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Wine tour operator, wine writer and lapsed physiotherapist. "Nature abhors a vacuum. I personally hate dusting."

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Thursday, August 4, 2011

NEW ZEALAND’S MAIN WINE VARIETIES




By Phil Parker – owner and tour guide – Fine Wine Tours Auckland New Zealand

NZ’s temperate climate favours white grape varieties (near 90% of plantings). The remaining grapes are mainly early ripening cool climate Reds like Pinot Noir and Merlot.


WHITE WINES

SAUVIGNON BLANC
Our most planted grape variety, which is our largest export wine and, allegedly ‘put us on the map’ internationally. (Personally I tend to attribute that to seismic activity, and the hand of the Almighty).  Nevertheless, the majority of our Savvy vines are in Marlborough, but some grown in Nelson, Central Otago, Waipara, Martinborough and Hawkes Bay.  The character which typifies the Marlborough and some Nelson Sauvignon Blancs, is the acidic, intensely grassy, green bell pepper and gooseberry quality of the aroma and flavour.  Hawkes Bay Sauvignons, on the other hand, because of the warmer climate have a less crisp profile and can have some tropical flavours like melon and pineapple.  Some winemakers take the option of allowing the wine to ferment and/or age for a short period in oak barrels.  This has the effect of softening and rounding out the wine, normally without any detectable oak flavour. As they age, after about three years, Sauvignon Blanc takes on vegetable characters – like tinned peas, and asparagus.


CHARDONNAY
New Zealand’s Chardonnays, our third most planted variety, are famous for intensity of fruit and concentrated aromas.  Winemakers have a multitude of options available to them to vary the flavour of the wine, including - varying periods of grape skin contact, different yeasts, types of oak, length of oak maturation, barrel toasting, and Malolactic fermentation (a secondary bacterial ferment that removes acidic flavours and gives smooth buttery characters).  Oak ageing for 12 months or more, imparts complexity, tannins and some oxidation, which softens the more assertive acids.  Flame-seasoned barrel treatment can add toasty characters.   Many regions grow Chardonnay successfully, however Gisborne has earned the title ‘Chardonnay Capital’ of NZ - and rightly so, for its full-bodied lush and fruity wines which typically show tropical and stone fruit characters. 
Hawkes Bay Chardonnays tend to taste more of citrus with some tropical flavours.  Chardonnay from Marlborough tends more to a mineral and citrus flavour profile.  Almost every region has a crack at this variety – with Auckland’s Kumeu River being acknowledged as one of the world’s best.


RIESLING
Riesling is the classic white wine of Germany.  The grapes are low cropping, ripen late in the season, and flourish in colder climates – where intensity of fruit flavour develops.  Our Rieslings are mainly dry or ‘off-dry’- a little sweet.  More than 80% of plantings are in the South Island – Marlborough, Canterbury, Waipara, Nelson and central Otago.  These cool climate areas help to create wines with crisp acidity, which enables some of the best to age for up to 15 years. Typical aromas and flavours can include citrus, floral (honeysuckle, orange blossom); and dried fruit- raisins, muscatel).  As Rieslings age, they can take on honey, apricots, and dare I say it kerosene/petrol characters.

PINOT GRIS
This is the same grape as Italian Pinot Grigio, (a distant cousin of Pinot Noir).  An increasingly trendy wine, it can be a tad hard to nail flavour-wise, but is commonly described as tasting like pear juice, with musky and spicy flavours – somewhere between a Riesling and a Gewürztraminer.  Plantings are widespread in NZ, from Central Otago to North Auckland.  The cooler regions in the south tend to produce crisper, light-bodied wines - whereas the riper grapes from the north can lead to some high alcohol, lush and full-bodied wines.

GEWÜRZTRAMINER
Okay – most people don’t buy it because they can’t pronounce it.  Get over it. ‘Gah-Vertz-Tra-Meaner.’
This is a variety best known in Alsace, the French wine region on the Rhine bordering Germany.  In NZ it has been under-appreciated wine, which can have gorgeous spicy ginger, cinnamon and Turkish Delight/rosewater and lychee flavours.  Gisborne, Marlborough and Hawkes Bay are the main regions, with the majority coming from Gisborne. Cooler regions produce more mineral flavoured wines. A fantastic match with spicy (not chilli-hot) foods e.g. Thai, Japanese.

VIOGNIER 
French Rhöne grape variety with delicate light apricot flavours. Pronounced – ‘Vee-yon-yay.’ Constitutes about .05% of NZ’s grape harvest.  It ripens early; often with high sugar levels and can result in quite high in alcohol wines. The über-groovy white wine, now that Pinot Gris has had its 15 minutes of fame.  Classic flavours are apricot and peach.

ARNEIS
Pronounced ‘Are-Nace’.  North Italian grape. A tad hard to nail flavour-wise but can be very high in alcohol, with restrained spice and stone fruit flavours. Only two wineries here producing it – Clevedon Hills and Coopers Creek.

RED WINES

 

PINOT NOIR
Is our second most widely planted grape variety.  The famous velvety wine of Burgundy is being produced in Marlborough, Canterbury, Waipara, Central Otago and the Wairarapa – with the latter two being our premium Pinot regions.  Pinot Noir thrives in cool climates, giving the wine a complexity of scents and flavours.  Not that it’s an easy grape to grow.  Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult. Tight bunches of small, thin-skinned grapes are prone to rot late in the season.  Even when the grapes are crushed, it takes a skilled winemaker to turn it into a successful wine.
Domestically, a large proportion of ours goes into Champagne style sparkling wines like Lindauer, usually combined with Chardonnay. Clear Pinot juice is fermented without any contact with the skins – hence a white wine results. 
Young Pinot medium bodied Pinot Noir tastes of strawberries and raspberries. In the prime Pinot regions of Central Otago and the Wairarapa, the wines can be rich, silky and full-bodied with black cherry and black fruit flavours. Some wine critics describe a classic Pinot Noir aroma as ‘Barnyardy’ – slightly poohey! 


MERLOT
Second most popular red grape is Merlot – Bordeaux.  Until recently its role was in blending with Cabernet Sauvignon, but now 100% Merlot is gaining popularity.  Merlot can be deceptively soft, smoky, fruity and silky and low in tannins – like a more powerful version of Pinot Noir. Aromas and Flavours are similar to Cab-Sav but more rounded and reminiscent of tobacco, chocolate and leather. Around ¾ of NZ’s Merlot is grown in Hawkes Bay, with the remainder from Gisborne and Marlborough.  The North Island Merlots are generally riper and softer and higher in alcohol than the South Island variety.


CABERNET SAUVIGNON
The red wine of Bordeaux, a red grape, more suited to hotter climates and “A tough nut to crack in New Zealand,” says Michael Cooper, wine expert. S till, a good vintage from Hawkes Bay or Waiheke Island can stack up against some of the world’s best reds.
And often blended with the other Bordeaux varieties Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc.  Newly fermented or under-ripe Cabernet can have a stemmy, herbal minty character. High tannins mean that this wine will cellar well, giving it time to mellow. Typical flavours from oak give cigar box characters. Fruit characters are typically blackcurrant, cherry, berry fruits, plums, and leather. 

SYRAH
Exactly the same grape as Shiraz.  Unlike the big tannic knock-down-drag-out Aussie’s, our Syrahs are soft, ripe, and medium to full-bodied, with earthy flavours of liquorice, spice, black pepper and cherries. Increasing popularity, makes Syrah our fourth most planted red with acreage increasing fourfold in the last 8 years.  Hawkes Bay has become Syrah Central, with Trinity Hill’s Syrah winning the 2006 Tri-Nations Wine Challenge, beating Australia and South Africa.


OTHER REDS

MALBEC
Fruity, earthy/spicy blackcurrant flavours, with high tannins.


PINOTAGE
A hybrid of Pinot Noir and ‘Hermitage’ (Cinsault), developed in South Africa.  Typically has smoky aromas and red, plummy fruit flavours

SANGIOVESE- Italian red Chianti grape. Grown in very small amounts in NZ. Earthy warm, spicy and savoury.


SPARKLING WINES

The vast majority of our sparkling Méthode Traditionelle is made from Marlborough Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  It used to be also called Méthode Champenoise before the French got all protective about the name.  The traditional method uses a secondary fermentation in the bottle, by adding more yeast and sugar after the first ferment is finished, to produce characteristic C02 bubbles.
NZ sparkling wine has been a huge success for us in UK, where over 250,000 cases found their way in 2007, with Pernod Ricard’s Lindauer leading the pack.  Small wineries find traditional sparklers very labour intensive and too expensive to produce; yet there are some boutique style examples like Quartz Reef, Nautilus, No.1 Family Estate, Morton and Amisfield.  Simple cheap, and often sweet sparklers are made by injecting C02 into still wine before bottling.

 

SWEET WINES

Dessert wines AKA Stickies are unfortunately rejected by a lot of wine drinkers, just because they are sweet. That’s a pity, as suitably aged dessert wines can be the perfect partner to a citrus pudding, liver pâté, or strong cheeses like Cheddars and Blues.
The most famous dessert wines come from Sauternes in France.
In NZ most Stickies usually are made from Riesling, Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc. They fall into three categories: Botrytised or Noble wines – where a beneficial mould called Botrytis (Noble Rot) has affected the grapes, and natural sugars are intensified by the action of tiny mould organism filaments which suck out water content.
Late Harvest wines – here the grapes are left for an extended period on the vine where they ripen even further and start to shrivel like sultanas.
Ice wines – most notably from Germany, Oregon and Canada, the grapes are harvested in the early hours of the morning while they are still frozen.  Crushing them straight away leaves the ice content behind and produces a sugar rich juice.  In NZ we give Mother Nature a hand - and tank freeze the fresh juice, filtering off the sweet content and leaving the ice crystals behind.
Because of the preservative quality of high sugar levels in the wine, and despite low alcohol, these wines (other than our Ice wines) reward cellaring for ten years or longer.

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