October 25, 2013 7:30 pm

Beyond Sauvignon

‘Once, other countries were deeply envious of New Zealand’s having an emblematic grape, but now it’s decidedly out of fashion’
New Zealand wine illustration©Ingram Pinn

No other wine-producing country is as dependent on a single grape as New Zealand is on Sauvignon Blanc. Nearly 60 per cent of its vineyards are planted with this prolific variety and about 85 per cent of all New Zealand wine sold in its prime export market, the UK, is Sauvignon Blanc. This aromatic wine is so crisp it tastes dry even though, in many if not most examples, quite marked sweetness lurks.

New Zealand may not produce that much wine – only a sixth as much as Australia – but it has long prided itself on maintaining the highest average wine price in the world. However, Sauvignon Blanc, with its generous yields, no need for expensive oak barrels and rapid turnaround in the winery, is far from expensive to make. Fans of this wine style can now easily find similar wines made elsewhere, particularly in South Africa, Chile, Australia and Touraine in the Loire – often at lower prices.

Although there was a time when other non-European countries were deeply envious of New Zealand’s having an emblematic grape (Argentina played the Malbec card hard and Chile considered pushing its Carmenère into the spotlight), this is decidedly out of fashion. Diversity is in, and it was notable that when three of New Zealand’s finest wine producers trekked separately to London recently, of more than 50 wines they showed, not one was a Sauvignon Blanc.

Felton Road of Central Otago, in the south of the South Island, is arguably the country’s best-known fine wine producer abroad. Its owner, Nigel Greening, showed his flagship Pinot Noirs and some fine Chardonnays and Rieslings. A pioneer of organic and biodynamic viticulture and already producing widely admired wines, he had thought they had little to learn. At a tasting five years ago he actually said that they did not propose to change their techniques. But last month he admitted that Felton Road was in a decidedly transitional state.

The distinguishing mark of most NZ wines is high acidity but, according to Greening, “for reasons no one really understands, in most New Zealand regions and especially Central Otago, Pinot Noir loses acid during fermentation and the pH rises. So winemakers would add acid to bring it back to what it had been at the beginning”.

But as their vines have aged, this pH increase happens less and less, and now they find there is no need to acidify musts from their older vines, especially those with the most calcareous soils.

And, mirroring a global trend we identified while writing the new edition of The World Atlas of Wine, they are also deliberately picking grapes earlier at Felton Road because freshness is now seen as a positive virtue. Whereas their harvest used to be spread over 30 days, it is now more likely to be compressed into 10, with more pickers. “The question is,” according to Greening, “how early can you nudge picking without tripping over green tannins?” They always picked earlier than their neighbours, but in 2012 they picked a good two weeks earlier, and Greening feels they could have picked even earlier than that – presumably helped by the fact that grapes grown biodynamically tend to ripen faster. I was certainly struck by how much drier, more elegant and subtle the Felton Road 2012 Pinots were than those made in earlier vintages.

Greening reported delightedly that when François Millet, the fastidious winemaker at the Domaine Comte de Vogüé in Chambolle-Musigny, visited them, he remarked that the Pinot Noir grapes arriving at the winery looked like those in Chambolle after they had been painstakingly sorted.

Another admired producer of biodynamically grown South Island Pinot Noir, Bell Hill, was showcased in London 10 days later. Whereas Felton Road is big enough to send its winemaker around the world most years, and to donate hundreds of cases of wine to help victims of the Christchurch earthquakes, Bell Hill has a mere six acres of vineyard – so showing off a vertical of their Pinot and, arguably even better, Chardonnay in London was a major sacrifice of their stocks.

Marcel Giesen (whose family has its own wine business) and Sherwyn Veldhuizen scouted out this small site near an old limestone quarry in Weka Pass, North Canterbury in the late 1990s. Because limestone is the informing rock of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, it is highly sought after by Kiwi vignerons and its precise distribution in the South Island is much discussed and disputed. Virtually everyone agrees however that it can be found in North Otago (and not in the much more widely planted Central Otago), in the Hawkes Bay vineyards of Lime Rock (who make an excellent Pinot Noir in this Cabernet and Merlot region), at Bell Hill’s neighbours Pyramid Valley and, of course, at Bell Hill.

When I visited this two-person operation a few years ago, their cabin on the property didn’t even have electricity. The contrast between Bell Hill (where production of their super-taut burgundian Chardonnay occasionally rises to a whole five barrels) and the typical opportunistic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc grape grower, hoping to make a quick buck by selling to one of the big label owners, could not be greater.

And then, two weeks later, I was treated to a historic tasting of a third biodynamic NZ Pinot Noir nut, Nick Mills of Rippon vineyard. Established by Mills’ father Rolf as one of the first in Central Otago, the vineyard lies beside a lake so beautiful that it has featured in a thousand photographs (including a Tesco own-label Sauvignon from the North Island). Mills was invalided out of New Zealand’s ski team just before the 1994 Winter Olympics, and redirected to wine via long stints in Burgundy. He showed us Pinots from 1990 that were stunning by any measure; and by dint of raiding his mother Lois’s cellar, it was a historic collection of mature wines that even he had not seen together before.

There should be absolutely no doubt that New Zealand has very much more to offer than Sauvignon Blanc.

Twitter: @JancisRobinson

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Kiwi treasures

I have included only wines that it is (sometimes only just) possible to find commercially today, but full tasting notes are on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com

Pinot Noir 2012

Felton Road, Central Otago

• Block 2 Chardonnay 2011 (£26.49, Noel Young, also Berry Bros, Uncorked)

• Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2012, 2011, 2010 (about £30, delicious and widely available)

• Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2012 (about £40 and widely available)

• Block 5 Pinot Noir 2011 (£49.95, Uncorked, also Handford, Smiling Grape, Fine Wines Direct)

• Block 3 Pinot Noir 2012 (£58.20, Hedonism Wines, also Handford, Bibendum)

Bell Hill, North Canterbury

• Bell Hill Chardonnay 2010 (£461.94 for six, Armit Wines)

• Old Weka Pass Pinot Noir 2010 (£329.94/case6, Armit Wines)

• Bell Hill Pinot Noir 2010 (£539.94/case 6, Armit Wines)

Rippon, Central Otago

• Rippon Mature Vine 2010 (£33.50, Lea & Sandeman)

• Emmas Block Mature Vine 2010 (£49.50, Lea & Sandeman)

• Tinkers Field Mature Vine 2010 (£56.50, Lea & Sandeman)

For stockists see Felton Road’s regular Bannockburn bottling of Pinot Noir 2012 beautifully demonstrates their new, drier style and is worth cellaring. £29.95 from Uncorked, London EC2, 020 7638 5998

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