Tuesday, July 31, 2012

New Zealand Part IV Nelson and Canterbury

Canterbury stretches along the east coast of South Island from Marlborough to Central Otago (Part V) and includes Christchurch, which serves as the focal point of the vineyards.  Some loamy soils with clay and pockets of limestone dominate this large, flat expanse.  Pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc and even pinot gris are planted.  The hype focuses on things other than sauvignon blanc, perhaps because that's what they do well and perhaps to avoid trying to compete with Marlborough.  I have not tried a single wine from this region, in fact I have not even seen a single one, but I am intrigued.  Wish I had more to report.  It appears to be an up and coming region, so expect to see some in the next few years.
Waipara is essentially a sub-region of Canterbury, but recognized as distinct, and has perhaps the strongest potential for bringing the area more attention.
Nelson has more name recognition but that may be due, confusingly, to Mount Nelson, a Marlborough sauvignon blanc.  The region is unique due to its northwestern location on South Island, facing the Tasman Sea.  More rain falls here and the focus in discussion tends toward chardonnay and pinot noir, though sauvignon blanc dominates plantings (more acreage than the other two combined).  However, producers are small and I can not recall having seen one yet.
One of the great frustrations about finding up and coming wines that are made so far away is that most of the smaller producers have no incentive to go through the cost of distributing their wines in the U.S.  When I moved to Oregon I was amazed by the depth and breadth of high quality wine being produced that simply never left the state, or at least the west coast.  I feel much of the same is happening in New Zealand.  There also may be a lot of sub-par wines, just like in Oregon, that get snatched up just because they're local.
Next will be Central Otago, then we'll move to North Island.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

New Zealand Part III Marlborough

This region on the north end of South Island deserves its own section because if you mention New Zealand to even casual wine drinkers this is the region they know.  Its has become the standard bearer for New Zealand wines.  Strangely, the first commercial vineyards on South Island were not planted until 1973 when Montana Wines established vines in Marlborough.
The soil is not uniform, and some dramatic differences can exist even within vineyards, but overall silty, alluvial soils dominate with plenty of gravel and even some stony areas.  These stones radiate heat and help ripen grapes in a cool climate.
The exuberant and intense style of sauvignon blanc reaches out and grabs people.  Like a cornucopia of sweet and tart fruit any glass with Marlborough sauvignon blanc in it commands attention.  The spell they cast is riveting, with pineapple, lemon/lime, kiwi and especially grapefruit.  I am resisting employing two descriptors others use often: passionfruit, since I've never had any, and gooseberry since I've never even seen one.  Grapefruit leaps at me nearly every time and I enjoy the pungent wildness but find it a bit overwhelming after a glass.
For similar reasons, I find Marlborough sauvignon blancs challenging to match with food.  Scallops in a grapefruit beurre blanc work wonders but how often do you see that on a menu?  Delicate fish, oysters, crabmeat and even chicken and pork can get overpowered.  Salads, especially those with grapefruit (notice a theme?) or citrus vinaigrette, handle the exotic nature of Marlborough sauvignon blanc wonderfully.  My favorite way to enjoy these vivacious wines is as an aperitif.  I need no food with them and the juicy nature coupled with brisk acidity makes my mouth water, creating anticipation for the meal to come.
Marlborough also makes some lovely riesling and chardonnay.  Pinot gris has begun to arrive from many producers but I have yet to find one that would cause me to pass on a good example from Oregon.  People continue to talk about the potential for sparkling wine but I've never had one.  Reds exist, mostly pinot noir, but the few that have crossed my palate have not impressed me.
Sub-regions have begun to get attention and the one that most fascinates me is Awatere.  Located in the southern part of Marlborough, this region was not commercially planted until the mid 1980s.  Limestone and some clay appear here and change the character of the sauvignon blanc dramatically.  The lively, juicy nature remains as does the boisterous nature of the fruit but the grapefruit that so dominates the rest of Marlborough sauvignon blancs makes only a cameo, if you notice it at all, meaning these wines are much more food friendly.
Look for the following wineries (all wines are sauvignon blanc unless otherwise noted):
From Awatere - The Crossings led the charge in the area and I find their wines solid if rarely exciting. Arona has been available in the U.S. for a few years and is still priced right, offering an excellent example of Awatere style.
No doubt there are others using some fruit from this region for blending purposes.
From the rest of Marlborough - Allan Scott produces perhaps the best examples of balanced yet typical Marlborough sauvignon blanc.  The estate makes a delicious, clean, dry riesling and the best Marlborough pinot noir I have tried, with rich, voluptuous fruit and surprising weight compared to other examples.  Brancott produces completely serviceable sauvignon blanc at a reasonable price.  Cloudy Bay has simply become so expensive I no longer care.  Even Dog Point, from the man who brought us the initial fever pitch for Cloudy Bay has crept up out of the range I'm willing to pay for sauvignon blanc.  They're good though.  Saint Clair produces some brilliant examples and some strange ones.  Find a tasting where they're featuring the wines and you decide.  I have always found the Vicar's Choice sauvignon blanc to be a good and consistent value.  Seresin is worth a look, but is often too pricy for me.  Their pinot noir is well made and more classic Marlborough than Allan Scott's - i.e. it has lighter cherry fruit and more elegance.  Spy Valley receives many accolades but my experience has been underwhelming.  Finally, Villa Maria is a big player.  I like their riesling a lot and their upper end pinot noirs if someone else is buying but the signature grape leaves me mostly cold.  For a while the wine was such a good value that it sold like crazy but eventually the price eclipsed the value.  My experience with their upper end sauvignon blancs is not good and I would avoid them, despite some rave reviews in big publications, unless someone is willing to let you taste before you buy.
More on South Island is next: Nelson and Canterbury.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

New Zealand Part II Overview

The north and south islands make up this remote country which contains the southernmost vineyards on Earth.  Despite the lengthy history, vines were planted in 1819, no strong wine-making tradition existed  until relatively recently.  According to Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine, "In 1960 the country had less than 1,000 acres of vines."  As recently as 1992 the most widely planted variety was muller-thurgau, followed by chardonnay.
Karen MacNeil explains a significant reason for the slow development in her book, The Wine Bible.  "New Zealand came under the influence of a relentless temperance movement, which severely handicapped the establishment of any sort of wine culture.  For most of the 1800s wineries could not sell wine to consumers; they could only sell to hotels for banquets."  The Oxford Companion to Wine reveals another telling fact.  "In 1960 restaurants were allowed to sell wine...Supermarkets were granted a license to sell local and imported wine (but not beer or spirits) from 1990."
In addition to this, due to grape growing challenges, including the vine-killing root louse phylloxera, many hybrid grapes were planted resulting in less than impressive wines.  A government sponsored uprooting program due to depressed prices and a wine glut paved the way for more classic grapes and positioned the country for meteoric success.
The country presents a fairly united front, through the Wine Institute of New Zealand.  They have a board that analyzes and approves all wine produced.  They led the charge with screwcaps, I can't even remember the last bottle from New Zealand sealed otherwise.
Just like California, a 75% requirement exists if the wine is labelled as a single variety.  Unlike California, most of the wines I have encountered are 100% of what's on the label.  Just like Australia, our previous educational focus (Part I Australia), if two grapes are blended, they are listed in order of percentage in the blend.  Only 75% of the grapes must come from the region listed on the label, however, I have never seen a wine that low.  Or perhaps I've never encountered a winery that admits it.
So, let's get to it...we'll start with the South Island.

Monday, July 16, 2012

New Zealand Part I

The next educational series has been postponed for too long and it is time to get on with it.  I started with Australia, mostly because I felt it needed defending due to a backlash against cheap plonk which, unfortunately, hurt good producers as well.  The next logical geographical section is New Zealand.
This nation surged to vinous prominence in the late 1990s flying the sauvignon blanc banner.  The meteoric rise in popularity of their unique style eclipsed other varieties that are only now beginning to get attention from casual wine drinkers.
This is an excellent map:
New Zealand Wine Regions
Most Americans only recognize Marlborough, the leading region in New Zealand for sauvignon blanc wines.  We often overlook Gisborne for chardonnay, Central Otago for pinot noir and the unique Hawke's Bay for some Bordeaux varieties and even shiraz.
One of the first wines from New Zealand that truly excited me was a chardonnay from Nautilus.  We also added their sauvignon blanc to the set at Martin Wine Cellar in the mid-90s, since people asking about New Zealand always wanted that grape, but the chardonnay alerted me to other potential.
Some areas have so little representation in the United States that I can offer little or no insight.  Others have awakened my passion and readers will be able to explore areas ignored by many writers.  Of course, my opinion will abound...for better or worse.  So, kia ora and keep reading...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Escape from the Planet of the Apes Amusement

This is silly, but I love silly things.  The Planet of the Apes franchise has always entertained me but I noticed two things overlooked during my youth when viewing Escape from the Planet of the Apes.  It serves as a sign of the times as well...and perhaps a true vision of the future.
Dr. Lewis Dixon offers Zira some wine, calling it "grape juice plus."  He recommended, "only a sip, it is an excellent restorative, I assure you.  Especially in cases of pregnancy."  More recent times saw recommendations to avoid alcohol entirely and the latest word seems to be that occasional sips of wine may indeed be "an excellent restorative."
The film got something else right too.  Dr. Dixon went on to inquire, "Do you mind if I smoke?  Oh no, I shouldn't, in view of your condition."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Independence Day

I will resist the urge to write about zinfandel, the American success story.  I will even resist proselytizing about the terrific, and overlooked, norton grape.  (Although I promise to pay attention to this wine in the future.  I have two bottles from Missouri I've been waiting to open).
No recommendations for beach whites or reds to match with hamburgers will grace this page this year.  Plenty of other people offer these already.  What I will do is remind you that July 4th is Independence Day!
Celebrate our independence by shopping with a local merchant for your wine.  No better time exists to break the chains of chain stores and spend some money that stays local.  Go actually talk with someone about the wine you want.  Buy a label you don't know from a winery that is not part of some huge conglomerate.  Try something different, don't just follow the crowd.  Be independent.
This post appears in time to act!  Stop buying wines from merchants that can't help you except to point out where the wine is.  Buy from someone who tastes the wines before offering them for sale.  Support your independent wine merchant, I predict you'll be happy you did.
I will be enjoying my freedom and will not have a post on the 4th.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bordeaux and British Royalty

With all of the attention paid to the Queen's Jubilee recently something clicked for me about the similarity of the Royal Family and First Growth Bordeaux.  While publications remain fixated on both groups they have become essentially irrelevant to nearly everyone.  Image dominates and except for photo-ops and elite tastings most of us would never know they existed.
A certain amount of in-breeding appears reasonable to assume and both groups lead such refined lives they can not possibly have even the slightest grasp on the reality of either shopping at a grocery store nor knowing about the wines on the shelves.
The people behind the top chateaux dress in finery and their wineries are not open to the public.  Mingling with the riff-raff suits neither.  I know no one with First Growth bordeaux on their table regularly and I know no one who has met a member of the Royals.  Having tasted more than a few First Growths in my days I can state unequivocally that once the awe wears off they are not much more than another bottle of wine.
Meeting interesting people with good stories to tell provides much more entertainment for me than being able to brag about meeting famous people.  Similarly, finding amazing bottles of wine for little money provides much more pleasure than buying status in a bottle.
That being said, if the Queen is coming over for a glass of Chateau Margaux...call me.