50 years ago, there wasn’t a single commercial vine planted in New Zealand’s Marlborough region. Today, wherever you look, you see little else. This incredible transformation was begun by the giant Montana company (now trading as Brancott Estate) but it was Cloudy Bay that really put Marlborough – and New Zealand wine in general – on the world wine map in 1985 with the launch of their iconic Sauvignon Blanc.
So influential was this wine that the Sauvignon Blanc variety now accounts for more than half of New Zealand’s entire vineyard area and more than 80% of its wine exports.
As you might guess, I love New Zealand’s wines but with a warning: they’re rarely cheap; good value given their generally high quality, yes, but not cheap. In fact, the average price of New Zealand wines sold in the UK is higher than for those from any other country. Many factors contribute to this: the cool and unpredictable climate, the relatively small production and the distance they have to be shipped are among the most important.
So I had to shop carefully when I needed to include one in a tasting recently and was given a fairly tight budget to work to. Happily, a wine I’ve bought before, Hartley’s Block Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, again came to the rescue.
It shows all the style I’m looking for and yet is comparatively reasonably priced at £7.49 in Waitrose. Not bargain-basement I’ll admit, but pretty good for New Zealand and actually remarkably good value for money.
It’s quite restrained for a New Zealand Sauvignon – none of the assertive flavours (often rudely described as ‘cats pee’) you sometimes find – just lovely pink grapefruit and aromatic hints of elderflower combined with a surprising richness given the coolish climate.
All in all, a delightful wine for the money and one that confirms New Zealand’s reputation as one of the most reliable countries from whom to buy wine.
“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. So said Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. It seems that some who prepare tasting notes for the back labels of bottles use words in the same way – words they understand but that mean little to the reader. Take a bottle I opened recently: “bright floral aromas, apricot kernel, quince and a hint of spicey white pepper. The palate reveals intense riverstone minerality combined with white peach, lime sorbet and fresh dill before revealing a chalky yet vibrant long finish”. Some interesting ideas, but what do all those words tell you and just how much do they say to the customer who may be considering buying? And, if you didn’t know the wine, what would you drink it with?
I also use words to describe wine – everyone in the wine industry from sommeliers to wine writers and professional buyers does – but I like to think that I use language that tells the customer what they need to know and that they can relate to. How many would know what apricot kernel smells like or understand ‘riverstone minerality’? Not too many, I suggest.
So, my description of the same wine – Waimea’s Grüner Veltliner from Nelson in New Zealand (Majestic, £10.99) – would simply say that it was fresh with attractive peach and citrus aromas and flavours and would pair nicely with some white fish in a creamy sauce.
And then I picked up this month’s edition of Decanter magazine. Just a few pages in I read, “an uncompromising Champagne, open, elemental, stony. It tasted of frost”. Really? I think I prefer a description a friend gave of a wine I served: “Well, it’s got a sort of winey flavour”.
May I begin by wishing all my readers a Happy and Peaceful New Year and, in this, my first Bristol Wine Blog of 2019, I’d like to share with you a brief summary of some of the delicious wines my wife and I enjoyed over the holiday period.
Many were old favourites including 2 Greek wines I’ve mentioned before in this Blog: Domaine Sigalas’ Assyrtiko/Athiri blend from Santorini (£20.40) is wonderfully rich and mouth-filling yet still crisp and citrusy and with a clean, long, long finish – undoubtedly one of our favourite whites – while the lovely fresh and elegant, black-fruited Alpha Estate ‘Turtles’ Syrah from the northern, Florina, region (£16.70) fills a similar place for us among the reds. Both are available on-line from Greek Specialist, Maltby & Greek.
I’ve also praised Pieropan’s range of Soaves previously but this was the first time I’d tasted their single vineyard, Calvarino, bottling (Wine Society, £18). Less full-bodied than their superb ‘La Rocca’, this is still light years away from any standard Soave. Quite restrained but with an attractive herbiness and, again, a seriously long finish.
A new name to me is the New Zealand producer, Paddy Borthwick. His Pinot Gris (Grape and Grind, £14.50) is just off-dry and with attractive tropical fruit flavours; definitely a grower to look out for.
And finally, for lovers of reds, a stand-out Beaujolais: not in the light and quaffable style but much deeper and more intense. Louis Boillot’s Moulin-a-Vent (Wine Society, £15.50) could easily be mistaken for a good village Burgundy – quite savoury and with earthy black fruit flavours; very much a food wine and one to be savoured.
So, in welcoming the New Year, I’d like to think that wine and sharing might help the world become a calmer and more tolerant place in 2019 than it seems to have been of late.
Wines from the Graves area in the south of Bordeaux will be well-known to many wine lovers. The area takes its name from the French word for gravel, which describes the soil conditions there – conditions that are shared with many of the most prestigious parts of Bordeaux’s Haut-Medoc (see picture above, thanks to Wine and Spirit Education Trust).
So, why is the gravel so important? Two reasons: firstly, it ensures that the ground is well-drained so that, although the vines can get enough water to help them grow (assuming it rains at the right time), their roots aren’t sitting in water which might rot them. And secondly – and this is particularly important in wine regions with marginal climates such as Bordeaux – each tiny piece of gravel acts as a mini storage heater, absorbing the heat of the sun during the day and radiating it out at night. This means that the vineyard retains heat – and the grapes continue to ripen – even after the sun has gone down.
But Graves isn’t the world’s only wine region where gravel plays its part: the same thing happens in the area known as the Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay. This was an area created less than 150 years ago when a devastating flood caused the River Ngaruroro to change its course and left the deep gravel of the former river bed exposed. Despite the parallels with Bordeaux (including the relatively cool climate), it took more than 100 years before the vine growing potential of the area was recognised. But, since 1990, the Gimblett Gravels have been an important source of – mainly red – wines. And, not surprisingly, the majority of the grapes planted there are Bordeaux varieties.
We opened an exceptional example recently: Craggy Range’s Te Kahu (Majestic, £15.99) is mainly Merlot with some Malbec (yes, that is a Bordeaux variety, even though Argentina is now claiming it as its own!), Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Cabernet Franc also in the blend. Delightfully smooth and fresh with lovely black fruits and just a subtle hint of spice, this is really delicious and a real bargain compared to many Bordeaux reds of this quality.
So, next time you’re in a vineyard, whether in Bordeaux, New Zealand or somewhere else, look down and, if there’s gravel beneath your feet, it is likely that the wine will be something special.
“Can you run a tasting of sparkling wines for us?” It’s not a request I get often – sparkling wines can be quite expensive and, perhaps, more for a celebration than for talking about. But there’s plenty to say (for me, at least!) and a vast choice. It’s not just Champagne and Prosecco, virtually every cool climate area of the wine world produces some fizz.
Why the emphasis on a cool climate? Both the most common ways of making sparkling wine (the ‘traditional’ method – the one that used to be known as the Champagne method until the Champenois objected – and the ‘tank’ method) involve a second fermentation – adding more grape sugar and yeast to an already made still wine to produce the carbon dioxide that forms the bubbles. But this process also raises the alcohol level in the wine by 1 – 1.5%. If you try this with a wine that is already 13% or more, as is typical in warm climates, you lose the aromatics and the wine becomes heavy and unappetising. Hence the importance of a cool climate and a lower alcohol level to start with.
What of the evening itself? We sampled 6 wines ranging through France, Italy, Spain, England (of course!), South Africa and New Zealand and at prices from £10 to £25.
And the reaction of the tasters? Perhaps not surprisingly, the Champagne (Charles Lecouvey’s Brut Reserve) was the clear winner with everyone present scoring it in their top 2. Although not expensive for a Champagne (£23.99 from Waitrose), the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave it a lightness and freshness that appealed to all.
The same grape varieties were used (although with Pinot Noir dominating rather than Chardonnay) for the group’s 2nd favourite: Lindauer’s Special Reserve Brut Rosé from New Zealand (widely available from supermarkets and wine shops at between £11 and £14). Delicate crushed strawberry flavours and aromas and a really attractive pink colour made this a delight. Certainly one to consider if you’re looking for an easy-drinking fizz at an attractive price for the festive season.
Pinot Noir is the trickiest grape. It can make great wines or disappointingly ordinary ones. The problem is that it’s very choosy about where it grows: it generally prefers a coolish climate to show off its subtle elegance. But, too cool and it won’t ripen properly resulting in raw, green flavours. On the other hand, too warm and you get thick, jammy fruit. And don’t ask the vines to produce too many bunches or the wine will be dilute and thin. So growing – and buying – Pinot Noir wines can be a nightmare.
The grape is a native of Burgundy, but the growers there only get it right some of the time; the USA turns out some fine examples, as does New Zealand. But good bottles from any of these places are generally quite pricey (£15+) and I usually avoid cheaper – sometimes even mid-priced – examples as they rarely show much Pinot character. So I must have been in a good mood (or not thinking!) as I picked up a bottle from a Tesco shelf recently. Wairau Cove Pinot Noir (£9) is described as from New Zealand’s South Island – an interesting description as I’m more used to seeing a more precise origin such as Marlborough or Nelson or Central Otago. ‘South Island’ sounds as though it might be a blend of fruit from more than one region, although the Wairau River flows through Marlborough. A clue or just a convenient Kiwi-sounding name?
Whichever, the wine itself was a pleasant surprise: a typical earthy, ‘farmyard’ nose (some describe it more explicitly!), quite light-bodied in the mouth but plenty of fruit – stewed plums and some slightly dried fruit flavours – and a reasonable finish, too. So how do Tesco do it for the price? It appears from the label that the wine may have been shipped from New Zealand in tanker and bottled here in the UK. Not what we might expect in a £9 wine, but, in this case, it’s given us a very drinkable Pinot Noir at a fair price. Nothing tricky about that!