New Zealand should go the whole Burgundy hog

New Zealand should go the whole Burgundy hog

A dispatch direct from your correspondent in Central Otago – which reminds me of the Parisian’s remark about the Massif Central: ‘massif perhaps; central, scarcely’. Otago is the remotest vineyard from Britain, the nearest to the South Pole, and 28 flying hours away. When you get there, vineyards are the last thing you expect to see on ravaged bad-land hills, steep gullies and bleached eroded rocks.

Even in long-settled Europe I often find myself wondering what the outcome would have been if a hillside two valleys away instead of, say, the Côtes de St-Emilion, had been planted with vines. It is easy to rationalise the concept of terroir long after the first trials, the first results and the long business of acclimatisation and adaption are part of history.

In New Zealand, a country so new (not only to the vine) that the names and histories, often even the telephone numbers, of the original pioneers are still current, alternatives are a burning question. Wine is a generations-long business only round Auckland. The first winemakers are still making the wine in Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and Marlborough – and even more so in Martinborough, Waipara and Central Otago. These are their vines now growing stout trunks, and you wonder at the audacity of cultivating what is still, wherever it is not cultivated, a dried-up desert. To make wine of precision equilibrium, of gentle juiciness, of the finicky Pinot Noir? Audacity has paid off further than they could possibly have hoped. In Central Otago I tasted eight or nine Pinots that would win prizes in the Côte de Beaune, and not a single one to discredit the region. You can’t help asking (nor can they) what their next act will be – either as to where or what to plant.

I wonder what put the Kiwis off Chardonnay. Success with Sauvignon Blanc is one obvious answer. I was depressed to learn that it accounts for over half of all New Zealand’s vineyards. The Anything But syndrome is another. Perhaps they thought Chardonnay was being overdone elsewhere. I would be the last person to deflect them from the Riesling which they are making better than any other young wine country, but it is Chardonnay that is making their very best white wines.

Pure, intense, not overweight flavours are New Zealand’s triumph. Such producers as Kumeu River in Auckland and Te Whau on Waiheke Island, Millton in Gisborne, Te Mata and Craggy Range in Hawke’s Bay, Ata Rangi in Martinborough, Pegasus Bay in Waipara and Felton Road and Carrick in Central Otago have already made classic Chardonnays that put New Zealand in the very front rank.

Written by Hugh Johnson