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Red Wine

New Zealand's red trend - red wine development
Wines & Vines,  August, 2001  by Susan Low

Try this fun game next time you're feeling bored: ask your friends to name a famous New Zealander. Silence and raised eyebrows? Then ask them to name a famous New Zealand wine. Chances are that they'll answer quite readily "Cloudy Bay." When it first hit the streets, New Zealand Sauvignon blanc--and Cloudy Bay in particular--made the wine-drinking world sit up and take notice. All that exuberant, full-throttle fruit and aroma couldn't pass without comment--and it didn't.

Yet a few years on, New Zealand producers were getting jittery. They suspected that Sauvignon blanc would be a here-today, gone-tomorrow trend. For people in the wine business, where long-term planning is crucial, to be the equivalent of a one-hit wonder is bad news. So, like good businesspeople, they began to diversify--into red wines. Yes, it's true that Chardonnay remains the most widely-planted and widely-produced varietal in New Zealand, but, let's face it, Chardonnay is yesterday's news.

That New Zealand could make decent reds, however, was news of the more gripping "man bites dog" variety. New Zealand's first efforts with red wines were often disappointing, with unripe, green vegetal flavors and thin, weedy fruit, but viticulturists have been moving the game on very quickly. If this article had been written a mere five or six years ago, it would have been pretty short. Not any more.

Last year, production of Sauvignon blanc in New Zealand decreased by almost 25%. Although it is still the second-most harvested variety (after Chardonnay) it looks like its popularity is on the wane. Chardonnay production increased by almost 33% in 2000, closely followed by Pinot noir, which saw a 30% rise in production year on year.
The idea that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot could meet with any success at all in New Zealand came as a surprise to many. The received wisdom was that New Zealand was too cold, too marginal, for any red varieties apart from (possibly) Pinot noir to be successful. Yet that theory has been proved wrong in a number of big international wine tastings, such as the International Wine Challenge, held each year in London.
That's not to say that all New Zealand reds are good; many are not, particularly those from cool or rainy vintages.

Cabernet Sauvignon is Tricky
Cabernet Sauvignon has proved a particularly tricky variety to grow. According to Tony Prichard, senior winemaker at Montana's McDonald winery in Hawke's Bay, "We had everything wrong. The sites were too vigorous, they weren't the right clones, the rootstock was the highest-vigor one you could get--it was recommended by some German guy. In France they'd laugh their pants off if you told them you had that rootstock."

Grant Edmonds, who makes some of the most generous, silky-textured reds from Bordeaux varieties at Sileni winery in Hawke's Bay, believes that Cabernet Sauvignon remains a difficult variety to grow in New Zealand. "Both Merlot and Cabernet franc ripen consistently well, even in cooler years, and rarely show that herbaceous methoxypyrazine edge so common with Cabernet Sauvignon," he says. You can understand why plantings of Merlot are on the increase, and why Cabernet Sauvignon is being treated with caution.

In addition to viticultural issues, another question has been paramount in recent years: what varieties to plant where? New Zealand is a big place. If you were to pick the country up and plonk it down alongside the West Coast of the United States, it would stretch all the way from the heart of the Willamette Valley in the north to the Mexican border in the south.
Steve Smith MW, wine and viticulture director of Craggy Range Vineyards in Hawke's Bay, says, "There is no way that any region can do both Pinot noir and the Bordeaux reds well, and up until the last few years the industry had been doing just that." Given the country's former reliance on white varieties (particularly the often insipid Muller-Thurgau), winemakers have had to learn practically from scratch about red varieties.
Generally speaking, that now means Bordeaux (and Rhone) varieties in the warmer, northern part of the country and Pinot noir in the cooler, southern part. Smith says, "It's very right in my book to see every region from Martin-borough south concentrating on Pinot noir, leaving Hawke's Bay and parts of Auckland to concentrate on the red Bordeaux varieties (and Syrah)."

Hawke's Bay is without a doubt one of the best regions in New Zealand to grow Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. Producers to watch out for in this area include Alpha Domus, Brookfields Vineyards, Esk Valley, Church Road Winery (owned by Montana), Craggy Range Vineyards, Kim Crawford Wines, Matariki, CJ Pask, Redmetal Vineyards, Sileni, Te Mata, Trinity Hill and Vidal.
Another important region for reds is in the far north of the North Island, near Auckland. According to Bob Campbell MW, one of the country's most reliable palates and trend-spotters, "Matakana (one hour north of Auckland) is home to the much-hyped Antipodean (New Zealand's most expensive wine) and Providence wines, plus a number of other newer wineries. That area, like Waiheke Island, is capable of making very good, even outstanding, reds."

The Trend Toward Terroir
In keeping with a better understanding of regionality, winemakers are now beginning to look carefully at the idea of terroir. The most obvious example of this trend is the launch in January 2001 of the new Gimblett Gravels Wine-growing District, a sub-region of Hawke's Bay. The Gravels is a 1,975-acre stony area, defined by the gravely soils that were laid down by the ancient riverbed of the now-defunct Ngaruroro River. Abou 80% of the land planted is given over to red varieties, with Merlot having the most acreage, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc. Thirty-four wineries (that's most of the wineries in the Hawke's Bay area) count themselves as part of the Gimblett Gravels Group.

So, what's so special about the Gimblett Gravels? According to Smith, the district is up to 3[degrees]C warmer during the day in the summer and the fall, compared with most other areas in Hawke's Bay. Nighttime temperatures here are also warmer, as the stones heat up during the day and radiate the heat back onto the vines at night. Smith says that during the growing season, soil temperatures a foot below the soil surface can be 5[degrees]C warmer than elsewhere in Hawke's Bay, which helps encourage earlier, fuller ripening.

It should come as no surprise that not everyone working in Hawke's Bay is convinced that the Gimblett Gravels is the best thing since the Hula Hoop. Edmonds is one person in the industry who has decided not to jump on the Gravels bandwagon. Why? "We did consider buying land in that area at one time, but given the variability of the soils and the excessively free-draining nature of some parts of the area, we decided against it," he says.

Edmonds also believes that the launc of the Gravels is potentially divisive for the Hawke's Bay region as a whole. "Given our tiny production volumes and the lack of consumer (and trade) awareness of Hawke's Bay, I firmly believe that we should be marketing the region as a whole, well before we splinter off small groups," he says. "I think it is a little premature, to say the least, for the development of specified areas in such a young industry. We are still experimenting with varietal possibilities, let alone differences in clones, rootstocks, planting densities, trellising, etc."

The Pinot Noir Story
The Gimblett Gravels, with its PR campaign and trademarked logo, is just one of the stories in New Zealand that's currently getting a lot of hype. The other is New Zealand Pinot noir. In the space of just a few short years, New Zealand Pinot noir has gone from being a virtual unknown to occupying top spot on the "most wanted" list. Names like Felton Road, Mount Difficulty and Chard Farm are now spoken about in hushed, reverential whispers, and their fans are increasingly willing to pay lots of money for them.

Pinot noir is now the most widely planted red grape in New Zealand, and the third-most widely planted variety after Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc. The New Zealand Wine Institute estimates that by 2003, plantings of Pinot noir will have increased by an astounding 85%. In the past, Martinborough, on the southern tip of the North Island, has been regarded as the best place to grow this tricky variety. Many in the business, like Gordon Russell of Esk Valley, who works magic with his Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet Franc blend, The Terraces, believe that it still is. "The region's old vines and experienced winemakers, for me, make he best Pinot noir in New Zealand," he says.

Marlborough, on the northern tip of South Island, is more famous for its garden-fresh, exotically perfumed Sauvignon blancs, but it can also turn out top-class Pinot noir. Grove Mill, Isabel Estate and Seresin all make vibrant Marlborough Pinots noir. Jeff Sinnott, the talented young winemaker at Isabel Estate, says, "Marlborough obviously has huge potential to produce volumes of good and maybe great Pinot (noir)."
But without a doubt, the region that is causing the most excitement for Pinot noir fans is Otago, in the south-central part of South Island. According to statistics compiled by Bob Campbell, by 2004, plantings of Pinot in Otago are predicted to increase from 1,000 tons a year (2001) to 2,100 tons a year (2004) in a short space of time. The other varieties grown here--Chardonnay, Pinot gris and Riesling--are predicted to grow, too, but only by very small amounts. Currently, Pinot noir accounts for just over 50% of the total tonnage in Otago.

Like many in the business, Sinnott believes that "surely the current darling of the New Zealand Pinot scene must be Central Otago. Established producers such as Gibbston Valley, Chard Farm and William Hill are being joined by the likes of Felton Road and Mount Difficulty in establishing Otago as one of the most exciting new regions for Pinot noir in the world," he says. "Combine a rapid influx of predominantly overseas capital with a buoyant winemaking community and you have a recipe for success reminiscent of the Oregon 'Gold Rush' of the 1980s."
The parallel with 1980s Oregon may be an apt one. Oregon's cool, rainy, marginal climate means that the Pinot noir made there doesn't always live up to the hype that surrounded those exciting first years. Are Pinot noirs from Otago--or, for that matter, all of New Zealand--heading for the same scenario? During the course of a recent tasting of 1999 and 2000 Pinot noirs from throughout the country, my excitement and anticipation were soon ameliorated by a creeping sense of disappointment.
Too many of the wines were too thin, too weedy, too tart to be genuinely appealing. I found the silky texture and rounded complexity of fruit flavors that I was looking for too rarely.

But perhaps I'm being harsh. Pinot, as we all know, is a pig of a grape to grow. According to Nigel Greening, the British wine lover who bought the highly regarded Felton Road winery in Central Otago in September 2000, "The greatest challenges for anybody who is moving into Pinot is that Pinot is not like any other variety," he says. "It is really highly strung, unstable, capricious. You can't build a formula and then replicate it. You can't relax. You can't take short cuts."

Add to that inherent fickleness the youth of many of the vines, the relative inexperience with the variety, the newness of some regions (like Canterbury and Otago) and, of course, New Zealand's equally fickle weather, and it's obvious that Pinot's hit rate won't always be high. But nonetheless, some of these wines carry some pretty hefty price tags. Felton Road Block 3 Pinot noir 1999 sells in New Zealand for NZ$48 (US$20); the most expensive Pinot made in the country is Martinborough Vineyard's Reserve Pinot noir--the 1998 sells for just under NZ$100 (US$42).

A Difficult Question
Are they worth it? That's a difficult question to answer. In a good vintage, from the best producers, yes. In less good vintages, usually not.
New World wine producing countries love to draw parallels between themselves and French regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Rhone. Such comparisons are often irrelevant, but comparing New Zealand Pinot noir to red Burgundy is not a pointless exercise. Vintages are very important here, for example: If you want the good stuff, you'll have to expect to pay for it. And, also like Burgundy, drinking New Zealand Pinot noir can be a wonderfully exciting experience--or a huge letdown. Whether Pinot will ever gain the stature internationally of those first exuberant Sauvignon blancs remains to be seen, but I sense that the Burgundians are getting just a little bit nervous.

Web links
To find out more about the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District, visit the Web site
Bob Campbell MW's independent site is a good way to keep in touch with the New Zealand wine scene:
(Susan Low covers the international wine scene from London.)
U.S. Market Important For New Zealand
The United States is an increasingly important market for New Zealand. Traditionally, the United Kingdom has been--and remains--New Zealand's major export market, followed by the U.S. The UK currently accounts for 55% of New Zealand's total exports; the U.S. accounts for 13%.

But while the value of the UK market increased by 24% in 2000, the value of the U.S. market soared in value by 85%. Savvy New Zealanders are recognizing that the U.S. market is one that is willing to pay for quality wine (unlike the rather more parsimonious British market, where price is the most important factor).

Gordon Russell, winemaker at Esk Valley in Hawke's Bay, says, "The U.S. market is becoming increasingly important as other traditional markets reach saturation level. We are new to the U.S. and have a novelty value we used to enjoy in the UK. Prices paid by U.S. consumers are also very favorable....We need to reach top end buyers globally. A lot of these live in the U.S." Evert Nijzink of Alpha Domus agrees: "The U.S. market recognizes quality and is prepared to pay for it," he says.
But there are cautious notes being sounded, too. Producers in New Zealand believe that the U.S. market lacks the loyalty of the UK. Nijzink says, "it is a rather fickle market, and it is crucial to have a good relationship with your importers and distributors to have a safe future."
Grant Edmonds, winemaker at Sileni, believes that the U.S. "has the potential to become New Zealand's main export market," although he too believes it is "perhaps less loyal than the UK." On a more positive note, Edmonds believes that the U.S. is "rapidly becoming more sophisticated in its tastes," making it a good market for New Zealand's premium wines.
Another plus is the relatively low price of the top New Zealand wines. Although New Zealand is a natural "premium" player (economies of scale mean that New Zealand will never be able to compete with other countries on volume), prices of even the top wines seem reasonable compared to equivalent U.S. wines. A New Zealand Screaming Eagle is still a long way off, although prices for the top-end wines will certainly continue to rise.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Hiaring Company
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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