January 14, 2011 6:33 pm

Kiwi fruits

The range of wine styles available today from New Zealand’s North and South Islands is much more exciting than it was just five years ago

French wine producers and purist wine collectors have long held that it is simply not done to compare the accepted wine classics with wines made elsewhere in their image. They tend to mutter about the futility of comparing apples and oranges. My colleague Steven Spurrier was spurned by the French wine establishment for years after he organised the famous California v France tasting in Paris in 1976.

I find such comparisons hugely interesting and illuminating and I think it has been shown over the years that what the French are frightened of – denting the reputation and sales of their precious iconic bottles – simply does not happen. If my experience is anything to go by, the gap between the best of France and the best of the rest continues to narrow. And yet demand for Bordeaux’s first growths and Burgundy’s Grands Crus has never been stronger. Everyone knows that a TopShop handbag will hold a wallet just as effectively as one from Louis Vuitton, but that does nothing to shorten the queues for the latter.

What is important is the conclusion drawn from a blind tasting in which a great French wine is outperformed by an upstart at a fraction of the price. The other evening over dinner our host poured six Pinot Noirs, of which one came from each of Burgundy’s two smartest domaines, Romanée-Conti and Comte Georges de Vogüé, one was the 1995 Isabelle from Au Bon Climat, producer of some of California’s most burgundian Pinots, and the rest from three of New Zealand’s most revered Pinot Noir producers, Ata Rangi, Dry River and Felton Road. All the wines had had the benefit of considerable time in bottle; vintages varied from 2000 (Dry River and Felton Road’s Block 5) back to 1991 in the case of Ata Rangi, which acquitted itself very creditably next to the more youthful and energetic DRC 1992 Romanée-St-Vivant.

A bottle of Pinot Noir

The fact that more people around the table preferred the Kiwi 1991 to the world-renowned 1992 burgundy at more than £400 a bottle does nothing to diminish my admiration of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and my frustration at not being able to afford it, but it does encourage me to devote more cellar space to the top Pinot Noirs of New Zealand.

Long-term Pinot Noir and short-term Sauvignon Blanc are, however, far from the only wine styles that New Zealand can boast about nowadays. Tasting new releases and old favourites from New Zealand wineries has reinforced my impression that, while the recent grape glut has sent average grape prices tumbling to the levels of the 1990s, the range of styles of wines available today from both North and South Islands is much more successful and exciting than it was just five years ago. I even tasted a couple of promising Marlborough examples of Austria’s signature grape Grüner Veltliner, from Tinpot Hut and Forrest, that really did seem to have some of the spice and herbs of that variety.

Because acidities this far from the equator tend to be naturally high (a great advantage over Australia), aromatic white wines are a natural fit and the 2010 Rieslings and Pinot Gris I tasted were generally of much higher quality than a few vintages previously. The balance of sugar and acidity is now much more likely to be deliberate and successful rather than evidence of using sweetness to mask heavy-handed winemaking.

It seems that New Zealand growers, like their counterparts in Oregon, see even more potential in Pinot Gris than Riesling, with the other Alsace variety, Gewürztraminer, trailing a very distant third. The only Gewürz on offer at a recent showcase of new releases in London, Siefried’s 2010 from Nelson, showed just how fine a good Kiwi version can be. The 2010 Pinot Gris ranged from Spy Valley’s full-throttle Alsace-like version from Marlborough to another distinctive wine from the small Nelson wine region in the north-west of South Island, Woollaston’s super natural Tussock.

New Zealand Viognier still tastes like work in progress; I wonder whether it is left on the vine long enough to develop its characteristic richness. But at last New Zealand winemakers seem to be investing real interest and effort in their considerable quantity of Chardonnay grapes, so well-suited to the climate there. There are few copies of white burgundy – though this is hardly surprising in view of today’s widespread levels of dissatisfaction with prematurely aged white burgundy among collectors. Instead there are well-balanced, zesty wines with strong stone fruit characters; sleeker Chardonnays more focused on the mineral spectrum of aromas; and some really nervy wines that almost taste like dry Rieslings. Many of these New Zealand Chardonnays, even from the bloated 2009 and 2008 vintages, taste as though they will repay cellaring, so refreshing is their acidity.

It was notable in fact when tasting through the new releases from the winery formerly known as Montana (now called Brancott Estate with its owner Pernod Ricard’s eye on the US market, third most important for Kiwi wine after Australia and the UK) how much crisper and drier the wines are now than only a few vintages ago. And this applies equally to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. This is clearly how New Zealand’s dominant wine company sees the future.

The latest vintage of the country’s most famous wine, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2010, seemed sweeter and grassier in comparison, whereas that made by Cloudy Bay’s former winemaker Kevin Judd under his own Greywacke label is much more austere and ambitious. It looks as though it will last as long as the other whites made at Dog Point winery in Marlborough, which is effectively a centre for Cloudy Bay’s most celebrated dropouts.

The future of New Zealand Pinot Noir seems assured, as the vines age and the wines become more complex (although there are few I would guess will age quite as gracefully as that Ata Rangi 1991), but the quality of some Syrah and Bordeaux blends is also seriously encouraging.

Just one caveat: much is made of Kiwi wine’s aim to be fully sustainable by 2012. Why not start by outlawing needlessly heavy bottles?

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My wine of the week: Dom de l’Aujardière, Fié Gris 2009 Vin de Pays de Loire

A bottle of Fié Gris 2009

There are fashions in grape varieties, which makes life difficult for grape growers since it can take a good three years after planting to produce a commercial crop. At the moment I am sensing a tiny quiver of increased interest in the variety known in the Loire as Fié Gris, and in Chile as Sauvignon Gris.

Although it is a pink-skinned mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, it tastes like a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. It seems to have the extra richness of a good Alsace Pinot Gris but the crisp green acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc.

I tasted Dom de l’Aujardière, Fié Gris 2009 blind in a line-up of wines billed as Sancerres during a tasting at Buckingham Palace in my role as member of the Royal Household Wine Committee, and found it oddly fat for a Sancerre. When I discovered it was in fact a Fié Gris grown by Eric Chevalier at his innovative Domaine de l’Aujardière, I was forced to reassess it. I enjoyed its combination of richness and acidity, with a pure green vegetal streak to keep it refreshing.

The wine is made with minimal intervention, garnering maximum flavour from contact with grape skins and then the fermentation lees.

If you’re looking for something different, whether as aperitif or to serve with grilled or poached fish or a chicken salad, this could be just the job.

Where to buy

Lea & Sandeman seem to be the only current UK retailers and charge £14.95 for a single bottle purchase, £13.75 if it is part of a mixed dozen. Winesearcher also finds the wine at Wine House in Los Angeles.

For more tasting notes, visit jancisrobinson.com

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