealand’s domestic market, with a very small proportion produced, let along exported. But demand for something other than Sauvignon Blanc is increasing.

“Pinot Gris started to trickle on to the NZ market in the late 1980s and is now firmly established in NZ as part of our white wine offering,” said Nunns. “From a global perspective, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris are all well established, but many international drinkers may not yet view them as something they could get from a New Zealand producer. Are consumers looking for something new? Well, some of them certainly are.”

Some producers simply don’t have the volume to increase exports, and in any case prefer to remain at the boutique end of the market when it comes to aromatic varieties. For now, their natural home, for now, is in the adventurous on-trade or independent retailer.

As Glover notes: “These wines have always been there for the discovering, but one needs to know where to look, where to fossick, and needs to actually be interested in something beyond the ‘six quid Sauvy’.”

With Marlborough at the upper limit of its production capacity, and populist styles of wine always at risk of falling out of fashion, it’s probably not a bad idea for New Zealand to have something in its back pocket. For consumers enamored by Sauvignon Blanc, it isn’t a massive leap to any number of New Zealand’s aromatic varieties.

“As we don’t hold a mortgage over our aromatics (like we do for Sauvignon Blanc) and aromatic styles of wine are really only created to keep the winemakers in us happy, you will find that they tend to be exceptional examples of what they stand for. We have the varieties on offer, if you are willing to show some tenacity and willing to discover, you will be rewarded.”

For more on New Zealand’s aromatic varieties, see the August issue of the drinks business.

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