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