Sweet White Wines
Cabernet Sauvignon and
Coopers Creek’s 2011 bottling was the first true example of Albariño from New Zealand or Australia. Called Albariño in Spain and Alvarinho in Portugal, this fashionable variety produces light, crisp wines described by Riversun Nurseries at Gisborne as possessing ‘distinctive aromatic, peachy characteristics, similar to Viognier’. With its loose clusters, thick skins and good resistance to rain, Albariño could thrive in this country’s wetter regions. New Zealand’s 38 hectares of bearing Albariño vines in 2020 are mostly in Gisborne (20 hectares) and Hawke’s Bay (7 hectares), but there are also pockets in Marlborough (4 hectares), Nelson (3 hectares) and Auckland (2 hectares). Of all white-wine varieties to emerge in New Zealand over the past decade, Albariño is one of the most exciting.
Still fairly rare here, with 20 hectares of bearing vines in 2020, Arneis (pronounced ‘Are-nay-iss’) is a traditional grape of Piedmont, in north-west Italy, where it yields soft, early-maturing wines with slightly herbaceous aromas and almond flavours. The word ‘Arneis’ means ‘little rascal’, which reflects its tricky character in the vineyard; a vigorous variety, it needs careful tending. First planted in New Zealand in 1998 at the Clevedon Hills vineyard in South Auckland, its potential has been explored by numerous producers, but after peaking at 40 hectares in 2016, plantings are now declining. Coopers Creek released the country’s first varietal Arneis from the 2006 vintage. Most of the remaining vines in 2020 are clustered in Gisborne (10 hectares) and Hawke’s Bay (9 hectares).
Branded and Other White Wines
Dog Point Vineyard Section 94, Craggy Range Les Beaux Cailloux – in this section you’ll find all the white wines that don’t feature varietal names. Lower-priced branded white wines can give winemakers an outlet for grapes like Chenin Blanc, Sémillon and Riesling that otherwise can be hard to sell. They can also be an outlet for coarser, less delicate juice (‘pressings’). Some of the branded whites are quaffers, but others are highly distinguished.
A nondescript crossing of Müller-Thurgau and the white hybrid Seibel 7053, Breidecker is rarely seen in New Zealand. There were 32 hectares of bearing vines recorded in 2003, but less than 1 hectare in 2020 (0.4 hectares in Central Otago). Its early-ripening ability is an advantage in cooler regions, but Breidecker typically yields light, fresh quaffing wines, best drunk young.
Do you drink Chardonnay? Sauvignon Blanc is our biggest-selling white-wine variety by far, and Pinot Gris is riding high, but neither of these popular grapes produces New Zealand’s greatest dry whites. Chardonnay wears that crown. It’s less fashionable than 20 or 30 years ago, but Chardonnay is our most prestigious white-wine variety. No other dry whites can command such lofty prices; many New Zealand Chardonnays are on the shelves at $50 or more. And although it has lost ground to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris, Chardonnay is still a big seller. Winegrowers are currently reporting a surge in sales, suggesting that Chardonnay is coming back into fashion. However, New Zealand Chardonnay has yet to make the huge international impact of our Sauvignon Blanc. Our top Chardonnays are classy, but so are those from a host of other countries in the Old and New Worlds. In 2018, Chardonnay accounted for 1.9 per cent by volume of New Zealand’s wine exports (far behind Sauvignon Blanc, with 86 per cent). There’s an enormous range to choose from. Most wineries – especially in the North Island and upper South Island – make at least one Chardonnay; many produce several and the big wineries produce dozens. The hallmark of New Zealand Chardonnays is their delicious varietal intensity – the leading labels show notably concentrated aromas and flavours, threaded with fresh, appetising acidity. The price of New Zealand Chardonnay ranges from under $10 to over $100. The quality differences are equally wide, although not always in relation to their prices. Lower-priced wines are typically fermented in stainless steel tanks and bottled young with little or no oak influence; these wines rely on fresh, lemony, uncluttered fruit flavours for their appeal. Chardonnays labelled as ‘unoaked’ were briefly popular a few years ago, as winemakers with an eye on overseas markets worked hard to showcase New Zealand’s fresh, vibrant fruit characters. But without oak flavours to add richness and complexity, Chardonnay handled entirely in stainless steel tanks can be plain – even boring. The key to the style is to use well-ripened, intensely flavoured grapes.
Mid-price wines may be fermented in tanks and matured in oak casks, which adds to their complexity and richness, or fermented and/or matured in a mix of tanks and barrels (or handled entirely in tanks, with oak chips or staves suspended in the wine). The top labels are fully fermented and matured in oak barrels (normally French barriques, with varying proportions of new casks); there may also be extended aging on (and regular stirring of) yeast lees and varying proportions of a secondary, softening malolactic fermentation. The best of these display the arresting subtlety and depth of flavour for which Chardonnay is so highly prized.
Chardonnay plantings have been far outstripped in recent years by Sauvignon Blanc, as wine producers respond to overseas demand, and in 2020 it will constitute 8.4 per cent of the national bearing vineyard. The variety is spread throughout the wine regions, particularly Marlborough (where 34 per cent of the vines are concentrated), Hawke’s Bay (32 per cent) and Gisborne (20 per cent). Gisborne is renowned for its softly mouthfilling, ripe, peachy Chardonnays, which offer very seductive drinking in their youth; Hawke’s Bay yields sturdy wines with rich grapefruit and stone-fruit flavours, power and longevity; and Marlborough’s Chardonnays are slightly leaner in a cool-climate, appetisingly crisp style.
Chardonnay has often been dubbed ‘the red-wine drinker’s white wine’. Chardonnays are usually (although not always, especially cheap models) fully dry, as are all reds with any aspirations to quality. Chardonnay’s typically mouthfilling body and multi-faceted flavours are another obvious red-wine parallel.
Broaching a top New Zealand Chardonnay at less than two years old can be unrewarding – the finest of the 2016s will offer excellent drinking during 2020. If you must drink Chardonnay when it is only a year old, it makes sense to buy one of the cheaper, less complex wines specifically designed to be enjoyable in their youth.
Today’s Chenin Blancs are markedly riper, rounder and more enjoyable to drink than the sharply acidic, austere wines of the 1980s, when Chenin Blanc was far more extensively planted in New Zealand. Yet this classic grape variety is still struggling for an identity. In recent years, several labels have been discontinued – not for lack of quality or value, but lack of buyer interest.
A good New Zealand Chenin Blanc is fresh and buoyantly fruity, with melon and pineapple-evoking flavours and a crisp finish. In the cooler parts of the country, the variety’s naturally high acidity (an asset in the warmer viticultural regions of South Africa, the United States and Australia) can be a distinct handicap. But when the grapes achieve full ripeness here, this classic grape of Vouvray, in the Loire Valley, yields sturdy wines that are satisfying in their youth yet can mature for many years, gradually unfolding a delicious, honeyed richness.
Only three wineries have consistently made impressive Chenin Blancs over the past decade: Millton, Margrain and Esk Valley. Many growers, put off by the variety’s late-ripening nature and the susceptibility of its tight bunches to botrytis rot, have uprooted their vines. Plantings have plummeted from 372 hectares in 1983 to 23 hectares of bearing vines in 2020.
Chenin Blanc is the country’s thirteenth most widely planted white-wine variety, with plantings concentrated in Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and Central Otago. In the future, winemakers who plant Chenin Blanc in warm, sunny vineyard sites with devigorating soils, where the variety’s vigorous growth can be controlled and yields reduced, can be expected to produce the ripest, most concentrated wines. New Zealand winemakers have yet to get to grips with Chenin Blanc.
A traditional low-yielding variety of Campania, in south-west Italy, Fiano is also grown in Sicily, Argentina and Australia. Only 1 hectare is planted in New Zealand, according to New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Register Report 2017–2020, but its age-worthy wines have been praised by UK writer Oz Clarke as ‘exciting’ and ‘distinctive’.
A California crossing of Gewürztraminer and Sémillon, in cool-climate regions Flora produces aromatic, spicy wine. Some of New Zealand’s ‘Pinot Gris’ vines were more than a decade ago positively identified as Flora, but the country’s total area of bearing Flora vines in 2020 will be just 2 hectares, almost all in Auckland and Northland.
Only a trickle of Gewürztraminer is exported (less than 0.1 per cent of our total wine shipments), and the majority of New Zealand bottlings lack the power and richness of the great Alsace model. Yet this classic grape is starting to get the respect it deserves from grape-growers and winemakers here. If you haven’t yet discovered the delights of this pungently perfumed, spicy variety, give yourself a treat.
For most of the 1990s, Gewürztraminer’s popularity was on the wane. Between 1983 and 1996, New Zealand’s plantings of Gewürztraminer dropped by almost two-thirds. A key problem is that Gewürztraminer is a temperamental performer in the vineyard, being particularly vulnerable to adverse weather at flowering, which can decimate grape yields. Now there is proof of a renewal of interest: the area of bearing vines has surged from 85 hectares in 1998 to 227 hectares in 2020. Most of the plantings are in Marlborough (37 per cent of the national total), Hawke’s Bay (19 per cent) and Gisborne (17 per cent), but there are also significant pockets in Nelson, Canterbury and Otago. Gewürztraminer is a high-impact wine, brimming with scents and flavours. ‘Spicy’ is the most common adjective used to pinpoint its distinctive, heady aromas and flavours; tasters also find nuances of gingerbread, freshly ground black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, mint, lychees and mangoes. Once you’ve tasted one or two Gewürztraminers, you won’t have any trouble recognising it in a blind tasting – it’s one of the most forthright, distinctive white-wine varieties of all.
Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s favourite white-wine variety, is currently stirring up interest in New Zealand, especially in the south. ‘Grü-Vee’ is a fairly late ripener in Austria, where it yields medium-bodied wines, fruity, crisp and dry, with a spicy, slightly musky aroma. Most are drunk young, but the finest wines, with an Alsace-like substance and perfume, are more age-worthy. Coopers Creek produced New Zealand’s first Grüner Veltliner from the 2008 vintage. Of the country’s 46 hectares of bearing Grüner Veltliner vines in 2020, most are clustered in Marlborough (31 hectares), with Nelson (8 hectares) a distant second.
Cultivated extensively in the northern Rhône Valley of France, where it is often blended with Roussanne, Marsanne yields powerful, sturdy wines with rich pear, spice and nut flavours. Although grown in Victoria since the 1860s, it is extremely rare in New Zealand, with 1 hectare of bearing vines in 2020, clustered mostly in Gisborne.
New Zealand’s most common variety 30 years ago, Müller-Thurgau is an endangered species. Most likely a crossing of Riesling and Sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau became extremely popular in Germany after the Second World War, when it was prized for its ability to ripen early with bumper crops. In New Zealand, plantings started to snowball in the early 1970s, and by 1975 it was our most widely planted variety. In 2016, however, there will be just 2.3 hectares of bearing vines – down from 1873 hectares in 1983 – almost all in Canterbury. Müller-Thurgau should be drunk young, when its garden-fresh aromas are in full flower. To attract those who are new to wine, it is typically made slightly sweet. Its fruity, citrusy flavours are generally mild and soft, lacking the crisp acidity and intensity of Riesling.
Muscat vines grow all over the Mediterranean, but Muscat is rarely seen in New Zealand as a varietal wine, because it ripens late in the season, without the lushness and intensity achieved in warmer regions. Of the country’s 25 hectares of bearing Muscat vines in 2020, 22 hectares are clustered in Gisborne. Most of the grapes are used to add an inviting, musky perfume to low-priced sparklings, modelled on the Asti Spumantes of northern Italy.
If you love Chardonnay, try Pinot Blanc. A white mutation of Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc is highly regarded in Italy and California for its generous extract and moderate acidity, although in Alsace and Germany the more aromatic Pinot Gris finds greater favour.
With its fullness of weight and subtle aromatics, Pinot Blanc can easily be mistaken for Chardonnay in a blind tasting. The variety is still rare in New Zealand, but in 2020 there will be 10 hectares of bearing vines, mostly in Marlborough and Central Otago.
New Zealanders’ love affair with Pinot Gris shows no signs of abating, and the wines are also starting to win an international reputation. The variety is spreading like wildfire – from 130 hectares of bearing vines in 2000 to 2519 hectares in 2020 – and accounts for 6.5 per cent of the total producing vineyard area. New Zealand’s third most extensively planted white-wine variety, with plantings almost quadruple those of Riesling, Pinot Gris is trailing only Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
A mutation of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris has skin colours ranging from blue-grey to reddish-pink, sturdy extract and a fairly subtle, spicy aroma. It is not a difficult variety to cultivate, adapting well to most soils, and ripens with fairly low acidity to high sugar levels. In Alsace, the best Pinot Gris are matured in large casks, but the wood is old, so as not to interfere with the grape’s subtle flavour.
What does Pinot Gris taste like? Imagine a wine that couples the satisfying weight and roundness of Chardonnay with some of the aromatic spiciness of Gewürztraminer. A popular and versatile wine, Pinot Gris is well worth getting to know.
In terms of style and quality, however, New Zealand Pinot Gris vary widely. Many of the wines lack the enticing perfume, mouthfilling body, flavour richness and softness of the benchmark wines from Alsace. These lesser wines, typically made from heavily cropped vines, are much leaner and crisper – more in the tradition of cheap Italian Pinot Grigio.
Popular in Germany, Alsace and Italy, Pinot Gris is now playing an important role here too. Well over half of the country’s plantings are concentrated in Marlborough (45 per cent) and Hawke’s Bay (19 per cent), but there are also significant pockets of Pinot Gris in Gisborne, Otago, Canterbury, Nelson, Wairarapa and Auckland.
Riesling isn’t yet one of New Zealand’s great successes in overseas markets and most New Zealand wine lovers also ignore Riesling. The favourite white-wine variety of many winemakers – especially those in the South Island – Riesling barely registers on the wine sales charts in supermarkets, generating about 1 per cent of the dollar turnover.
Around the world, Riesling has traditionally been regarded as Chardonnay’s great rival in the white-wine quality stakes, well ahead of Sauvignon Blanc. So why are wine lovers here slow to appreciate Riesling’s stature?
Riesling is usually made in a slightly sweet style, to balance the grape’s natural high acidity, but this obvious touch of sweetness runs counter to the fashion for dry wines. And fine Riesling demands time (at the very least, three years) to unfold its full potential; drunk in its infancy, as it so often is, it lacks the toasty, minerally, honeyed richness that is the real glory of Riesling.
After being overhauled by Pinot Gris in 2007, Riesling ranks as New Zealand’s fourth most extensively planted white-wine variety. However, between 2007 and 2020, its total area of bearing vines has contracted, from 868 to 665 hectares.
The great grape of Germany, Riesling is a classic cool-climate variety, particularly well suited to the cooler growing temperatures and lower humidity of the South Island. Its two strongholds are Marlborough (where 40 per cent of the vines are clustered) and Canterbury (36 per cent), but the grape is also widely planted in Otago, Nelson and Wairarapa.
Riesling styles vary markedly around the world. Most Marlborough wines are medium to full-bodied (12 to 13.5 per cent alcohol), with just a touch of sweetness. However, a new breed of Riesling has emerged in the past decade – lighter (only 7.5 to 10 per cent alcohol) and markedly sweeter. These refreshingly light, sweet Rieslings offer a more vivid contrast in style to New Zealand’s other major white wines, and are much closer in style to the classic German model.
Roussanne is a traditional ingredient in the white wines of France’s northern Rhône Valley, where typically it is blended with the more widely grown Marsanne. Known for its fine acidity and ‘haunting aroma’, likened by some tasters to herbal tea, it is also found in the south of France, Italy and Australia, but this late-ripening variety is extremely scarce in New Zealand, with 0.2 hectares bearing in 2020, north of Auckland.
Sauvignon Blanc is New Zealand’s major calling card in the wine markets of the world, often – but not always, due to the rising challenge from Chile – winning trophies at big competitions in the UK. For countless wine lovers overseas, New Zealand ‘is’ Sauvignon Blanc, almost invariably from Marlborough. The rise to international stardom of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was remarkably swift. Government Viticulturist Romeo Bragato imported the first Sauvignon Blanc vines from Italy in 1906, but it was not until 1974 that Matua Valley marketed New Zealand’s first varietal Sauvignon Blanc, grown in West Auckland. Montana first planted Sauvignon Blanc vines in Marlborough in 1975; its first bottling of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc flowed in 1979. In 2018, 86 per cent by volume of New Zealand’s wine exports were based on Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc is by far New Zealand’s most extensively planted variety, in 2020 comprising 61 per cent of the bearing national vineyard. Almost 90 per cent of the vines are concentrated in Marlborough, with further significant plantings in Hawke’s Bay, Nelson, Canterbury and Wairarapa. Between 2005 and 2020, the area of bearing Sauvignon Blanc vines will surge from 7277 hectares to 23,799 hectares.
The flavour of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc varies according to fruit ripeness. At the herbaceous, under-ripe end of the spectrum, vegetal and fresh-cut grass aromas hold sway; riper wines show capsicum, gooseberry and melon-like characters; very ripe fruit displays tropical-fruit flavours.
Intensely herbaceous Sauvignon Blancs are not hard to make in the viticulturally cool climate of the South Island and the lower North Island (Wairarapa). ‘The challenge faced by New Zealand winemakers is to keep those herbaceous characters in check,’ says Kevin Judd, of Greywacke Vineyards, formerly chief winemaker at Cloudy Bay. ‘It would be foolish to suggest that these herbaceous notes detract from the wines; in fact I am sure that this fresh edge and intense varietal aroma are the reason for its international popularity. The better of these wines have these herbaceous characters in context and in balance with the more tropical-fruit characters associated with riper fruit.’
There are two key styles of Sauvignon Blanc produced in New Zealand. Wines handled entirely in stainless steel tanks – by far the most common – place their accent squarely on their fresh, direct fruit flavours. Alternatively, many top labels are handled principally in tanks, but 5 to 15 per cent of the blend is barrel-fermented, adding a touch of complexity without subduing the wine’s fresh, punchy fruit aromas and flavours.
Another major style difference is regionally based: the crisp, incisively flavoured wines of Marlborough contrast with the softer, less pungently herbaceous Hawke’s Bay style. These are wines to drink young (traditionally within 18 months of the vintage) while they are irresistibly fresh, aromatic and tangy, although the oak-matured, more complex wines can mature well for several years.
The swing since the 2001 vintage from corks to screwcaps has also boosted the longevity of the wines. Rather than running out of steam, many are still highly enjoyable at two years old.
Pernod Ricard NZ launched New Zealand’s first commercial bottlings of an old French variety, Sauvignon Gris, from the 2009 vintage. Also known as Sauvignon Rosé – due to its pink skin – Sauvignon Gris typically produces less aromatic, but more substantial, wines than Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauvignon Gris is not a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris; nor is it a new vine, bred by crossing those grapes. Sauvignon Gris is a variety in its own right.
In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Gris is commonly used as a minority partner in dry white blends dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, but in Chile – like New Zealand – producers are bottling and exporting Sauvignon Gris as a varietal wine. In Marlborough, Sauvignon Gris has proved to be fairly disease-resistant, ripening in the middle of the Sauvignon Blanc harvest. Of New Zealand’s 101 hectares of bearing vines in 2020, 99 hectares are in Marlborough.
You’d never guess it from the tiny selection of labels on the shelves, but Sémillon is New Zealand’s eighth most widely planted white-wine variety. The few winemakers who once played around with Sémillon could hardly give it away, so aggressively stemmy and spiky was its flavour. Now, there is a new breed of riper, richer, rounder Sémillons on the market – and they are ten times more enjoyable to drink.
The Sémillon variety is beset by a similar problem to Chenin Blanc. Despite being the foundation of outstanding white wines in Bordeaux and Australia, Sémillon is out of fashion in the rest of the world, and in New Zealand its potential is still largely untapped. The area of bearing Sémillon vines has contracted markedly between 2007 and 2020, from 230 to 46 hectares.
Sémillon is highly prized in Bordeaux, where as one of the two key varieties both in dry wines, most notably white Graves, and the inimitable sweet Sauternes, its high levels of alcohol and extract are perfect foils for Sauvignon Blanc’s verdant aroma and tartness. With its propensity to rot ‘nobly’, Sémillon forms about 80 per cent of a classic Sauternes.
Cooler climates like those of New Zealand’s South Island, however, bring out a grassy-green character in Sémillon which, coupled with its higher acidity in these regions, can give the variety strikingly Sauvignon-like characteristics.
Grown principally in Hawke’s Bay (over half of the variety’s plantings) and Marlborough (29 per cent), Sémillon is mostly used in New Zealand not as a varietal wine but as a minor (and anonymous) partner in wines labelled Sauvignon Blanc, contributing complexity and aging potential. By curbing the variety’s natural tendency to grow vigorously and crop bountifully, winemakers are now overcoming the aggressive cut-grass characters that in the past plagued the majority of New Zealand’s unblended Sémillons. The spread of clones capable of giving riper fruit characters has also contributed to quality advances.
However, very few wineries in New Zealand are exploring Sémillon’s potential to produce complex, long-lived dry whites.
A Portuguese variety traditionally grown on the island of Madeira, Verdelho preserves its acidity well in hot regions, yielding enjoyably full-bodied, lively, lemony table wines in Australia. It is still extremely rare in New Zealand, with only 7 hectares of bearing Verdelho vines in 2020, mostly in Hawke’s Bay and Auckland.
Extremely rare in New Zealand, this aromatic variety is grown extensively on Sardinia and Corsica, and is also well known in north-west Italy and southern France. Often compared to Sauvignon Blanc, it yields dry, light-bodied wines, with peach, lemon and dried-herb flavours, woven with fresh acidity. According to New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Register Report 2017–2020, only 0.1 hectares will be bearing in 2020, planted in Northland.
A classic grape of the Rhône Valley, in France, Viognier is renowned for its exotically perfumed, substantial, peach and apricot-flavoured dry whites. A delicious alternative to Chardonnay, Viognier (pronounced Vee-yon-yay) is an internationally modish variety, popping up with increasing frequency in shops and restaurants here.
Viognier accounts for only 0.2 per cent of the national vineyard, but the area of bearing vines has expanded from 15 hectares in 2002 to 93 hectares in 2020. Over two-thirds of the vines are clustered in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, with further significant plantings in Marlborough (15 per cent) and Auckland (6 per cent).
As in the Rhône, Viognier’s flowering and fruit set have been highly variable here. The deeply coloured grapes go through bud-burst, flowering and ‘veraison’ (the start of the final stage of ripening) slightly behind Chardonnay and are harvested about the same time as Pinot Noir.
The wine is often fermented in seasoned oak barrels, yielding scented, substantial, richly alcoholic wines with gentle acidity and subtle flavours. If you enjoy mouthfilling, softly textured, dry or dryish white wines, but feel like a change from Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, try Viognier. You won’t be disappointed.
A German crossing of Gewürztraminer and Müller-Thurgau, Würzer is extremely rare in New Zealand, with 0.4 hectares of bearing vines in 2020, all in Nelson, where Seifried has ‘a few rows’ at its Redwood Valley Vineyard.
Sweet White Wines
New Zealand’s sweet white wines (often called dessert wines) are hardly taking the world by storm, with only a few thousand cases exported each year. Yet around the country, winemakers work hard to produce some ravishingly beautiful, honey-sweet white wines that are worth discovering and can certainly hold their own internationally. New Zealand’s most luscious, concentrated and honeyish sweet whites are made from grapes which have been shrivelled and dehydrated on the vines by ‘noble rot’, the dry form of the Botrytis cinerea mould. Misty mornings, followed by clear, fine days with light winds and low humidity, are ideal conditions for the spread of noble rot, but in New Zealand this favourable interplay of weather factors occurs irregularly.
Some enjoyable but rarely exciting dessert wines are made by the ‘freeze-concentration’ method, whereby a proportion of the natural water content in the grape juice is frozen out, leaving a sweet, concentrated juice to be fermented.
Marlborough has so far yielded a majority of the finest sweet whites. Most of the other wine regions, however, can also point to the successful production of botrytised sweet whites in favourable vintages.
Riesling has been the foundation of the majority of New Zealand’s most opulent sweet whites, but Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay have all yielded fine dessert styles. With their high levels of extract and firm acidity, most of these wines mature well for two to three years, although few are very long-lived.
Fizz, bubbly, méthode traditionnelle, sparkling – whatever name you call it by (the word Champagne is reserved for the wines of that most famous of all wine regions), wine with bubbles in it is universally adored.
How good are Kiwi bubblies? Good enough for the industry to export about 130,000 cases in 2018, although that accounts for less than 0.5 per cent of New Zealand’s overseas wine shipments.
The selection of New Zealand bubblies is not wide, but has been boosted in recent years by an influx of low-priced sparkling Sauvignon Blancs, sparkling Pinot Gris and the like. Most small wineries find the production of bottle-fermented sparkling wine too time-consuming and costly, and the domestic demand for premium bubbly is limited. The vast majority of purchases are under $15.
New Zealand’s sparkling wines can be divided into two key classes. The bottom end of the market is dominated by sweet, simple wines which acquire their bubbles by simply having carbon dioxide pumped into them. Upon pouring, the bubbles race out of the glass. A few other sparklings are made by the ‘Charmat’ method, which involves a secondary fermentation in a sealed tank.
At the middle and top end of the market are the much drier, bottle-fermented méthode traditionnelle (formerly méthode Champenoise, until the French got upset) labels, in which the wine undergoes its secondary, bubble-creating fermentation not in a tank but in the bottle, as in Champagne itself. Ultimately, the quality of any fine sparkling wine is a reflection both of the standard of its base wine and of its later period of maturation in the bottle in contact with its yeast lees. Only bottle-fermented sparkling wines possess the additional flavour richness and complexity derived from extended lees-aging.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both varieties of key importance in Champagne, are also the foundation of New Zealand’s top sparkling wines. Pinot Meunier, also extensively planted in Champagne, is still rare here, with 23 hectares of bearing vines in 2020.
Marlborough, with its cool nights preserving the grapes’ fresh natural acidity, has emerged as the country’s premier region for bottle-fermented sparkling wines (10 producers launched a promotional group, Méthode Marlborough, in 2013), but there are also some very stylish examples flowing from Central Otago.
The vast majority of sparkling wines are ready to drink when marketed, and need no extra maturation. A short spell in the cellar, however, can benefit the very best bottle-fermented sparklings.
The number of rosé labels on the market has exploded recently, as drinkers discover that rosé is not an inherently inferior lolly water, but a worthwhile and delicious wine style in its own right. The rising popularity of ‘2 o’clock lunches’ is believed to have helped sales. New Zealand rosé is even finding offshore markets (over 400,000 cases in 2018) and collecting overseas awards.
In Europe many pink or copper-coloured wines, such as the rosés of Provence, Anjou and Tavel, are produced from red-wine varieties. (Dark-skinned grapes are even used to make white wines: Champagne, heavily based on Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, is a classic case.) To make a rosé, after the grapes are crushed, the time the juice spends in contact with its skins is crucial; the longer the contact, the greater the diffusion of colour, tannin and flavour from the skins into the juice.
‘Saignée’ (bled) is a French term that is seen occasionally on rosé labels. A technique designed to produce a pink wine or a more concentrated red wine – or both – it involves running off or ‘bleeding’ free-run juice from crushed, dark-skinned grapes after a brief, pre-ferment maceration on skins. An alternative is to commence the fermentation as for a red wine, then after 12 or 24 hours, when its colour starts to deepen, drain part of the juice for rosé production and vinify the rest as a red wine.
Pinot Noir and Merlot are the grape varieties most commonly used in New Zealand to produce rosé wines. Regional differences are emerging. South Island and Wairarapa rosés, usually made from Pinot Noir, are typically fresh, crisp and often slightly sweet, while those from the middle and upper North Island – Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and Auckland – tend to be Merlot-based, fuller-bodied and drier.
These are typically charming, ‘now-or-never’ wines, peaking in their first 12 to 18 months with seductive strawberry/raspberry-like fruit flavours. Freshness is the essence of the wines’ appeal.
One of Italy’s most widely planted red-wine varieties – particularly in Piedmont, in the north-west – Barbera is known for its generous yields of robust, full-coloured reds, typically with lively acidity. Although increasingly popular in California, it is extremely rare in New Zealand and is not listed separately in New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Register Report 2017–2020.
Branded and Other Red Wines
Most New Zealand red wines carry a varietal label, such as Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends of the last two). Those not labelled prominently by their principal grape varieties – often prestigious wines such as Esk Valley Heipipi The Terraces or Destiny Bay Magna Praemia – can be found here. Although not varietally labelled, these wines are mostly of high quality and sometimes outstanding.
New Zealand’s sixth most widely planted red-wine variety, Cabernet Franc is one of the two parents (along with Sauvignon Blanc) of Cabernet Sauvignon, the much higher-profile variety with which it is so often blended. Jancis Robinson’s phrase, ‘a sort of claret Beaujolais’, aptly sums up the nature of this versatile and underrated red-wine grape.
As a minority ingredient in the recipe of many of New Zealand’s top reds, Cabernet Franc lends a delicious softness and concentrated fruitiness to its blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, admirers of Château Cheval Blanc, the illustrious St Émilion (which is two-thirds planted in Cabernet Franc), have long appreciated that Cabernet Franc need not always be Cabernet Sauvignon’s bridesmaid, but can yield fine red wines in its own right. The supple, fruity wines of Chinon and Bourgueil, in the Loire Valley, have also proved Cabernet Franc’s ability to produce highly attractive, soft light reds.
According to the latest national vineyard survey, the bearing area of Cabernet Franc will be 96 hectares in 2020 – well below the 213 hectares in 2004. Over two-thirds of the vines are clustered in Hawke’s Bay and most of the rest are in Auckland. As a varietal red, Cabernet Franc is lower in tannin and acid than Cabernet Sauvignon; or as Michael Brajkovich, of Kumeu River, has put it: ‘more approachable and easy’.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-predominant Blends
Cabernet Sauvignon has proved a tough nut to crack in New Zealand. Mid-priced models were – until recently – usually of lower quality than a comparable offering from Australia, where the relative warmth suits the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon variety. Yet a top New Zealand Cabernet-based red from a favourable vintage can hold its own in illustrious company and the overall standard of today’s middle-tier, $20 bottlings is far higher than many wine lovers realise – which makes for some great bargains.
Cabernet Sauvignon was widely planted here in the nineteenth century. The modern resurgence of interest in the great Bordeaux variety was led by Tom McDonald, the legendary Hawke’s Bay winemaker, whose string of elegant (though, by today’s standards, light) Cabernet Sauvignons under the McWilliam’s label, from the much-acclaimed 1965 vintage to the gold medal-winning 1975, proved beyond all doubt that fine-quality red wines could be produced in New Zealand.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Cabernet Sauvignon ruled the red-wine roost in New Zealand. Since then, as winemakers – especially in the South Island, but also Hawke’s Bay – searched for red-wine varieties that would ripen more fully and consistently in our relatively cool grape-growing climate than Cabernet Sauvignon, it has been pushed out of the limelight by Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Between 2003 and 2020, the country’s total area of bearing Cabernet Sauvignon vines will contract from 741 to 255 hectares. Growers with suitably warm sites have often retained faith in Cabernet Sauvignon, but others have moved on to less challenging varieties.
Over 87 per cent of the country’s Cabernet Sauvignon vines are clustered in Hawke’s Bay, and Auckland also has significant plantings. In the South Island, Cabernet-based reds have typically lacked warmth and richness. This magnificent but late-ripening variety’s future in New Zealand clearly lies in the warmer vineyard sites of the north.
What is the flavour of Cabernet Sauvignon? When newly fermented a herbal character is common, intertwined with blackcurrant-like fruit aromas. New oak flavours, firm acidity and taut tannins are other hallmarks of young, fine Cabernet Sauvignon. With maturity the flavour loses its aggression and the wine develops roundness and complexity, with assorted cigar-box, minty and floral scents emerging. It is unwise to broach a Cabernet Sauvignon-based red with any pretensions to quality at less than three years old; at about five years old the rewards of cellaring really start to flow.
Ransom, at Matakana, in 2007 released New Zealand’s first Carménère. Now virtually extinct in France, Carménère was once widely grown in Bordeaux and still is in Chile, where, until the 1990s, it was often mistaken for Merlot. In Italy it was long thought to be Cabernet Franc.
In 1988, viticulturist Alan Clarke imported Cabernet Franc cuttings here from Italy. Planted by Robin Ransom in 1997, the grapes ripened about the same time as the rest of his Cabernet Franc, but the look of the fruit and the taste of the wine were ‘totally different’. So Ransom arranged DNA testing at the University of Adelaide. The result? His Cabernet Franc vines are in fact Carménère.
Only 1 hectare of Carménère has been recorded in New Zealand, and the variety is not listed separately in New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Register Report 2017–2020.
Chambourcin is one of the more highly rated French hybrids, well known in Muscadet for its good disease-resistance and bold, crimson hue. Rare in New Zealand (with 4 hectares of bearing vines in 2020), it is most often found as a varietal red in Northland.
Grown in the north of Italy, where it produces purple-flushed, fruity, supple reds, usually enjoyed young, Dolcetto is extremely rare in New Zealand. Only 2 hectares of bearing vines have been recorded in New Zealand, mostly in Auckland, and the variety is not listed separately in New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Register Report 2017–2020.
Gamay Noir is single-handedly responsible for the seductively scented and soft red wines of Beaujolais. The grape is still very rare in New Zealand, with 10 hectares of bearing vines in 2020, mostly in Hawke’s Bay. In the Omaka Springs Vineyard in Marlborough, Gamay ripened later than Cabernet Sauvignon (itself an end-of-season ripener), with higher levels of acidity than in Beaujolais, but at Te Mata’s Woodthorpe Terraces Vineyard in Hawke’s Bay, the crop is harvested as early as mid-March.
Grenache, one of the world’s most extensively planted grape varieties, thrives in the hot, dry vineyards of Spain and southern France. It is also yielding exciting wines in Australia, especially from old, unirrigated, bush-pruned vines, but is exceedingly rare in New Zealand, with a total producing area in 2020 of 1 hectare, all in Hawke’s Bay.
Cultivated traditionally in the vineyards of Trentino-Alto Adige, in north-east Italy, Lagrein yields deeply coloured, slightly astringent reds with fresh acidity and plum/cherry flavours, firm and strong. The area of bearing vines in New Zealand will leap from 2 hectares in 2015 to 10 hectares in 2020, mostly in Hawke’s Bay (8 hectares), but also in Marlborough and Nelson.
With a rise from 25 hectares of bearing vines in 1998 to 120 hectares in 2020, this old Bordeaux variety is starting to make its presence felt in New Zealand, where nearly 75 per cent of all plantings are clustered in Hawke’s Bay (most of the rest are in Auckland). It is often used as a blending variety, adding brilliant colour and rich, sweet-fruit flavours to its blends with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Numerous unblended Malbecs have also been released recently, possessing loads of flavour and often the slight rusticity typical of the variety (or at least some of the clones established here).
Once famous, but today rare, Marzemino is cultivated in northern Italy, where it typically yields light, plummy reds. Established in New Zealand in 1995, Marzemino has been made commercially by Pernod Ricard NZ under the Church Road brand since 2005, but is not listed separately in New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Register Report 2017–2020.
Pinot Noir is New Zealand’s red-wine calling card on the world stage, but our Merlots are also proving competitive. Interest in this most extensively cultivated red-wine grape in Bordeaux is especially strong in Hawke’s Bay. Everywhere in Bordeaux – the world’s greatest red-wine region – except in the Médoc and Graves districts, the internationally higher-profile Cabernet Sauvignon variety plays second fiddle to Merlot. The elegant, fleshy wines of Pomerol and St Émilion bear delicious testimony to Merlot’s capacity to produce great, yet relatively early-maturing, reds.
In New Zealand, after initial preoccupation with the more austere and slowly evolving Cabernet Sauvignon, the rich, rounded flavours and (more practically) earlier-ripening ability of Merlot are now fully appreciated. Poor set can be a major drawback with the older clones, reducing yields, but Merlot ripens ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon, a major asset in cooler wine regions, especially in vineyards with colder clay soils. Merlot grapes are typically lower in tannin and higher in sugar than Cabernet Sauvignon’s; its wines are thus silkier and a shade stronger in alcohol.
Hawke’s Bay has 87.5 per cent of New Zealand’s bearing Merlot vines in 2020; the rest are clustered in Gisborne, Auckland and Marlborough. The country’s fifth most widely planted variety, Merlot covers well over four times the area of Cabernet Sauvignon. Between 2003 and 2020, the total area of bearing Merlot vines barely changed, from 1249 to 1197 hectares, but in most vintages, the wines offer terrific value.
Merlot’s key role in New Zealand was traditionally that of a minority blending variety, bringing a soft, mouthfilling richness and floral, plummy fruitiness to its marriages with the predominant Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, with a host of straight Merlots and Merlot-predominant blends on the market, this aristocratic grape is fully recognised as a top-flight wine in its own right.
Montepulciano is widely planted across central Italy, yielding deeply coloured, ripe wines with good levels of alcohol, extract and flavour. In the Abruzzi, it is the foundation of the often superb-value Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and in the Marches it is the key ingredient in the noble Rosso Conero.
In New Zealand, Montepulciano is a rarity and there has been confusion between the Montepulciano and Sangiovese varieties. Some wines may have been incorrectly labelled. According to the latest national vineyard survey, between 2005 and 2020, New Zealand’s area of bearing Montepulciano vines will expand slightly from 6 to 8 hectares (mostly in Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson and Marlborough).
Nebbiolo is the foundation of Piedmont’s most majestic red wines – Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara – renowned for their complex leather and tar flavours, powerful tannins and great longevity. In New Zealand, only 1 hectare of vines will be bearing in 2020, mostly in Marlborough.
This traditional Bordeaux variety lost popularity in the region, due to its habit of ripening very late in the season, or not ripening at all in cool vintages. Petit Verdot means ‘Small Green’ – a reference to the grape’s little berries and often unripe, ‘green’ flavours. However, this thick-skinned variety has good disease resistance and high levels of tannin. Petit Verdot is today slowly gaining ground in Spain, Italy, Australia and North and South America. In New Zealand, there will be 9 hectares of bearing vines in 2020, concentrated in Auckland and Hawke’s Bay. Stonyridge, on Waiheke Island, describes Petit Verdot as ‘like a supercharged Cabernet … very high in tannin, colour, alcohol and acidity’.
New Zealand Pinot Noir enjoys strong overseas demand and there are now countless Pinot Noir labels, as producers launch second and even third-tier labels, as well as single-vineyard bottlings (and others under ‘buyer’s own’ and export-only brands you and I have never heard of). The wines are enjoying notable success in international competitions, but you need to be aware that most of the world’s elite Pinot Noir producers, especially in Burgundy, do not enter. Between 2000 and 2020, New Zealand’s area of bearing Pinot Noir vines is expanding from 1126 hectares to 5719 hectares, makng it the country’s most widely planted red-wine variety (far ahead of Merlot, with 1197 hectares).
Pinot Noir is the princely grape variety of red Burgundy. Cheaper wines typically display light, raspberry-evoking flavours, but great Pinot Noir has substance, suppleness and a gorgeous spread of flavours: cherries, fruit cake, spice and plums.
Pinot Noir is now New Zealand’s most internationally acclaimed red-wine style. Nearly half of the country’s total Pinot Noir plantings are in Marlborough, and the variety is also well established in Otago (27 per cent), Wairarapa (9 per cent), Canterbury (7.5 per cent), Hawke’s Bay and Nelson.
Yet Pinot Noir is a frustrating variety to grow. Because it buds early, it is vulnerable to spring frosts; its compact bunches are also very prone to rot. One crucial advantage is that it ripens early, well ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon. Low cropping and the selection of superior clones are essential aspects of the production of fine wine.
Martinborough (initially) and Central Otago have enjoyed the highest profile for Pinot Noir over the past 30 years. As their output of Pinot Noir has expanded, average prices have fallen, reflecting the arrival of a tidal wave of ‘entry-level’ (drink-young) wines.
Of the other small regions, Nelson and Canterbury (especially Waipara) are also enjoying success. Marlborough’s potential for the production of outstanding – but still widely underrated – Pinot Noir, in sufficient volumes to supply the burgeoning international demand, has also been tapped.
Popular in New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s, Pinotage is today overshadowed by more glamorous varieties, with just 19 hectares of bearing vines in 2020. Pinotage now ranks as the country’s ninth most extensively planted red-wine variety, behind even Pinot Meunier and Tempranillo.
Pinotage is a cross of the great Burgundian grape, Pinot Noir, and Cinsaut, a heavy-cropping variety popular in the south of France. Cinsaut’s typically ‘meaty, chunky sort of flavour’ (in Jancis Robinson’s words) is also characteristic of Pinotage. Valued for its reasonably early-ripening and disease-resistant qualities, and good yields, its plantings are mostly in Gisborne (32 per cent), Auckland (21 per cent), Hawke’s Bay (18 per cent) and Northland (16 per cent).
A well-made Pinotage displays a slightly gamey bouquet and a smooth, berryish, peppery palate that can be reminiscent of a southern Rhône. It matures swiftly and usually peaks within two or three years of the vintage.
This Austrian variety is known for its deeply coloured, silky-smooth reds. It buds early, so is prone to frost damage, but ripens well ahead of Pinot Noir. Judge Rock imported the vine in 2001, but St Laurent is still extremely rare in New Zealand, with just 1 hectare of bearing vines in 2020, clustered in Waipara, Otago and Marlborough.
Sangiovese, Italy’s most extensively planted red-wine variety, is a rarity in New Zealand. Cultivated as a workhorse grape throughout central Italy, in Tuscany it is the foundation of such famous reds as Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. Here, Sangiovese has sometimes been confused with Montepulciano and its plantings are not expanding. Only 6 hectares of Sangiovese vines will be bearing in 2020, mostly in Auckland and Hawke’s Bay.
Hawke’s Bay and the upper North Island (especially Waiheke Island) have a hot, new-ish red-wine variety, attracting growing international acclaim. The classic ‘Syrah’ of the Rhône Valley, in France, and Australian ‘Shiraz’ are in fact the same variety. On the rocky, baking slopes of the upper Rhône Valley, and in several Australian states, this noble grape yields red wines renowned for their outstanding depth of cassis, plum and black-pepper flavours.
Syrah was well known in New Zealand a century ago. Government viticulturist S.F. Anderson wrote in 1917 that Shiraz was being ‘grown in nearly all our vineyards [but] the trouble with this variety has been an unevenness in ripening its fruit’. For today’s winemakers, the problem has not changed: Syrah has never favoured a too-cool growing environment (wines that are not fully ripe show distinct tomato or tamarillo characters). It needs sites that are relatively hot during the day and retain the heat at night, achieving ripeness in Hawke’s Bay late in the season, at about the same time as Cabernet Sauvignon. To curb its natural vigour, stony, dry, low-fertility sites or warm hillside sites are crucial.
In 2020 some 443 hectares of Syrah will be bearing – a steep rise from 62 hectares in 2000. Syrah is now New Zealand’s third most widely planted red-wine variety, behind Pinot Noir and Merlot, but well ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. Over 75 per cent of the vines are in Hawke’s Bay, with most of the rest in Auckland and Northland (although there are pockets as far south as Central Otago).
Syrah’s potential in this country’s warmer vineyard sites is finally being tapped. The top wines possess rich, vibrant blackcurrant, plum and black-pepper flavours, with an enticingly floral bouquet, and are winning growing international applause.
Could Syrah replace Bordeaux-style Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends over the next decade or two as the principal red-wine style from Hawke’s Bay and the upper North Island? Don’t rule it out.
Although extremely rare in New Zealand, Tannat is well known in south-west France, especially as a key ingredient in the dark, firm, tannic reds of Madiran. Tannat is also a star variety in Uruguay, yielding firm, fragrant reds with rich blackberry flavours. According to New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Register Report 2017–2020, only 2 hectares of Tannat vines will be bearing in 2020, in Northland, Hawke’s Bay and Auckland.
The star grape of Rioja, Tempranillo is grown extensively across northern and central Spain, where it yields strawberry, spice and tobacco-flavoured reds, full of personality. Barrel-aged versions mature well, developing great complexity. The great Spanish variety is starting to spread into the New World, but is still rare in New Zealand, with 20 hectares of bearing vines in 2020, mostly in Hawke’s Bay (12 hectares) and Marlborough (3 hectares).
Touriga Nacional is the most prized blending variety in the traditional ports of the Douro Valley of Portugal, and is also used widely in the Dao region for table reds. The low-cropping vines produce small berries that yield sturdy, concentrated, structured wines with high tannin levels. However, Touriga Nacional is extremely rare here and is not listed separately in New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Register Report 2017–2020.
In California, where it is extensively planted, Zinfandel produces muscular, heady reds that can approach a dry port style. It is believed to be identical to the Primitivo variety, which yields highly characterful, warm, spicy reds in southern Italy. There will be only 2 hectares of bearing Zinfandel vines in New Zealand in 2020, clustered in Hawke’s Bay, with no expansion projected. Alan Limmer, formerly of Stonecroft winery in Hawke’s Bay, believes ‘Zin’ has potential here, ‘if you can stand the stress of growing a grape that falls apart at the first sign of a dubious weather map!’
Austria’s most popular red-wine variety is a crossing of Blaufränkisch and St Laurent. It’s a naturally high-yielding variety, but cropped lower can produce appealing, velvety reds, usually at their best when young. Zweigelt is extremely rare in New Zealand, with 3 hectares believed to be planted, mostly in Nelson and Marlborough (but the variety is not listed separately in New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Register Report 2017–2020).