New Zealand Reds: Treading Lightly
BY REBECCA GIBB MW | APRIL 12, 2022
We all want to leave our mark on the world, and winemakers have the opportunity to live on through bottles of fermented grape juice. As a result of their pioneering work and groundbreaking wines, names like Robert Mondavi, Max Schubert, Didier Dagueneau, the Veuve Clicquot and many, many more have been immortalized, creating a legacy for their families, businesses, appellations and the wider wine world. But there is also the danger that winemakers will leave their greasy thumbprint on their wines, reflecting their desire to be a part of the wine rather than a steward ushering it from grape to glass. Overzealous winemaking is often the stamp of youth or of a young wine industry finding its way, but with growing maturity, there appears to be a dawning realization that guiding fermenting grapes toward fine wine does not need to be as interventionist as it once was. In New Zealand, winemakers are increasingly taking a step back in the cellar, a trend reflected in Central Otago winemaker Matt Dicey’s light-hearted job title: “Caretaker.”
While the New Zealand tourist board’s former advertising slogan “100% Pure New Zealand” was based on the country’s supposedly clean, green credentials, the wine industry was happy to ride the nation’s embrace of the “pure” messaging with its technically clean, crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Today, however, there is a desire to show that there’s more funk and soul in Aotearoa (the Māori-language name for New Zealand). The natural wine scene finally seems to be gathering pace, which is an integral part of the country’s growing maturity. While it’s important to champion new talent and entrepreneurship, there seems to be a disproportionate amount of hype surrounding young natural-wine producers making left-of-center wine blends. The wines are generally made in tiny quantities, but what they lack in quantity, they make up for with their polished Instagram profiles and quirky labels. And from the column inches, you’d think it was some sort of revolution. It is not. It is a continuation of what started nearly 40 years ago. In 1986, Millton Vineyard in Gisborne achieved organic certification and went on to become the southern hemisphere’s first biodynamic vineyard. Millton, Central Otago’s Rippon and Marlborough’s Seresin were the pioneers and reference points for those who wished to follow their organic and biodynamic path. What seems to have changed is that there is growing appreciation and a thirsty market for well-made minimum-intervention wines, particularly in the metropolitan on-trade, where a carbonic maceration Malbec (such as Daniel Brennan’s Giunta Nouveau), 100% whole-berry Pinot Noir or a skin-contact Pinot Gris (including Pyramid Valley’s Orange and Valli’s ‘The Real McCoy’) are genuinely attractive wines rather than weird, one-glass wonders.
Americans Mike and Ann Spratt moved to Waiheke Island in 2000. Joined by their son Sean, the family now produces super-premium Bordeaux-inspired red blends in an amphitheater-like setting.
The more sensitive, let-the-site-speak caretaking is evident in the oak treatment of the latest batch of reds from New Zealand. No longer are producers relying on oaky flavors in search of complexity, nor does the tannic structure need to come from wood; the quality of the tannin sourced from the skins has risen with increased vine age and improved viticulture, leading to better phenolic ripeness. As a result, we’re seeing more and more red wine producers leaving their wines on skins for extended periods; in the case of many top Pinot Noir producers, four weeks is no longer unusual. The intensity of extraction has eased too, with the number of daily plunges or punchdowns falling to one or two. Prophet’s Rock has taken it further, with only one per fermentation. Similarly, at Hawke’s Bay’s Te Mata, the estate behind the country’s most famous Bordeaux blend, Coleraine, is pulling back on physical extraction yet lengthening the period on skins. Refinements in the vineyard have led to enhanced physiological ripeness and smaller berries with thicker skins, according to senior winemaker Phil Brodie. Thanks to their new cuverie, fully operational since the 2020 vintage, an increased number of tanks and more precise temperature control allowing for reduced fermentation temperatures, they’ve been able to reduce the pump-overs from three to two times daily with no plunging toward the end of the fermentation, before extending the time on skins and seeds from 21 to 28 days. Brodie explained, “All of this allows for the extraction of a greater volume of the riper tannins we achieved in the vineyard. The longer maceration on skins and seed imbues a higher volume of riper, finer and more polished tannins, with a more immediate delivery that is balanced and even throughout the palate.”
Stems are always a contentious issue, dividing Pinot Noir makers and drinkers the world over. A portion can be beneficial, lifting a wine’s aromatic profile while also providing the wine with purpose and line, but it can also be a distraction from both variety and site, making for a furry, drying mouthful of a wine. Thankfully, there are few New Zealand Pinot Noirs that leave you feeling like you’re chewing on a badger, but there are a surprising number of new releases dominated by the green woody herb or wormwood characters of whole bunch. While its prominence may dissipate with bottle age, this winemaking choice seems to be creating a sense of aromatic homogeneity at this stage. In such a young wine-producing nation, it’s important to trial different techniques. But with little historical precedent, only time will tell how the wines will evolve in bottle in the coming 5-10 years. I will gladly retaste in a few years to see if those stemmy characters have integrated.
While we’re on the subject of whole bunches, there’s also an increasing number of vibrant reds that undergo carbonic maceration as well as whole-berry fermentation, as producers seek to make young, fruit-forward styles that don’t so much as glance at an oak barrel. It’s a joy to see a new generation of fun, fruity reds, often with the merest dash of sulfur at bottling. Let’s face it: New Zealand’s naturally cool climate makes for crunchy, fresh reds that can put a smile on your face, and there’s a growing market for these styles both domestically and overseas, particularly as a by-the-glass option in bars and restaurants. What’s more, these styles have found favor with young winemakers seeking to establish their new wine labels with limited access to capital, allowing them to have wines in bottle within a few months of the harvest. It certainly helps with cash flow to finance the fruit for the next harvest too. Lance Redgwell, who founded Cambridge Road in Martinborough in 2006, produces low-intervention, high-end Pinot Noir and Syrah but has also expanded to skin-contact whites and a pét nat at lower price points. “We can make great Pinot Noir and sell it for a lot of money, but doing that can also make you broke; you can also make frivolous, fun wines that are affordable and that you can sell quickly.” It’s not only the younger crowd having a crack at fun reds – Esk Valley, which traces its history back to the 1920s, has started making a whole-cluster Gamay Noir, while Te Mata has been at the Gamay game since 1995.
The best wines are those that you look at as single entities rather than deconstructing their components. “You don’t have to put your stamp on a wine. It’s not about saying, ‘Oh, there’s the whole bunch, isn’t it awesome! And, is that the oak?’” agrees Master of Wine Steve Smith of both Smith & Sheth and Pyramid Valley. “When people talk about terroir, it’s often just soil and climate, but it’s soil, climate and your relationship with the land, so different people will have a different expression of place and some people put too much of themselves in the wine and the place is crowded.”
New Zealand may be the home of Crowded House, but crowded wines are less than appealing. If the new generation of wine producers do want to leave their mark on the world, leaving the land in better health than they found it should be their legacy. And with more than 100 organic wine labels now established in New Zealand, there are reasons for optimism in a turbulent world.
Vintage and Regional Overview
The COVID vintage, as it is less than affectionately known, saw New Zealand’s wine producers harvesting their crop under a stringent nationwide lockdown that began on March 25, 2020, precisely at the start of the red harvest for most of the country’s winemakers. Frightened that they might be forced to leave their fruit on the vine, a few raced out into the vineyards before the lockdown hit, which inevitably led to some less-than-ripe reds, but the panic-picking turned out to be unnecessary; at the eleventh hour, the government designated the wineries as essential businesses, allowing them to continue the 2020 harvest. Grappling with newly created protocols and with many staff forced to stay away from home in winery employee bubbles, they were fortunate that the late summer and early fall weather conditions were dry and calm, allowing the later-ripening varieties to reach full physiological maturity.
Famed writer André Simon praised Te Mata’s 1912 red blend on a visit to New Zealand in 1964 and Coleraine continues to set the standard for aspiring Hawke’s Bay producers.
The start of the New Zealand summer was a damp squib, with cool days and two significant downpours on December 16 and 19, 2019. While the rains extinguished Christmas party barbecues, they also filled up the dams and got the region through the first three months of the year. Marlborough registered the lowest rainfall since records began in 1930, and the Ministry for Agriculture declared a drought across large parts of the country in early March. Just 20mm fell in this period, compared with an ex-cyclone-influenced 315mm in 2018. With such dry conditions, disease pressure was almost non-existent.
February 2020 was warmer than usual, giving the vines some much-needed momentum toward physiological ripeness and boosting the season’s growing degree days total to 1,306 compared with the long-term average of 1,244. The key harvest month of March was a little cooler (15.5˚C versus the Long Term Average of 16.1˚C) thanks to chilly nights, dipping to a brisk 3 ̊C on March 18, which preserved freshness and detail.
While the world was going crazy around them, the 2020 Marlborough Pinot Noirs mark a return to some sort of normal after the rain-influenced, pale 2018s and the inky 2019s. And, as the region’s vines gain maturity and its producers grow in confidence, the young 2020s seem to offer a suave yet detailed expression, particularly those from the richer soils of the southern valleys. The 2020 releases continue to dribble out, and I will update my notes as they are released.
Lockdown hit the mountainous landscape of Central Otago several weeks before their Pinot Noir was ready to harvest. The region had already had a tough season without a global pandemic interfering in the crucial ripening weeks. A cool spring with higher-than-average rainfall affected fruit-set as well as slowing the vines’ progress. At Valli’s normally reliable Bendigo and Bannockburn sites, yields were down 50% due to poor flowering. And, according to Alexandra-based producer Grasshopper Rock, the average bunch weight in 2020 was just 65g compared with the usual 108g. If it hadn’t been for a warm February giving them a nudge, the vines would have struggled to ripen even their small crop loads by mid-April and may never have reached the finish line. “We were surfing the average growing degree day line throughout the season,” said Felton Road’s Blair Walter. “Temperatures cooled at the end of March and into the first two weeks of April. That worked out fine because of the COVID situation: we picked over 30 days, which is a very long vintage.” It didn’t work out fine for some parts of Central Otago. In the coolest subregion of Gibbston, some vineyards failed to ripen their crop and and some of the resulting wines were mixed into regional blends.
In 2020, due to the cool and variable conditions, you’re likely to see more variability emerging across the region. While 2019 was fresher and more vibrant than the warm 2018 vintage, the 2020s display a cooler profile than both. The new releases convey a sense of power in their core, and firm tannic structure, as well as a line of tension, reflecting the long, cool season. “Because of the cool, slow ripening and the long hang time, the wines are quite deep and broody with plenty of muscularity and tannin,” said Walter. But, there are also more playful styles, particularly at lower price points, offering freshness and fruit yet showing the line and structure of the season on the finish.
There are several benchmark producers yet to release the 2019 vintage, let alone the 2020 cuvées, while others remain firmly in the past with the 2018 vintage, and thus a fuller assessment of 2020 should be made in the year ahead.
After the frosts of the 2019 vintage, the Martinborough growers were relieved to get through the 2020 season with no serious frosts and normal temperatures throughout the summer. While the people making the wines might have been stressed out by a national lockdown halfway through the harvest, the wines feel relaxed. Unlike the 2019 vintage, which was a very small crop yielding deep, structured wines, the first 2020 Pinot Noirs coming out of Martinborough are balanced, fluid and a little playful.
With just 35mm of rain between late December and mid-March, the dry conditions created a few issues. Some rain is needed to decay elemental sulfur spray, which wards off powdery mildew. However, several producers had unprecedented incidents of reduction and some young Pinots and Chardonnays have held on to this reductive character. With powdery mildew becoming a growing issue for New Zealand producers, new ways of working are needed. Cambridge Road’s Redgwell said, “When I moved to Martinborough more than a decade ago, it was a breeze to farm organically. Sulfur and seaweed would get us through. But then, about five years ago, the powdery mildew became a lot more virulent and challenging to manage – even for the conventional producers.” Helen Masters, Ata Rangi’s winemaker, agreed: “Everyone wants to go to the beach over Christmas, but you can’t go on holiday and miss spraying or you’ll come back to a right mess.” Opening the canopy is one option, but the intense sunlight can play havoc with your tannin management. Other producers are trying organic products including soaps and baking-soda-based treatments to mitigate carrying sulfur into the winery in similarly dry years.
In Central Otago’s Bannockburn, Felton Road has been a crucial player in the region’s evolution toward more balanced, finely detailed Pinot Noir.
2019 Hawke’s Bay
On the east coast of the North Island, Hawke’s Bay’s more temperate climate is better suited to Bordeaux varieties than Pinot Noir, meaning the reds are typically released later, so let’s step back to the 2019 vintage. After a middling 2018 season, 2019 is being talked up by its makers as the start of a triple whammy of stellar vintages. Jenny Dobson, who was the cellar master at Château Sénéjac in the Médoc for 13 years and is now a winemaking consultant in Hawke’s Bay, said that 2019, 2020 and 2021 are Hawke’s Bay’s answer to 1988, 1989 and 1990 in Bordeaux: “2019 was one of those years where there was not a squiff of rain at vintage time, unlike the previous two years. You could pick when you thought the grapes were ready. Normally, harvest decisions are based on upcoming weather, not true optimal ripeness.”
It’s not just the flagship wines that are impressing; more affordable wines from across the Bay have reached new heights in 2019 thanks to the ripe fruit, depth of flavor and richness of tannins. While they are suited to the medium to long-term, it’s easy to see the potential of the most famous cuvées, whether it’s Craggy Range Le Sol, relative newcomer LVCA’s Le Galant, Villa Maria’s Ngakirikiri, or the best Awatea to date, outperforming some previous vintages of its elder sibling Coleraine.
Most of these wines were tasted at home in the north of England in January/February 2022 during extensive online tastings with winemakers based in New Zealand.
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