Brian Freedman’s column “Wines of the Week” for forbes.com is read by thousands of readers each week. He also contributes wine- and spirits-focused articles and commentaries on FoodandWine.com, for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet, and contributes to JancisRobinson.com. Freedman spent almost three weeks in New Zealand earlier this year and offers his perspective on the country’s up-and-coming grape varieties. For those of you considering the WSET Diploma program, this is the kind of new information that will help you ace your exams.
Ask a hundred consumers to name the best wine that New Zealand produces, and I’d imagine that at least 98 of them would mention Sauvignon Blanc. (The other two would probably say Pinot Noir.)
And while the Kiwis have certainly made their mark growing a distinctive style of Sauvignon Blanc, it’s far from the only wine worthy of attention. Even that term, “growing wine,” implicitly suggests the primacy of the place that a particular wine comes from, and New Zealand, which is home to a stunning range of terroirs and climates, has the potential to produce world-class wines from a far greater range of grape varieties, in a much broader gamut of styles, than it typically gets credit for. (Even with its calling-card SB!)
This past January and February, I spent two and a half weeks traveling New Zealand from north to south, and more than anything else, I came away impressed by the range of wines that the exuberant, forward-thinking producers there are crafting. Which makes sense: New Zealand may not be a huge country in terms of overall landmass or population, but the differences in climate and geology from the north, parts of which look like something out of the movie Moana, to Central Otago in the south, which reminded me of nothing so much as Switzerland, mean that producers spread across the two islands can and do make wines that go far beyond the bottles of cheap and cheerful Sauvignon Blanc that have flooded the American market.
Covering the entirety of the country’s exuberant wine culture would take a book. Instead, here’s a quick look at some of the regions and producers that are leading the industry there into the future.
Northland: Ripeness Alongside Energy, Minerality, And Savoriness
Surprises abound in New Zealand. The Northland region, which is generally known for its riper wines—this is the southern hemisphere, after all, and Northland’s northern location gives it a climate leaning toward the subtropical—shocked me with the vibrant quality of its Chardonnay and Syrah above all else, both of which tend to boast both lively fruit and a sense of savoriness that deserves more attention. The Omata Chardonnay 2015 was fresh and full of vivid energy, its notes of nectarine, Seckel pear, and honeydew all given bass-note heft with a hint of walnut. The Landing Chardonnay 2017, with its more linear structure framing orange, mint, cantaloupe, and mineral, proved that remarkable wine can be produced even in less-than-classic vintages with quality fruit and a winemaker’s steady hand.
The Syrahs from the Northland wowed me with their balance of savoriness and generosity. Okahu’s 2014 Syrah was a study in red fruit cut through by electric acidity and lifted black peppercorn, whereas the Omata Syrah Reserve 2015, with its white peppercorn and blackberry notes framed by tea-like tannins, screamed out for a grilled ribeye. It’s grown on just 2.6 hectares of vineyard set amid 4.2 hectares of land, and seems to be typical of the small-lot future that I believe will set the tone for many of the great wines of New Zealand moving forward.
Gisbourne, in the east of the North Island and among the sunniest and warmest regions in the country, is coming on strong, with Merlot of serious character and Pinot Gris that has the potential to become a calling card for the region. There’s more Chardonnay planted there than anything else, but aromatic varieties, like Gewurztraminer, are showing increasing prominence, too.
The semi-maritime Wairarapa, in the south of the North Island, is home to remarkable Pinot Noir, many of them grown on single vineyards that leverage every little crag and cranny of the ancient land there and express the differences between them. Martinborough is the most well-known of the subregions here.
South Island: From Maritime To Mountain, A World Of Intricacy
Skipping down to the north of the South Island, Nelson, which only takes up two percent of the country’s land, is home to 50 percent of its Sauvignon Blanc production. But in addition to the great SB’s grown there, producers like Waimea are making notable Albariño and Riesling—unexpected grape varieties that have the potential to reach impressive heights when the right clonal material and rootstock are smartly matched with the terroir.
The mainly alluvial soils on which Waimea’s 140 hectares (345 acres) of vineyard are planted, coupled with the sunny, slightly cooler climate of the plain, mean that they have the ability to grow wines of impressive length and potential longevity. Seifried, whose owner Hermann Seifried is originally from Austria, is quietly crafting Zweigelt of serious character and deliciousness in Nelson, among other great wines in his portfolio.
Like everywhere else in New Zealand, it’s impossible to paint even a single region with too broad a brush: Other parts of Nelson, for example, boast more gravelly or clay-rich soils. One of the most exciting aspects of New Zealand wine right now is the ongoing work to parse the differences from one vineyard to another, one block to another, and watching producers all over the country leverage those variations in geology and climate to craft wines of idiosyncrasy and expressiveness.
Central Otago, toward the south of the South Island, looks like Switzerland with the Southern Alps scraping the pristine sky, and the wines are as diverse as the soils that make up the landscape. Indeed, throughout the region, and even within the subregions that comprise it, Central Otago is a place where seemingly minor surface differences from one vineyard to the next can have profound impacts on the wine. In general, however, according to New Zealand Wine, “In this semi-continental climate, frosts are accepted and planned for but site selection is key. High sunshine hours and short, hot summers provide an idyllic, at times brutal, landscape for vines. The dry autumns and overall low humidity are significant assets, helping to coax both amazing purity and complexity.”
Of particular note, Burn Cottage produces a Riesling-Grüner Veltliner of serious nuance, and the 2016 Pinot Gris from Prophet’s Rock is a standout, its white cardamom, almond blossom, and caraway seed notes lingering through a generous finish. But Pinot Noir is justifiably the most famous variety here, and producers like Amisfield, Felton Road (in the Bannockburn subregion), and Mount Edward (in Gibbston), are leading the way.
The point is this: Painting New Zealand with too broad a brush, as it far too often is, leads to missing the full picture of the remarkable wines that are coming out of the country right now. And while it may take some work to find Kiwi wines on the American market that aren’t Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, it’s well worth the effort. Even within those categories, make it a point to explore the differences between SB and Pinot from one region and subregion to another. The rewards are tremendous, and in the coming years, more and more of them should start making their way here.
- Freedman’s own notes from his trip