In addition to maintaining a modest cellar, I fancy myself as a passable collector of antique wine books and vintage wine maps. These activities are often the subject of spirited exchanges at home about the use of space.
Aside from testing my better half’s patience and my ability to build bookshelves and hang frames relatively straight, these artifacts are tangible proof that the wine world has been evolving at a break-neck pace over the past 50 years.
Pick up a wine encyclopedia from 1963, and many countries that we take for granted and consider staples today are nowhere to be found. At best, they are relegated to a paltry paragraph somewhere on page 952. It’s hard to believe today, but a mere 50 years ago, countries such as Australia and Argentina barely existed on the wine map.
The meteoric rise of New Zealand in the last 30 years best illustrates these recent tectonic shifts in the wine world. It is a success story that many of today’s emerging wine regions, such as Tasmania and Uruguay, look to despite their differing realities and circumstances in the hope of making it to mainstream global consciousness and financial success.
Wine grapes were grown in New Zealand as far back as the 1800s but what propelled this cool-climate Island nation to the fore is undoubtedly the introduction of Sauvignon Blanc vines in the Marlborough region in the 1970s. The resulting wines were exuberant and intense with aromas of bell pepper, gooseberry and passion fruit and captured awards and palates around the world in the 1980s.
The growth of New Zealand wine exports started picking up in the mid-’90s, exploded around 2005 and has not slowed down since. It is worth noting that Canada is the fourth largest export market for New Zealand wines after the U.S., the U,K, and Australia. This rapid growth is, in part, due to New Zealand’s single-minded focus on producing distinctive premium-quality Sauvignon Blanc.
Today, Sauvignon Blanc still represents the lion’s share of New Zealand’s wine production at close to 60 per cent. On the red front, many already know that New Zealand excels at producing bright, vibrant Pinot Noir with aromas of raspberry, cherry and plum. The country is now striving to make consumers aware of its ability to produce outstanding wines from many other grape varieties.
Chardonnay is the third most planted grape variety and tends to produce elegant and fruit-driven wines with great concentration and refreshing acidity that display citrus and tropical fruit notes. It is vinified in both oaked and unoaked styles but in recent years the use of oak has become more restrained and nuanced.
Pinot Gris is a grape variety/wine style that is gaining popularity not just in New Zealand but around the word. Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are, in fact, the same grape variety. The different names are meant to denote stylistic difference in the way the wines are made. Pinot Gris, including that from New Zealand, is inspired by the style of wine that is produced from this variety in the region of Alsace in France. This style is characterised by notes of apple, pear, honeysuckle and spice and is somewhat fuller bodied than crisp and citrus-driven Pinot Grigio wines.
New Zealand also produces powerful and approachable Merlot, vibrant and zesty Riesling and small quantities of complex and elegant Syrah.
Another trend within the New Zealand wine industry is the focus on educating consumers on the characteristics regions and sub-regions. Even within Marlborough for example, Sauvignon Blanc from the Awatere Valley tends to be more herbaceous and mineral, whereas the wines from the Wairau Valley tend to be riper and more pungent.
There is no doubt that this unpacking of New Zealand’s fascinating regionality will be a factor that will influence how we explore and enjoy the wines of this great “new” wine country in the decades to come.
Here are four fabulous wines from New Zealand (photos of each are in the slideshow at the top of the article)
Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2016
Marlborough, New Zealand
A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with restrained herbaceousness, good concentration and a very elegant structure, it displays flavours of yellow apple, pink grapefruit and Meyer lemon along with hints of sweet peas, white pepper and tropical fruit. This is a wine with lots of personality, but it will also be very versatile at the table. To bring out its zesty side, pair it with a spinach salad with grapefruit dressing served with lemongrass grilled shrimp.
Kim Crawford Pinot Gris 2016
A very approachable medium to full-bodied white, it is overflowing with pear, red delicious apple, yellow apple and candied lemon peel flavours and with floral nuances on the finish. It’s great to sip on its own or to pair with squash fritters or chicken cordon vert.
Ara Single Estate Pinot Noir 2014
Marlborough, New Zealand
A textbook cool-climate Pinot, it has bright cherry, cranberry, raspberry flavours along with a hint of blueberry and earthy notes. Light bodied, lively acidity and restrained tannic structure allow the beautiful fruit to shine through. It shows best served slightly chilled. Great on its own, but it shows why Pinot Noir is such a versatile food wine. Pair with red/yellow beet salad served with goat cheese croquettes or with shredded duck tacos with warm cranberry-cassava slaw.
Babich Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2015
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
This wine has an amazing nose. After you have poured it, before you swirl the glass, take a gentle sniff. Black and white pepper, roses, sandalwood, clove, incense and raspberries will envelop your senses. Quite impressive and complex, it is medium-bodied, juicy red and black fruit on the palate with just enough tannic structure and additional heft coming in on the finish from well integrated alcohol. Another wine that inspires high-end bistro pairings from short rib ragù on matchstick fries or duck confit.
Jean-Sébastien Morin is a category manager with P.E.I. Liquor, as well as an accredited sommelier, wine writer, educator and wine judge. His love of wine was born in the late 1980s, while studying and working in Europe. Inspired Grapes aims to transmit Morin’s passion for wine while never forgetting that the pleasure of a glass of wine often resides in the moment and the company in which it is shared. To reach Morin, email firstname.lastname@example.org