New Zealand

Life beyond Marlborough Sauvignon

Or ‘Why New Zealand wine doesn’t just have to be about gooseberries and passion fruit…’

Before this year’s big New Zealand tasting opened in London, there was a press briefing. It focused, understandably, on Sauvignon Blanc, which is 70% of the country’s total production. However, something else that was mentioned caught my attention rather more.

‘It’s not all about Sauvignon,’ said Wines of New Zealand’s Chris Stroud. ‘There are 28 different grape varieties in this room.’

Obviously, we know about Riesling, Pinot Gris and the odd Albarino, but still. Twenty eight? That seemed like a lot of wines that I wasn’t familiar with.

So in the couple of hours that I had, I decided to whizz through as many as I could, nobly ignoring expensive Pinots in the cause of education. You’re welcome.

My favourites are below.

De la Terre Viognier 2014, Hawke’s Bay

Tony Prichard used to be winemaker at Church Road, but set up his own wine estate (also in Hawkes Bay) in 2009. Volumes are small and the varieties unusual. In fact, it almost seems as though they’re single-handedly responsible for half of the ‘atypical’ varieties in the country, with a Montepulciano, Arneis, Barbera and very good Tannat alongside this Viognier.

All succulent apricots and white pepper, it’s exuberant, but not tarty and should be a crowd-pleaser as well as a useful food-matching option. It’s aged remarkably well, and on this evidence, there deserve to be more than 65 hectares of Viognier in NZ.

£11 ex VAT, Synergy Wines (small importer based in Yorkshire, but will deliver countrywide)

Rockburn Pinot Gris 2020, Central Otago

Pinot Gris isn’t really a minority grape any more in New Zealand. Plantings have grown a lot over the last 20 years, to the extent that it’s now the fourth most-planted variety. Its 2,700 hectares are as much as Merlot, Syrah, Riesling, Cabernet and Gewurz combined. But that still surprised me – and I liked this wine, so I’m including it here anyway.

It’s very much in a Gris rather than Grigio style – 11%, with 20g/l of sugar, but that isn’t noticeable, beyond a comforting plushness on the palate. A useful option on a tasting menu.

£17.28 ex-VAT, Hallgarten & Novum wines

Blank Canvas Gruner Veltliner 2015, Marlborough

Matt Thomson was winemaker at St Clair for many years, and acquired a deserved reputation for making elegant, high quality wines that were genuinely site-expressive. He left SC to set up Blank Canvas with his partner, Sophie Parker-Thomson MW. They look for wines that are ‘distinctive and cerebral’ and this is certainly that.

It’s bright, peppery and lemon-grass spicy; poised and supple, yet intriguing. When young it might have been rather austere. With the seven (!) years of age on it, it’s a super-interesting addition to any wine list.

£13.50 ex-VAT, Liberty Wines

Esk Valley Artisanal Collection Chenin Blank 2020, Hawkes Bay

Esk Valley was bought by Sir George ‘Villa Maria’ Fistonich in the 1980s, and it’s been a reliable source of good Hawke’s Bay wines pretty much ever since. Winemaker Gordon Russell has been there (as far as I can tell) for ever, and clearly knows every wrinkle of the land where he sources fruit.

There are just 19 hectares of Chenin in New Zealand, so this is a rare beast indeed – but well worth seeking out, particularly for the price. It’s got quintessentially exuberant pineapple and stone fruit richness, enhanced by creamy lees-work and stretched throughout with the grape’s characteristic balancing wire of acidity.

£10.52 ex-VAT, Hatch Mansfield