Published in Scoff! July/ August 2006
My problem with Kiwi winemakers is that they’re just too darned on-the-case and focused for befuddled British wine hacks to be able to keep up with them. I had happily pigeon-holed them as purveyors of perfectly pleasant (if somewhat “green”) Pinot Noirs which would never hold a candle to Burgundy, and along come Isabel and Southbank and Seresin (to name but a few) to put poor Johnny Frenchman to flight.
I was happy when I could think of them primarily as a source of those Sauvignon Blancs that jump out of the glass, spray gooseberry essence up your nose, slap you round the face a few times and run screeching out of the door with your wallet. And then they start making wines of such poise and balance that the good folk of the Loire must be hanging their heads. This conversion was on show at the New Zealand Wine trade tasting at Lord’s Cricket Ground earlier this year where a large proportion of the NZ industry was plying its wares. How can they change so much, so fast?
“People have realised that it’s a global market and that to compete, you’ve got to keep raising your game,” says Steve Smith, New Zealand’s first Master of Wine and chief winemaker at the humblingly excellent Craggy Range. Craggy’s offerings across the varietal board are terrific – my favourite was their smoky, richly complex 2004 Beaux Cailloux Chardonnay. Another Chardonnay worth writing home about is the silkily elegant Kumeu River – both around the £16 mark.
Isabel Estate Sauvignon Blanc (£12-13) is a textbook example of how ‘new-wave’ New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs have left their delinquent ways behind them and traded in their ASBOs for a
place at finishing school. The product of high-density planting, this has complexity, minerality and even a little lick of honey at the end. That Pinot Noir of theirs (£15-£16) gives anything from Burgundy at the price a run for its money, with coffee and chocolate notes to embellish the lush strawberry fruit.
Montana is the biggest wine producer in New Zealand – almost twice as big as its nearest rival – and the tasting had officially closed when I started in on their 30 wines. I was nearly done when their International Operations Manager Jim Robertson came up.
“What did you think of the Reserve Chardonnay?” he asked. I fumbled through my notes: “Tropical, v. typical, rich,” was all I had come up with. “But I think ‘typical’ probably means a bit old-fashioned, compared to a lot of what I’ve tasted here today,” I continued. “Yeah, there’s 30% of it been in new oak,” said Jim. “And it’s, like, we’ve been there before, done that. There’s just no need for it. I think we’ll take it down to 10% or 15% at most next year. What do you think?”
Yep, these guys are seriously on the case.