TOM STEVENSON heads for the South Seas to assess the current and potential quality of New Zealand sparkling wine.I touched down in Queenstown, Otago, where my overland trek north would begin, and immediately headed for Pog Mahone's Irish Pub. Although Auckland-brewed Guinness might not be as good as London-brewed and London-brewed Guinness isn't a patch on Dublin-brewed, a few pints of the black stuff, wherever it may have been made, is a good antidote against any intensive period of fizz tasting. Why? Because it is the very antithesis of sparkling wine: black not white, with virtually no acidity and a soft, creamy mousse that coats rather than attacks the mouth.

TOM STEVENSON heads for the South Seas to assess the current and potential quality of New Zealand sparkling wine.I touched down in Queenstown, Otago, where my overland trek north would begin, and immediately headed for Pog Mahone’s Irish Pub. Although Auckland-brewed Guinness might not be as good as London-brewed and London-brewed Guinness isn’t a patch on Dublin-brewed, a few pints of the black stuff, wherever it may have been made, is a good antidote against any intensive period of fizz tasting. Why? Because it is the very antithesis of sparkling wine: black not white, with virtually no acidity and a soft, creamy mousse that coats rather than attacks the mouth.

With my stomach suitably lined, I headed west on Highway Six for Lake Hayes, one of Otago’s youngest viticultural areas. When I first visited Otago in 1992 there were just four wineries: the original pioneering Rippon, Gibbston, Chard and Taramea. Now there are almost 40 in Otago and over the last four years alone the acreage under vine has trebled.

Lake Hayes is located at the junction for Arrowtown and it boasts some of New Zealand’s highest vineyards. At this southerly latitude, such high altitude vineyards can only be considered a gamble. In theory you need 1,000 degree-days Celsius for viticulture to be commercially viable, yet most Otago vineyards have 900 to 950. However, although this makes Otago marginal for viticulture, the region has produced enough award-winning Pinot Noir to put such theoretical absolutes into perspective. Lake Hayes is quite another matter and Bendemere, its highest and coldest vineyard, different still, as its degree-days go off the scale somewhere in the 800s. Even for a hardened gambler that must be scary.Chard Farm owns a chunk of Lake Hayes and will soon be building its Perelle sparkling wine cellars and visiting facility there. Unfortunately, all three cuvées (Perelle NV Blanc de Blancs, Perelle NV Grande Cuvée and Lady of the Lake 1996) were made from poor quality fruit and showed a lack of sparkling wine technique. The Blanc de Blancs was the worst of all, with thin, unripe fruit, which lacked acidity because, ironically, it had been deacidified. The wine had developed an asparagus aroma in the bottle, a characteristic I also found in the Grande Cuvée and the 1996. The major problem could be a matter of the vines not being hardy enough to ripen fruit under cool climate conditions, a phenomenon I had seen in Niagara, Pelee Island and America’s Atlantic Northeast, during their early years of vinifera cultivation. The asparagus and canned-pea aroma was common in their Chardonnay wines, but they eventually achieved the plumpness of truly ripe fruit, so perhaps there is hope for Perelle.

What really was confusing at Chard Farm was how at the very same juncture they could also make such a first class sparkling wine as the 1996 Arcadia. The grapes were 100% Marlborough, but that is not the entire explanation because the wine had been crafted with such understanding, it is difficult to believe that it could have been made by the same hand as Perelle. In fact, the understated use of malolactic fermentation to impart creaminess to the fruit, the degree of finesse at which the complexity has been achieved and the slowly unfolding mousse of minuscule bubbles all make me think of the best vintages of Domaine Chandon’s now defunct Marlborough Brut.My next stop was a winery on a trading estate in Cromwell, which was not much to look at, so the owner, Rudi Bauer, took me to his new vineyard at Bendigo, where we drank an entire bottle of Quartz Reef. The wine was Rudi’s second release and, it has to be said, considerably better than his first. The grapes used for the first two releases were all from Marlborough, his third release will contain a small amount of wine from Bendigo and future cuvées will also include Bendemere (making Rudi the ultimate viticultural gambler) and possibly other Otago areas. Eventually Quartz Reef will be 100% Otago, but I can only comment on his second release, which has to be the ultimate guzzler. I’m not talking about a complex product, but a wine that is unashamedly fruit-driven with a soft, breezy mousse. I had expected nothing less. Rudi has been making sparkling wine for over a decade and his partner Clotilde Chauvet also makes Champagne in Rilly-la-Montagne.

The next day I headed north for Rippon Vineyard, which has view across Lake Wanaka to die for. Unfortunately, the sparkling wine, Emma Rippon, is not. Fortunately, however, owners Lois and Rolfe Mills recognised this long ago, which is why 1994 was the last vintage. So we had coffee on the deck overlooking one of the world’s most fabulous views, followed by a tasting of Rippon’s other wines. Rippon 1998 Riesling: now that is a wine that equals the amazing view!The following morning I visited Giesen, where I tasted a complete vertical of its relatively new Pinot-dominated non-vintage sparkling wine called Voyage. I loved the bright fruit in the first release, but that was now past its best. The second release was disappointing, the third much better, and the fourth and fifth better still, although not quite up to the quality of the first and it will be a year or so before the fifth is actually released.

Marcel Giesen accompanied me on part of the journey to Marlborough. Along the way we stopped at Cantebury House Winery for a bite to eat and sampled its sparkling wine. If you can imagine an oloroso sherry with bubbles, you will understand why we did not linger. I dropped Marcel at the site of his new home outside Glenmark in the Waipara district, where he has already established a small vineyard on the brilliant white soil, which looks like chalk, but is a much harder form of limestone. The exposure is excellent. It should be interesting to see what sort of wines it produces in a few years time.I spent several days in Marlborough because that is the source of two-thirds of New Zealand’s sparkling, including all the best. Why Domaine Chandon in Australia stopped making its excellent and improving New Zealand cuvée is beyond me, but an even greater mystery is why on earth Domaine Chandon has a physical presence in Penedès, where its potential is limited, yet not in Marlborough, where the sky’s the limit. In fact, the potential of Marlborough for sparkling wine is so far beyond dispute that I decided it more informative to devote most of this article to the embryonic areas further south.

However, I must at least sum up the sparkling wine situation in Marlborough. The three producers currently leading the field are Hunter’s, Montana and Cloudy Bay. In the 1980s, the original Hunter’s sparkling wine was austere, but gradually gained finesse in the early 1990s, with the 1996 vintage easily its best sparkling wine yet. It might even be the best sparkling wine that New Zealand has produced, although to be certain I would need to taste it in a blind shoot-out with maybe half-a-dozen others. The release of 1995 Miru Miru demonstrated Hunter’s ability to produce a more quaffing style, and the 1996 is just as more-ish, but the 1997 is the best so far and the 1998 shows excellent promise. The strength of quality at Montana is a great boost for Marlborough, particularly when contrasted against certain other large companies that let down the regions they dominate. There is no intrinsic reason why big should be bad and Montana demonstrates this even with its inexpensive Lindauer range. The best Lindauer is its Special Reserve, but try the Special Reserve in magnum and you’ll be blown away. The current release of Deutz Marlborough Cuvée is even better and the rich, creamy fruit in the Deutz 1996 Blanc de Blancs makes it the best sparkling wine Montana has ever produced. Cloudy Bay’s Pelorus stands out from other top New Zealand wines because of its fuller, fatter style. A complete vertical showed just how consistent the style has been and the very first vintage, 1987, was my favourite of the tasting.

What of the others? Well it is now evident that Daniel Le Brun’s soaring reputation at Cellier Le Brun was built on wines produced over just three years: 1989, 1990 and 1991. Forget 1992–1996, Daniel was enjoying the media spotlight so much that he took his eye off the ball and the fruit was horrendously green. The quality and reputation of Cellier Le Brun is destined to return when the 1997s are released. The style has changed and understandably because Daniel left the year before the 1997s were harvested and made by Alan MacWilliams the wines have assumed a more fruit-driven style with somewhat tropical notes. Meanwhile Daniel has just launched his own new sparkling wine venture called Le Brun Family Estate. The first release of his first cuvée, the non-vintage Daniel No 1, is best left in the cellar, where it can only improve, while the second release, which is due out soon, should mark the maestro’s return to form, with its fuller Champagne-like style. It has a touch of vanilla on the finish and not the slightest hint of unripeness. Future cuvées include what promises to be a superb Daniel 1997 Virginie. Highfield Estate has made sparkling wine under the Elstree label since 1993, but the quality did not come right until the 1995 vintage, which shows fine, flowery autolysis fresh fruit and a crisp finish. The soon to be released 1996 maintains this quality and style. Jackson Estate is disappointing, which is something I have never said about its Sauvignon Blanc.

I took the red-eye flight to Gisborne, where I was met by Phil Parker, who showed me his old Parker MC winery, which has a DC3 aircraft perched on top and a yellow Morris Minor tumbling out of one of the windows. That, however, is Parker past. Phil is moving on to run Acton Estate, where he plans to build a new winery. Parker MC is the world’s only Méthode Traditionelle winery specialising in weird varietal fizz such as Traminer and Merlot. All his wines have lacked so far is a dosage. Not because he’s an ultra-brut freak, but simply because he lacked the equipment. He promises to rectify this at Acton and I’ll drop by in a couple of years to make sure he does.I took the shuttle to Auckland and was at the Wine Institute’s office by mid-afternoon, which gave me plenty of time to taste sparkling wines from those wineries I had not managed to visit. This thus completed my assessment of the current state of New Zealand sparkling wine. The biggest surprise was the refined, complex Selak’s Founders Reserve, because with the exception of its Mate I Selak cuvée, I had found all sparkling wines from this producer to be excessively malty in the past. Morton was predictably inconsistent, always throwing up some of the country’s best fizz with some of its least exciting. The best this time was the 1995 Black Label, although it would be even better if the oaky aromas were less dominant.

I have not been able to mention all the sparkling wines tasted on this trip, but I have included all the best and most of the characters involved. One real character is missing, however, and that is Terry Gillan, an ex-London builder turned sparkling winemaker. He wears silk slacks, drips with gold and apparently rebuilt Blenheim clocktower, which was something the locals once looked up to – now it’s on stilts and barely five feet off the ground.

Written by TOM STEVENSON