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New Zealand steps up Albariño ambitions

An increasing number of New Zealand winemakers are investing in the Spanish variety Albariño, believing it to offer the acidity, salinity and softness to become an appealing, albeit small volume, alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.

Tim Finn, co-founder of Neudorf in the Upper Moutere, Nelson

Native to north-west Spain and north-west Portugal, and Spain’s Rías Baixas in particular, Albariño is known for its saline, mineral character, bright acidity and aromas of citrus, apricot and peach, depending on the handling of the grape and the climate in which it is grown.

Currently there are just 27 hectares of the variety planted throughout New Zealand, minuscule in comparison to the 5,519 of Pinot Noir and 21,400 of Sauvignon Blanc. Of that, 8.5 hectares is planted in Gisborne, 6.9 in Hawke’s Bay, 3.9 in Marlborough and 3.1 in Nelson.

During a masterclass on ‘alternative and small plantings’ in New Zealand as part of an Aromatics Symposium hosted by NZ Winegrowers in Nelson last week, Simon Nunns, winemaker at Coopers Creek in Gisborne, said he was “quietly confident” about the direction of its Albariño, despite the country’s limited plantings.

“Albariño reminds you of sun, sand, seafood and holidays, and that goes with the salinity,” he said. “There has been a good uptake of Albariño in New Zealand simply because there is a degree of enthusiasm vis-à-vis our climate and the way we live our lives and the food we eat”.

Coopers Creek was the first to plant the variety in 2009, producing its first vintage from the 2011 harvest. Other NZ wineries currently experimenting with Albariño include Kono Beverages (Aronui), Stanley Estates, Neudorf, Nautilus, Waimea, Astrolabe, Rod Macdonald, Matawhero, Villa Maria and Sileni.

Slim pickings

From a viticultural perspective, Albariño is disease resistant and not as susceptible to powdery mildew as other grapes, making it an attractive prospect to winemakers. Drawing comparisons with Sauvignon Blanc Steven Wong MW, who presented the seminar alongside Nunns, noted that Albariño doesn’t have a perception in the market as being a high acid wine like Sauvignon Blanc, and that instead there was an “impression of softness” with Albariño.

In general, New Zealand doesn’t take the introduction of new varieties lightly, given the time and investment involved and the country’s comparatively strict laws on importing agricultural products. Just 60 white varieties are currently propagated and available to New Zealand winemakers. Currently, of the five clones of Albariño available in New Zealand, one originates from Spain and four from Portugal.

“It’s so hard to get material here,” explained Nunns. “Our border is very strong. No winemaker is concerned about that. We are lucky that a lot of fungal nasties don’t live here because we are so cautious about our imports. Not much material makes its way in. There are zero new cultivars in quarantine at the moment. We don’t have a conveyor belt. It’s very expensive to get the material into New Zealand. You have to want it and pursue it. From concept to execution would be about 10 years before you would actually have a wine in the marketplace. It’s a difficult thing to justify.”

Explaining Albariño’s suitability to New Zealand, Nunns drew on comparisons to Spain’s Rías Baixas, where rainfall can be as much as 2,000ml during the growing season.

“Rainfall in Nelson is probably around 900 to 1000ml. In Gisborne, where we are, it’s 964ml, and a lot of that tends to come in February, March and April. Albariño handles rain much better than most of the cultivars I have dealt with. It seems, at least at this early stage, that it is a cultivar that seems particularly happy here.”

Two Albariños were presented at the Aromatics Symposium by Simon Nunns, winemaker at Coopers Creek, and Steven Wong MW.

New kid on the block

While it is early days for the variety, interest and investment in the grape is growing, as winemakers work to develop alternatives to New Zealand’s most prominent varieties. Last year Bob Campbell MW suggested that Albariño could be the next white grape to emerge from New Zealand, with many producers now working with the variety. Other experimental white varieties attracting varying degrees of interest include Grüner Veltliner, Viognier, Verdelho and Arneis, however winemakers seem most keen to show off examples of Albariño.

“We are trying to show that we are not a one trick pony,” said Todd Stevens, winemaker at Neudorf, one of the oldest wineries in Nelson. Neudorf launched its first estate-grown 100% Albariño – Moutere Albarino 2015 – from grapes grown on its Rosie’s Block vineyard site, which account for just half a hectare of vines.

“We just thought we would try it,” said Stevens. “In New Zealand the last 40 years the French varieties have been well accepted and it’s now time to go to the next part of the journey and to see what these other varieties do. Albariño is definitely the new kid on the block. Of all the varieties it seems to be getting the most attention. There’s been this little flush of new varieties, which include Gruner and Verdelho and Arneis. The main two would be Gruner and Albariño, in terms of varieties coming through.”

“I think Albariño suits us very well,” added Tim Finn, owner of Neudorf. “It’s serendipitous that it’s a seafood type wine and we are in the biggest seafood port of Australasia. We have only been producing it for three vintages but we are really pleased with what it’s doing. But we are still so much learning. It’s absolutely brand new for us. It has the ability to give us a lot of texture I think we will explore that and just see what it does perhaps with oak and with a little bit of malo perhaps. We are looking at the textural characteristics. We are really just exploring the grape variety but we like the way it responds for us and what it is doing in a viticultural sense.”

Typically, Albariño is produced as a varietal wine and fermented in stainless steel for early drinking, but is also receptive to malolactic or barrel fermentation and maturation to produce wines of greater maturity and complexity.

Richard Painter, winemaker at Te Awa and Leftfield, and Graeme Allardice.

Instant appeal

Plantings of Albariño, and resulting volumes, remain tiny, with winemakers still in the early stages of experimentation and development. However the buzz already surrounding the grape would suggest signs for potential growth in the future.

“We haven’t been doing this very long, just a couple of vintages, but it’s been very successful,” said Michael Collins, viticulturist at Nautilus in Marlborough. “It’s just an alternative I think. It’s got an instant appeal. On the viticultural side it is low cropped, the same as Pinot Noir. We don’t make a lot of it so it’s all about concentration.

“We have been making Gruner for three years previous and struggled with it. I think Albariño has more instant appeal. It sits alongside Sauvignon Blanc and people like that in terms of freshness and acidity and that fruit forward appeal. It jumps out of the glass. It’s not often you get to work with a variety that you haven’t come across. It was a journey of exploration.”

Currently, much of the Albariño produced in New Zealand is sold on the domestic market, but the UK is one of its strongest international markets, according to Richard Painter, winemaker at Te Awa and Leftfield, which sits under the Villa Maria group.

“I think people like to experience new things,” said Painter on why he thought Albariño was gaining increasing recognition. “We sell Albarino mostly in the UK because a lot of consumers there are familiar with Rías Baixas and it is a trendy grape. We are not having to market the grape there whereas in Australia we are having to explain it. I don’t think we will ever top Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot, but certainly there’s so much potential with Albariño.”

The Aromatics Symposium was held at the Mahana Estates winery in Nelson

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