Is New Zealand becoming a fine wine mecca?

Recently I was privileged to be part of the team that selected the Fine Wines of New Zealand ­–  a new initiative, sponsored by Air NZ, to bring recognition to New Zealand’s most prestigious wines. It was both excruciatingly difficult and wonderfully gratifying.

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A stunning super premium Chardonnay vineyard in Waiheke’s Church Bay.

The quality of the wines was well beyond what I had imagined and made for lively debate among the five Masters of Wine and 1 Master Sommelier tasked with selection.  It reignited a feeling I’ve had for the last few years: that New Zealand is on the cusp of becoming one of the great fine wine countries of the world.  This feeling further deepened when I showed a selection of these wines to a delegation of top sommeliers in Japan a few weeks back.  They were truly awed by the quality.

New Zealand has long enjoyed a reputation as a producer of high quality commercial wines ­– the consistently high quality of our Sauvignon Blancs cementing this position.  It’s not that fine wine producers don’t exist in New Zealand – they do, and many have done for as long as the modern New Zealand wine industry – however in terms of quality and global recognition I believe we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.  Here’s why:

Our climate and geology

We are perfectly placed in the world for fine wine growing into the future.  As a young volcanic nation we have an incredible diversity of geology which allows for successful cultivation of different varietals.  Crucially we enjoy the cool climate required for premium grape growing but with year on year heat and sunshine – enough to get most varietals to optimum ripeness.  Climate change experts predict that, unlike other premium wine producing regions, New Zealand will become less marginal for grape growing.  This should not only improve our potential in existing regions like Hawkes Bay, Marlborough and Central Otago, but potentially open up new areas for quality wine production.  In addition, most regions will see less humidity and moisture meaning less disease and improving feasibility of organic practices – a growing preference in the global fine wine market.

Our viticulture

Our vines are maturing.  In the past, we have relied on excessively ripe fruit and correspondingly high tannin and alcohol levels to bring concentration to our wines.  Now vines are starting to reach an age where they have more maturity and balance. Grapes are reaching a physiological ripeness at lower sugar levels, which means lower alcohol levels.  The resulting wines have greater concentration, intensity and balance at lower alcohol. Acidity is higher and pH is lower, wine is more stable, and there is less need to intervene (to correct /overcorrect acidity, add sulphur, add tannins, extract excessively).  Which brings me to my next point.

Our winemaking

Winemaking in New Zealand is reaching a golden age.  With more than 30 years of experience under our collective belt we can now explore with confidence the more sympathetic approach favoured by the fine wine makers of the world.  This means embracing more balanced, less interventional techniques and allowing the wine to show its sense of time and place – a highly prized currency in the global fine wine market.

This doesn’t mean abandoning our naturally pragmatic and technical approach completely; it is about tempering it with a more intuitive sense of winemaking that celebrates subtlety and diversity rather than quashing it.  Quality is what we’re known for and this should continue regardless of the style of winemaking.

Our tourism

No one can argue that New Zealand tourism is booming and only looks set to increase. This represents a major opportunity for savvy fine wine producers – just look at Hunter Valley and Napa for seriously well executed ‘regional’ wine marketing.

If you’re nodding your head saying ‘I knew it!’, give yourself a pat on the back and then start stocking up.  Here’s the full list of the Fine Wines of New Zealand for 2016 to get you started.

Aromatics

Felton Road Dry Riesling 2014

Felton Road Block 1 Riesling 2015

Framingham F series Riesling Kabinett 2015

Johanneshof Cellars Gewürztraminer 2014

Stonecroft Gewürztraminer 2015

Te Whare Ra Toru SV5182 2014

Millton Vineyards Clos de Ste Anne Chenin Blanc 2014

Prophet’s Rock Pinot Gris 2014

Dry River Pinot Gris 2014

Bordeaux style

Te Mata Coleraine 2014

Craggy Range Sophia 2013

Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013

Esk Valley The Terraces 2013

Stonyridge Vineyard Larose 2014

Church Road Tom 2013

Chardonnay

Kumeu River Mate’s Vineyard 2014

Neudorf Moutere 2011

Sacred Hill Riflemans 2014

Dog Point 2013

Felton Road Block 2 2010

Villa Maria Keltern Vineyard 2014

Dessert wines

Forrest Wines Botrytised Riesling 2012

Framingham Wines Noble Riesling 2013

Framingham Wines ‘F’ Gewürztraminer 2014

Pinot Noir

Felton Road Block 3 2013

Burn Cottage 2014

Valli Bannockburn 2014

Rippon Vineyards Tinkers Field 2012

Bell Hill 2012

Ata Rangi 2013

Dry River 2013

Craggy Range Aroha 2013

Kusuda 2013

Sauvignon Blanc

Cloudy Bay Te Koko 2011

Astrolabe Province 2015

Dog Point 2015

Greywacke 2015

Saint Clair Reserve Wairau 2015

Vavasour 2015

Sparkling

Nautilus NV

Akarua Vintage Brut 2010

Deutz Blanc de Blanc Vintage 2011

Quartz Reef Vintage 2010

Syrah

Craggy Range Le Sol 2013

Trinity Hill Homage 2013

Bilancia La Collina 2013

Te Mata Bullnose 2014