Once known only for Kiwi Sauv Blanc, New Zealand is now giving France a run for its money in the quality wine stakes. We explore how New Zealand is making her mark.
New Zealand against France usually makes for a good rugby match and increasingly makes for a good contest when it comes to wine as well. New Zealand holds sway when it comes to rugby: out of 61 matches played, the All Blacks have won 48 and the French only 12. When it comes to wine however, New Zealand is only a minnow with its annual production of only 2.97 million hectolitres per annum, versus France’s 50 million. In terms of hectares of vines planted, it is 38,700 ha for the Kiwis versus 800,000 ha for the French. New Zealand aims high however, so it wasn’t the swathe of grapes for table wine and distilling into brandy that it was eyeing up when the industry got going in the 1980s. No, it was France’s better Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that they were trying to emulate.
New Zealand certainly has the climate and the culture for making great wines. If we go back to the rugby for a moment, it’s interesting to note that all of the world’s major wine producing nations also play rugby, with only Chile and Germany lagging behind in world rugby’s ‘Tier 3’. Vines enjoy wet winters and so do rugby players. Someone out there must have written a Master of Wine thesis on the subject!
One can argue about the world’s most pleasurable wines, but Burgundy is pretty much the epicentre when it comes to the globes finest red and white wines. And where does the heart of Burgundy sit on the world atlas? Well, on the 47th parallel, giving it a cool climate. In the Northern Hemisphere the 47th parallel passes through the huge land masses of Asia and North America, much of it too extreme for successful wine growing. In the southern hemisphere the problem is too much ocean, so it passes through Stuart Island – New Zealand’s third and southernmost island – crosses a rugged portion of northern Patagonia before missing South Africa and Australia by a country mile. On paper that makes New Zealand a trifle hotter but remember that most of New Zealand’s vineyards are by the sea, whose cooling maritime influence slows down ripening leading to fuller flavour development. It is actually impossible to get much further than 70 miles from the sea in New Zealand, whereas Beaune in Burgundy is 240 miles away from the coast, and Colmar in Alsace 260 miles.
Wine regions don’t get much more maritime than Nelson on the north coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Standing on a hillside, overlooking Greenhough’s winery and vineyards – the Moutere Hills and Tasman Bay sweeping round to the Abel Tasman National Park beyond – owner Drew Greenhough says: “As small as we are, we very much reflect the seasons…we’re looking for more elegance and less alcohol in our wines.” The best producers here make the most of a climate that is open to the tempering effects of the Tasman Sea giving conditions more akin to the Loire. Sauvignon Blanc is both New Zealand’s and the Loire Valley’s most famous output. Drew and Jenny Greenhough are genial wine producers and well respected in the industry for their carefully crafted organic wines. Their Sauvignon Blanc’s (a) hallmark is gloriously pure fruit.
Rather longer established, the Loire Valley’s Dezat family can trace its roots back as far as 1550 and is one of the oldest producers in Sancerre. In 1948, André Dezat took over the running of the estate and his sons, Louis and Simon, joined him in the 1970s. Grandsons, Arnaud and Firmin, have also joined the family business. They produce classic, elegant Sancerres and Pouilly Fumés, which are regular gold medal winners in Paris and elsewhere.
On the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island is Hawke’s Bay, a prime area for top Chardonnays. Here, the Te Mata winery is the oldest in New Zealand having been established in 1896. Like many New Zealand wineries, great emphasis is placed on their environmental credentials and Te Mata is no exception, being a member of New Zealand’s Sustainable Wine Growing programme.
The village of Chardonnay is in Burgundy’s Mâconnais region, and the grape of the same name abounds here, making some of the world’s most enjoyable examples. South-west of Mâcon, Bastien, Maurice and Nadine Guerrin have one of the most spectacularly situated wine properties in France. Sitting above the village of Vergisson with vines falling away below them, the Guerrins have a small set-up – just 12 ha of vines – but make exquisite wines. Their Pouilly Fuissé is grown at a higher elevation than is usual, making them more nervy and Chablis-like than is the norm in the Mâconnais.
Kate Radburnd’s name has been familiar to Tanners customers over many years, having been winemaker at CJ Pask in Hawke’s Bay. Kate set up on her own in 2017 as Radburnd Cellars, with the purpose of “making the very best wine from each vintage without compromise.” The results are very fine indeed. It is the Syrah we concentrate on here, although the Chardonnay and Cabernet are worth seeking out too. The aim of many New Zealand growers is to achieve results akin to the refined white pepper styles of Northern Rhône, rather than the blockbuster Shiraz of Barossa.
It is back in France that the hill of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie vie for the crown in Syrah terms. In the latter, René Rostaing took over his vineyard’s production from his father-in-law, Albert Dervieux, and has turned it into one of the most important in the Côte-Rôtie. His wines are fine and textured and age very well.
Born and bred in Burgundy, Nicolas Potel, the man behind Domaine and Roche de Bellene, describes himself as a ‘Haute Couture’ negoçe (merchant). Nicolas can field an impressive range of wines, and we select our favourites each year to offer to our customers. He also supplies our Tanners Red Burgundy. Nicolas is brim-full of ideas, his infectious energy always spilling into plenty of new projects and wines, and for him, sustainability is always high on the agenda.
Pinot Noir has been ‘the’ red grape of New Zealand for some time, with each region making its own distinct style. Like Burgundy, Pinot from here is expressive and perfumed with fine tannins. Greenhough’s ‘Stone’s Throw’ Pinot Noir is the epitome of this style.
Alsace is the most inland, and curiously, one of the driest wine regions in France. Henri Ehrhart is a top producer based in picturesque Ammerschwir. The estate is now run by Cyrille and Sophie Ehrhart, their reputation being founded on their Riesling from the famous Kaefferkopf vineyard. The emphasis here is on an excellent price to quality ratio. They have a passion for wine and the vine that goes back through eight generations.
Back to New Zealand and Greenhough for one final time, the South Island’s long cool dry autumns lend themselves to world class Rieslings. Greenhough’s ‘Apple Valley’ Riesling is a wonderfully expressive off-dry style much like a German Kabinett.