New Zealand’s bright whites. Rosemary George picks her selection of the best new releases from the 2006 vintage

Winemakers heaped praise on their earliest and biggest vintage yet.rosemary george mw finds plenty to enjoy among the 2006 whites

With the consistent growth in vineyard area throughout the country, a record 2006 harvest in New Zealand was no surprise. There was a blip in 2005, caused by bad weather at flowering, but last year was the biggest vintage ever: 185,000 tonnes of grapes, up 11% on 2004’s previous record. More astonishing is that, for the first time, more than half the production came from a single grape variety from a single region – what else but Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc?

A canvas among winemakers across New Zealand produced cheerful reactions to the quality of the vintage. Steve Smith of Craggy Range in Havelock North believes 2006 ‘gave the best growing conditions to date’. Gary Duke from Hunters in Marlborough thought the balance of fruit and acidity ‘was excellent – the best for years’. Tim Finn at Neudorf in Nelson described it as ‘a classic vintage with ripe fruit but lower acidity resulting from the early harvest’.

In fact, 2006 also broke the record for the earliest vintage. Kevin Judd at Cloudy Bay in Marlborough recalls how they began the harvest in late February, whereas they usually start picking for the sparkling wine, Pelorus, in mid-March. This year they’d finished by mid-April. Escarpment Vineyards’ Larry McKenna said that in 20 years of winemaking in Martinborough, it was the earliest he could remember, too. And for Steve Green at Carrick Wines in Central Otago it was ‘a vintage where winemakers were totally exposed: they couldn’t blame the weather, the fruit or the viticulturalist’.

The one sober note came from Matt Thomson, winemaker at St Clair in Marlborough. He observed that, due to early water stress, the larger harvest had resulted in a wider range in quality than the consistent 2005s. ‘Nevertheless, the aromatic flavours were good, when you could have expected them to have been absent in such an early, and therefore warmer, harvest. The weather had cooled a little at vintage time, so perhaps we were saved by the clouds?’

While Sauvignon will increasingly provide the bulk of the crop, there is considerable interest in other varieties – most notably Pinot Gris. Judd admits to tinkering with it: using wild yeast and old barrels and releasing it at two years old. Matt Donaldson of Pegasus Bay in Waipara is more sceptical: ‘It’s very trendy and lots of people are planting it. Perhaps they are attracted by the lack of character?’ Certainly for my taste buds, most of the Pinot Gris new releases would have benefited from more ageing. Many were nondescript – especially in comparison to the Rieslings and lone Gewurztraminer (see overleaf).

McKenna was positive about the Rieslings, ‘with powerful flavours and some botrytis helping the complexity’, and wonders (as do I), why it is not more popular. 2006 examples all showed fine varietal character, with lovely lime and floral flavours and refreshing acidity. However, as the older vintages proved, it benefits from bottle age.

In tasting a significant amount of Chardonnay, which performed well in 2006, I also turned to the 2005 and 2004 vintages, as Chardonnay needs a year or two to develop in bottle. There is also a small but growing interest in Viognier, though I got my hands on just one example, from Vidal Wines in Hawke’s Bay. Esk Valley, also in the Villa Maria group, was responsible for my sole Verdelho (a brave attempt) and also the one Chenin Blanc – a variety that has never won New Zealand’s heart.

There’s a prevailing feeling of optimism as the 2006s reach our shelves, but also a pertinent caveat from John Buck of Te Mata in Havelock North, who warned of the intense pressure on suppliers – generated by the big buyers in the UK and US – to meet lowering price points. ‘The way to manage this is to over crop, add in most of the pressings and, in a year of lively acids, bottle the wines at 5-8g/l of sugar. So, in a volume sense, there is a lot of dull, ordinary wine created for a retail price point.’

That said, New Zealand’s wine industry shows all the signs of being dynamic and evolving. What follows are best of its newly released whites.

Young, lifted and white

Babich, Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay 2002 HHHHH

Rounded nutty nose and palate with well-integrated oak. Nicely understated with an appealing hint of maturity.

£12.99; HmH, Per

Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 2006 HHHHH

Closed, reticent nose, with rounded fruit on palate. No edges of acidity. Some depth and very harmonious. £14.50; HvN, Maj, Odd, P&S, Sel, Thr, WaD

Culley, Riesling, Marlborough 2005 HHHHH

Fresh, slatey aromas, with similar character on the palate. Firm, mineral flavours and a hint of honey. Needs a year’s bottle age. Delicious. £7.49; BoS, NDJ, Plt, Rsv

Grove Hill, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 2006 HHHHH

Spicy, pithy nose and spicy on the palate, with more depth of flavour than most. £9.49; GGr, GMV, Odd, Whi

Pegasus Bay, Riesling, Waipara Valley 2006 HHHHH

Lemony-lime fruit with slatey overtones and good acidity. A lovely concentration of fruit. Still quite closed but shows plenty of promise. £11.95; FWN

Jackson Estate, Chardonnay, Marlborough 2005 HHHH

Firm, oaky, nutty nose, with a similar nutty fruitiness on the palate. Substantial and rounded. £9.99; Add, IRo, Pip, T&W

Montana, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 2006 HHHH

Closed, pithy nose and palate, with firm green pea notes. Remains a sound benchmark for NZ Sauvignon and still good value for money. £6.49; Asd, Maj, Msn, Odd, Sai, Tes, Thr, Wai

Palliser, Riesling, Martinborough 2006 HHHH

Fresh, zippy, limey nose. Same on the palate with fresh acidity, a little residual sugar and good lime fruit. £7.95; J&B

Seresin, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 2006 HHHH

Dry, firm nose and pithy flavour. Good varietal character and depth. £11.50; Arm

Spy Valley, Gewurztraminer, Marlborough 2006 HHHH

Attractive spicy style – not too blowsy. Rounded fruit. Beautiful balance.

£8.99; Bib, Btl

Spy Valley, Riesling, Marlborough 2006 HHHH

Closed nose. Fresh acidity with honeyed fruit flavours. Lovely freshness, especially on the finish. £8.99; Bib, WSo, You

Te Mata, Woodthorpe Sauvignon Blanc, Hawke’s Bay 2006 HHHH

Solid, smoky fruit. Good weight. Drier than some. £8.99; Arm, DBy, EdS, Wmb

Trinity Hill, Sauvignon Blanc, Hawke’s Bay 2006 HHHH

Rounded stony nose and palate. Solid, but pithy with good fresh fruit. £8.99; Bth, Sel

Villa Maria, Reserve Chardonnay, Marlborough 2006 HHHH

Intriguing smoky, oaky nose. Repeated on the palate, showing good depth of flavour. £10.49; Wai, Wmb

Vynfields, Classic Riesling, Martinborough 2004 HHHH

Very slatey Riesling nose. Rich and honeyed. A maturing palate that benefits from some bottle age. £12; CWC, DWC

Esk Valley, Black Label Chenin Blanc, Hawke’s Bay 2006 HHH

Soft nose leads to a soft, lightly honeyed and grassy palate. Round finish. £8.49; Amp, Evy, NZH, SWS

Esk Valley, Black Label Verdelho, Hawke’s Bay 2006 HHH

Hints of honey and some grassy fruit. Quite rounded with balancing acidity. £8.99; Amp, Hax, V&C

Gravitas, Unoaked Chardonnay, Marlborough 2005 HHH

A tightly knit nose and palate. Firm but elegant fruit. £8.79; Loe

Nautilus, Pinot Gris, Marlborough 2006 HHH

Fresh, pithy nose and palate. Lightly spicy grassy character but no great depth. £12.99; BWC, Evy, Wmb

Spy Valley, Pinot Gris, Marlborough 2006 HHH

Delicate nose. Lightly grassy with a hint of spice. Attractive gently spiced fruit and a hint of sweetness. £8.99; Bib

Vidal Wines, Viognier, Hawke’s Bay 2005 HHH

Delicate nose with a hint of oak. Good round peachy fruit on the palate with some acidity, but not yet the benchmark mouthfeel of Viognier. £7.99; Evy, V&C

Waipara Hills, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough 2006 HHH

Sweaty, pithy style.Pungent with good acidity. £8.99; CeO, Cmb, HoT

HHHHH = *****

HHHH = ****

HHH = ***

Written by Rosemary George