Cover The Kumeu River vineyard on New Zealand’s North Island, which produces some of the country’s best chardonnays

New Zealand’s wine industry has more to offer than just sauvignon blanc. In fact, our resident wine expert argues, it’s just getting started

Over the past few months, while I’ve been stationed in New Zealand with my husband’s family, I’ve been contemplating the double-edged sword of basing one’s reputation on doing one thing extremely well. That can be true not only for a person, but also for a place. Ask virtually anyone what wine they would expect to drink in New Zealand and the words “sauvignon blanc” come tumbling out faster than you can unscrew a cap.

New Zealand’s sauvignon blancs have been such a hit over the past few decades that the country’s entire export strategy was built upon their back. Pinot noir, the second most planted grape variety here, is another key pillar of New Zealand’s image, its juicy fruit and electric brightness making it the perfect red counterpart to Marlborough sauvignon. The flip side of that monstrous success is that New Zealand’s countless other beautiful varieties get short shrift in the media and most people will never think to try them. And I am here to tell you that would be a huge shame. The wines are glorious today and will, I believe, be even better going forward. 

This trip has cemented my view that New Zealand is that unicorn of a wine country making wines restrained enough to please Europhilic palates, but with an extra degree of lucent, pristine fruit. To my palate, the three most exciting and as yet undiscovered categories are chardonnay, syrah and Bordeaux blends. Many of these New Zealand wines bear more than a passing resemblance to those made from the same grapes in their European homeland decades ago.

Very few wines made in Bordeaux today scream “claret” to me the way the wines of Providence, Te Mata or Te Motu do now; the sinuous slink of Fromm or Bilancia’s syrahs sings of the old days of Côte- Rôtie, Cornas or Hermitage. Even as Burgundy has started to relegate the dark years of prematurely oxidised whites to the pages of history, the French region cannot be totally assured of dominating Kumeu River’s Maté’s Vineyard or Villa Maria’s Keltern in a blind tasting.

There are several reasons to emphasise a long view. First is that New Zealand, unlike New World rivals South Africa, the US and especially Australia, doesn’t have much in the way of old vines. According to Bob Campbell MW, the country’s oldest vines are about 40 years old, while the other countries can each boast centenarian vines. In New Zealand, more than half the land under vine was planted in the past 20 years. Vines, like people, simply take a decade or two to become adapted to their environment and start to really reflect their terroir, something all true wine lovers seek when they pop a cork.

The second reason is the sticky and uncomfortable topic of climate change, something that makes landowners in more vulnerable Old World regions supremely uneasy. New Zealand has been consistently ranked very highly in its readiness to adapt to climate change, given its historically cool climate and proximity to the ocean. If you visit Marlborough, for example, you’ll be struck by the contrast to a hilly European wine region, as instead of precarious hillside vineyards you’ll see a vast green carpet spanning the valley floor.

And my final reason is the impressive longevity of New Zealand wines, something very few people have yet experienced. So far, I haven’t found many sauvignons or pinots that improve over time. However, an Auntsfield 2005 sauvignon I tried in 2019 had evolved jellied, luscious layers of mango and green plum rather than devolving into cabbage soup, as too many sauvignons are sadly prone to do.

Perhaps it’s their screw caps or else their trademark acidity that makes the older New Zealand chardonnays, syrahs and Bordeaux blends I have been lucky enough to try into things of beauty, their acute angles honed into fine contours, their sinuous fruit solidified into a lustrous glaze. Several of the older wines I have listed below are not commercially available, but I’ve included them to give an indication of what they are like with some age. Those less than ten years old are more broadly available and are absolutely worth hunting down.

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Chardonnay had previously moved away from big, buttery styles and towards a skinny, lean, unoaked style that was clean, but often uninspiring. More recently, winemakers have replaced oak with a “flinty” reduction, resulting in a scent that resembles struck matches at its best and burnt tires or onions at its worst. New Zealand is replete with styles that are fresh and clean with just the right level of flint, in a spectrum of styles. The wines below are organised from most delicate to most robust.

Sam Harrop Cedalion SV Chardonnay “Jomara” 2019

Sam Harrop MW left London in 2013 for the enclave of Waiheke Island, where he has been making subtle, nuanced single-vineyard chardonnay and syrah ever since. Cedalion is his top range and though 2019 won’t be released for some time, I was already delighted with the Jomara’s biscuity, almost malty aroma and ethereal palate laced with orange oil, sea spray and a clicky, chalky texture.

Kumeu River Maté’s Vineyard 2018

Under the leadership of Michael Brajkovich MW, Kumeu is becoming a badly kept secret and the global wine of choice for befuddling white Burg lovers. With an acidity and texture like shards of glass and aromas of just ripe nectarine swathed in a zephyr of smoke, the tension and energy in this wine are unparalleled. By comparison, the tightly wound spring that is the 2012 vintage has just started to uncoil and deliver rich tones of peach, yellow apple and sandalwood. The texture has melted slightly, slipping joyfully over the palate.

Villa Maria Keltern Chardonnay

While Villa Maria is well-known for Marlborough sauvignon blanc, its single-vineyard chardonnay, Keltern, is an indisputable superstar, yet nowhere near as ubiquitous. It is remarkably poised and retains its sheen well into its 12th year. A taste of the 2019, cedary and resinous, reveals grapefruit and Meyer lemon harmoniously married with the oak in a beautiful, precise structure. The 2017’s vanilla cream nose gives way to lemon rind and white florals—very pretty, powdery fruit surrounds a savoury core, and the finish is pure and cleansing. The 2010 has a nose that is dense and buttery with hints of kerosene, lemongrass and beeswax, and a back that has a notable phenolic grip but with clean, lemony fruit. The oldest, from 2009, has grown briny, deep and smoky, the fruit darkened into preserved lemons and amber, its acidity mellowed and rounded over time.

Blank Canvas “Escaroth” Chardonnay 2019

New Zealand’s newest Master of Wine, ex-solicitor Sophie Parker-Thomson, has been making small-batch wines from Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough with her husband Matt since 2013, but this is her first vintage of this single-vineyard chardonnay. Putting paid to the outdated notion that female winemakers make “feminine” wine styles, Escaroth is declamatory and bold with burnished, golden fruit and buttered brioche held aloft by a fine net of acidity.

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New Zealand syrah often reaches the heights that every New World producer aspires to: Rhône-like savour with smile-inducing purple fruit and a subtle pepperiness, intertwined on an almost weightless frame. Again, the wines are arranged from lightest to fullest.

Bilancia La Collina Syrah 2014

From rock-star winemakers Warren Gibson (responsible for the inimitable Trinity Hill Homage) and his wife Lorraine Leheny comes this exquisite single-vineyard Hawke’s Bay syrah, reflecting its steeply sloping site with nervous jitters of green and white pepper and a blaze of red fruit and fennel. Curious and exotic, featherlight but bracingly tart, this definitely wants to be consumed with food.

Fromm Syrah 2010

Fromm is that rare Marlborough winery that hasn’t focused its energies primarily on sauvignon blanc, instead emphasising pinot noir and syrah. Founded by Swiss expats in the Nineties, Fromm’s wines display an intricate, precisely tuned lyricism: this mature syrah is a piercing triangle of smoky incense and tiny, lip-staining purple berries, white pepper and Sichuan peppercorns. 

Batch Winery Thomas Legacy Syrah 2019

Made in an ultra-modern, technicolour glass box on Waiheke Island by South African import Daniel Struckman, this syrah has the luminosity and unfettered joy of a stained glass window. Bursting with shimmering blueberries and freesia with a lacing of pepper, and drenched with a forest shower of acid and washed silk tannins, this has a while to go before it is released. But I would happily drink vats of it now.

Vidal Legacy Syrah 2017

One of the oldies of the New Zealand wine scene, Vidal came into being after the founder repurposed the racing stables he purchased in 1905. Richer and more luscious than many of its Kiwi peers, Legacy exhibits dense, dark aromas of Moroccan spice, liquorice, dates and black figs. The tannins are firm and compact, the acid integrated and smooth.

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Bordeaux Blends

My experience of Kiwi Bordeaux-style blends from the 2010s and earlier was that they were typically much lighter in colour, alcohol and body, making them a gift in a blind tasting. Climate change has meant that ripening even cabernet sauvignon has gotten easier of late, but the alcohol levels remain appealingly low (a graceful 12.5 per cent like old Bordeaux). Though not easy to find, the wines listed here are more likely than others to be sold with some age on them, thanks to the evident ambition of the people who made them. Here I’ve listed them from oldest to youngest.

Providence 1994

Tasted at a 2018 Hong Kong Wine Society dinner held by The Fine Wine Experience’s Linden Wilkie, this demonstrates why Providence from Matakana, north of Auckland, is a watchword among Kiwi wine insiders. With its sheer garnet colour and sun-dried tomato, dried cherry and rosehip perfume, it seduces with a sensuous outer layer over nubbly tannins in a way that is pinot-like and enveloping. 

Esk Valley Terraces 2000

Another wine out of Wilkie’s stash, this is the jewel in the crown of Hawke’s Valley old-timer Esk Valley (called Glenvale Winery & Cellars when it was founded in 1933). A blend built on malbec, merlot and cabernet franc gleaned from steeply terraced vineyards has yielded a 20-year-old wine of open plushness, with a rose-perfumed, satiny outer layer swaddling a firm, salty centre.

Te Motu 2010

One of the oldest vineyards planted on Waiheke Island, this understated, intimate property is quietly turning out wines of great depth and grace. The fruit is dark and brooding, amplified by bell-peppery hints and pencil shavings that are starting to shade into cedar. The palate reveals a toothsome meatiness and a tight grain that promises years of slow evolution. 

Te Mata Coleraine 2014

Coleraine is finally gaining icon status. It is a slightly sturdier, more forthright beast than the other wines listed here (more Pauillac than Margaux), with an opening volley of eucalyptus, menthol and cedar giving way to a restrained cassis polish. Compared to the virtually tanninless lilt of a fair number of Kiwi reds, this one leaves you in no doubt of its structure with an attack that is rocky and dark. The finish is all lovely lucent fruit and clean acid.

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