The Kiwis you should get to know
This is a piece I originally wrote for the veteran wine journalist Brian Elliot’s excellent website www.midweekwines.co.uk – a great destination for wine enthusiasts and also one of the best places around for tips and offers.
I’ve tweaked it slightly and added a couple of extra wines I’ve managed to find.
Brian and I were chatting at a press tasting and he got me on the subject of Kiwi syrah and pinot gris …
… if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time …
One of the things I love about ‘the Kiwi way’ when it comes to wine is that if something doesn’t work out, they’ll waste no time finding out why, and then have another crack at it.
There are examples everywhere: the country’s wine industry is now respected the world over, commanding the best ‘bottle price’ in the UK of any nation, yet the pioneers chose dubious European grapes like Muller-Thürgau (the German ‘crossing’ of varieties whose crimes against humanity included Liebfraumilch); sauvignon blanc has become utterly synonymous with Marlborough, but it arrived there fewer than forty years ago, with some of the early vines accidentally planted upside down; Martinborough now rivals Burgundy for the quality of its pinot noir, but many of the initial plantings were on the wrong plots and had to be ripped up.
If it all sounds a bit like that Gerry Rafferty song “if you get it wrong, you’ll get it right next time” then beyond the flippancy, the fact is that New Zealand’s winemakers have been admirably relentless in pursuit of improvement. Together with Australia, and California, they gave the Old World a wake up call.
… the Kiwis are doing it Alsatian style …
It’s both impressive, and slightly alarming, that nine in every ten bottles of Kiwi wine we import is Marlborough sauvignon. We love it – although I personally prefer the latest subtler styles to some of those grass bombs that we’ve grown used to – but I also feel we’re missing out on some sensational wines that have just the same potential to define the country’s terrific terroir.
I’d encourage you to experiment and I would highlight two particular varieties: syrah and pinot gris. Both are well understood and appreciated in their home market, but haven’t yet punched through here to the extent that they deserve.
If you search ‘pinot gris’ on the brilliant Jancis Robinson app, it says ‘see pinot grigio’. That’s part of the problem, I think. It’s the same grape variety, but it’s wildly different – and that results in confusion. I love Italian winemaking, but I’m rarely a fan of the Italian pinot grigio that makes it onto the UK market, which is often light, thin and lacking in character (unless it’s from Trentino/Alto Adige). By contrast, pinot gris from Alsace can be a fragrant, golden, rich-textured feast.
Happily, the Kiwis are doing it Alsatian-style.
On my recent visit to New Zealand, I was thrilled to see plenty of pinot gris in the shops, on wine lists and frequently offered ‘by the glass’. It’s more of a challenge to sell it in the UK, so it’s harder to find in the supermarkets, but there are some good examples if you go looking. And you should.
With its dark-skinned berries, pinot gris produces wines that range from a golden Christmas bauble colour to a gentle salmon pink. At the latter end of the rainbow, ‘The Ned’ produce a delicious wine that’s stocked at Waitrose for £9.49. Labelled as a pinot grigio, it’s decidedly gris in style: slightly floral, with ginger spice, decent acidity and a smooth, silky texture, making it the perfect partner for chicken tikka, or Asian prawns. The same wine is currently £7.99 on a Mix Six deal at Majestic.
The creator of ‘The Ned’, Brent Marris, is the man behind ‘Three Terraces’ Pinot Gris, £8.50 from The Wine Society. Also from Marlborough, it’s rich in ripe pear and nectarine, with a generous finish that makes it ideal for a slightly spicy Asian stir fry.
It’s also worth flagging up a nice new wine in Lidl’s range: the Winemakers Selection Gisborne Pinot Gris is a welcome addition at a very reasonable £6.99. With a bit of Chardonnay and some Gewürztraminer blended in, presumably for a floral lift, it remains focused on the structured acidity, texture and depth of finish that makes Pinot Gris so special.
For syrah, head to the Hawkes Bay. When I reported back from the region, I described it as New Zealand’s ‘fruit bowl’. Everywhere you go, there are wafts of ripe summer berries. It’s justifiably high on most tourist itineraries, with a selection of fantastic winery restaurants, like the excellent Elephant Hill.
… peppery, perfumed perfection …
As the adoption of the French name suggests, New Zealand syrah is far closer to Europe than Australia, which chooses to call it Shiraz. Whilst the latter tends to create big barbecue blockbusters, the Kiwi wines have more of the peppery, perfumed perfection of the Northern Rhône. Winemakers love syrah because it speaks so fluently of its terroir – nowhere more so than on the Gimblett Gravels. Granted, it’s not the most romantic-sounding place, but if you’re not yet familiar with this stony former river bed, then you soon will be: along with nearby Bridge Pa, it is rapidly establishing a worldwide reputation for fine wines.
Despite that, I have found it harder than it should be to find on the shelves, although good independent specialists often stock it.
Indies are a good place to try to find the Schubert Syrah pictured at the top of the article. Tricky to find, it’s a real perfumed treat, with some of the most elegant winemaking I have encountered http://www.vinosaurus.co.uk/kiwi-wine-journey-part-4-mad-martinborough/
If you can’t be bothered to play ‘hunt the Schubert’, fear not, The Wine Society comes up trumps, with Trinity Hill Hawkes Bay Syrah 2016, great value at £13.50. From one of the region’s winemaking pioneers, John Hancock, it’s intense, rather than powerful, with the wildness of foraged blackberries, rose petals and a hint of cedar.
… a delicious mix of blueberry, blackberry and Rhône-esque ‘garrigue’ …
Or try Waitrose Cellar for Craggy Range Syrah 2014, at £21.99. It’s a delicious mix of blueberry, blackberry and Rhône-esque ‘garrigue’, with a smooth smokiness from well-integrated oak.
For a treat, head to Corney and Barrow’s website, for Steve Skinner’s Elephant Hill Reserve Syrah 2013. From a gloriously warm vintage, it’s an exquisitely composed blend of ripe black fruit, wild herbs and spice, with smooth tannins and great length.
Once you’ve had New Zealand’s ‘take’ on syrah, or pinot gris, I guarantee you’ll be back for more!