New Zealand: Playing the long game

6th September, 2017 by Lauren Eads

One can scarcely talk about New Zealand wine without mentioning Sauvignon Blanc. Today, the two are inseparable, so intertwined that it’s difficult to remember what the country’s winemakers did before striking gold with Marlborough Sauvignon. Probably a lot of Müller-Thurgau and Chardonnay, the country’s most-planted white varieties before Sauvignon Blanc came on the scene. But it was with Sauvignon Blanc that they really made their mark, and unexpectedly so.

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 (£840 million). Imports into the US overtook those of Australian wine for the first time, rising 24% to NZ$460.6 million, while the UK market grew by 8% in value to NZ$381.8m. Sauvignon Blanc has done a great deal for New Zealand, and continues to drive it forward. But there is life beyond its distinctive gooseberry-and-passionfruit aromas – you just have to dig a bit harder.

GROWTH IN STANDING

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. Their arrival has not been sudden, nor are they remarkably new to New Zealand’s viticultural landscape. But as site selection and handling has improved over the past decade, their standing has grown. In 2008, Jancis Robinson MW noted a concerted effort by winemakers to raise the quality of their aromatic offer.

Almost a decade on, the result has been a growing patchwork of prettily perfumed Gewürztraminers laced with rose petal and ginger, Alsace-style Pinot Gris, rich in apple, pear and honeysuckle, and, more recently, a smattering of crisp Albariños, with bright citrus and a saline core. Taken individually, their impact on the international wine market is minor, with each representing a small – in some cases miniscule – proportion of New Zealand’s wine production. But while small in size, their diversity is vast. Each is worthy of individual analysis, with its own story and nuances. However, it is when drawn together as a collective that this assortment of varieties are gaining strength and are becoming a growing force in New Zealand’s wine repertoire.

Ben Glover, winemaker at Zephyr

MASTERING VARIETIES 

“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. He points out that New Zealand’s winemakers are “not just from the Hobbiton Shire of Sauvignon Blanc”, referencing the country’s other unshakeable association, the film versions of The Lord of the Rings.

“I believe the next discovery from New Zealand is our aromatics coupled with the regions they are grown in and the people behind them,” says 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. 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.”

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