New Zealand: In Search of Greatness

At the recent London International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC), everyone was keen to know the result of the Best in Class for the Syrah/Shiraz category. A red Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie or Cornas? A Hunter, Barossa or Heathcote Shiraz? Perhaps a Paso Robles or Columbia Valley Syrah? Or something from Chile’s ever-widening diversity of new sub-regions? The wine in question was the 2007 Hay Paddock Syrah from New Zealand’s Waiheke Island.

Lovers of New Zealand wine – who in an industry necessarily dominated by exports are in the main located internationally – have no doubt heard of the new vogue for Kiwi Syrah, albeit a grape still modestly planted by national standards. The Gimblett Gravels section of Hawkes Bay is a much mooted and deserving area for Syrah, often written about and now frequently identified on labels from the likes of Villa Maria, Craggy Range and other important wineries. But Waiheke?

Until a few months ago, I too would have had to raise a hand admitting ignorance as to the location of this unusual viticultural area. About a fifty-minute ferry-ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island is almost preposterously beautiful, its many bays and undulating vineyards providing pin-ups for promotional material not only for Waiheke itself but for everything ‘quintessentially New Zealand’: from New Zealand Winegrowers Association marketing to local gourmet magazine Cuisine. ‘Picture-postcard’ would be an understatement.

Previously overlooked as a mere play-area for Auckland’s wealthy – just as Mornington Peninsula was once principally seen by affluent Melbournians as a place to muck about with horses and the odd row of vines – Waiheke can now boast some significant growers and producers, largely committed to Syrah and Cabernet-blends, the island also receiving marginally less rain than neighbouring Auckland.

Certainly, production here is necessarily small and there is still much to do in terms of raising awareness among international consumers as to what Waiheke has to offer (most lovers of New Zealand’s wines will probably have heard of Gisborne before the likes of Auckland or Waiheke, even although Gisborne is not home to that many wineries). True enough, demands are made viticulturally in this warmer and more humid northerly section of North Island. There are concerns too, at least domestically, that the wines are somewhat on the pricey side.

But at a regional overview tasting recently enjoyed on Waiheke we found examples that were more than promising and in some cases very fine, not least from the likes of Passage Rock, the aforementioned Hay Paddock, Stonyridge and Te Motu/Dunleavy – this latter with some superb older vintages of Cabernet blends going back to 1998 – featuring high quality across the board. In an afternoon trip to the Island’s largest producer, Man O’War – which oversees some 150 acres – a captivating range of wines was also in evidence, especially the 2008 Man O’ War’s Dreadnought Syrah, the 2008 Ironclad (a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon) and some excellent whites, not least from Chardonnay (especially the vibrantly powerful and aptly named 2009 Valhalla Chardonnay).

This experience helped contextualize a question which had come up in conversation with a China-based wine importer a few months prior to our visit: has New Zealand produced any iconic, great wines?

Admittedly, the question requires challenging. Define ‘great’; also, define ‘iconic’. On the other hand, there’s something undignified in attempting to define ‘greatness’. If pushed, I’d suggest that a great wine has to be not only one of exceptional balance and length, but also one that reveals complexity over and above what other Gold Medal-winning wines in international competitions offer. Though international wine challenges are, of course, run along slightly different lines, most experienced palates would agree that there may be Gold Medal-winning wines, even Bests in Class, that are fantastic, but not necessarily ‘great’; whilst still recognizing that what ‘great’ entails would and should remain subject to debate.

Certainly, longevity should not be a factor in determining ‘greatness’ as there are undoubtedly great wines whose quality is not dependent on either pre-release maturation or post-release ageing in bottle: think the very best of premium unoaked Sauvignon Blanc (not usually a candidate for ageing). An example would be Craggy Range’s Te Muna Sauvignon Blanc, a Martinborough gem. Others would add that a great wine has to accentuate a sense of place, by which they usually mean a particular vineyard site. I’d contend that this is a sub-category that could be applied to wines at different quality levels. In other words, there are plenty of wines out there that accentuate a sense of place without being especially accomplished in terms of quality.

Also, some of the world’s greatest wines are multi-vineyard and, in some cases, multi-regional blends (think Grange). The concept of terroir, moreover, is as much influenced by human phenomena, such as proximity to near-by markets or points of distribution (e.g. ports, shipping zones), than innate geological or geographical concerns, however unique those may be. But that’s another debate. Finally, an ‘iconic wine’ might be a great wine or simply an individual wine/brand that has changed the face of the wine world, e.g. Yellow Tail, although most wine lovers probably read ‘great’ for ‘iconic’.

The point bugging us – if that is the right verb – was this: does New Zealand have a Grange, Opus One, Noble One or Hill of Grace? And, further, would it matter, on first glance, that New Zealand does not apparently have a great wine to arrest the attention of international fine wine consumers?

In truth, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc fulfilled precisely that function, playing a major role in drawing attention to what is still New Zealand’s most planted grape varietal. The quality of the wines at Cloudy Bay, as we learnt in the company of winemaker Nick Lane on the same visit, also remains extremely high. Moreover, as Drinks Business recently reported, Cloudy Bay currently holds the number one spot as the most listed on-trade wine in the UK. Although there are still worries as to the image-tarnishing possibilities of over-production or over-expansion – especially of Marlborough – Cloudy Bay, at least, would seem to continue an eye-grabbing and valuable function within New Zealand’s most important export market.

Others would point out that, with predominantly young or younger vines, New Zealand still has an awful lot to offer in terms of premium wines and some future great ones. Watch this space, some would say. But what we were happy to discover on our visit is that New Zealand already has produced wines that are more than merely international competitors. The 2007 Hay Paddock Syrah is an undeniably fine wine – the 2006 seemed even better – and we also came across a number of wines, some well-known internationally, others less so, that might, without exaggeration, be described as ‘great’.

Another ‘good problem’ for New Zealand to have is that the country produces no bulk wine. Yes, there was a glut of Sauvignon Blanc from the 2008 vintage – much of it turning up in Australia, much to the understandable chagrin of Adelaide Hills producers grown tired with Aussie consumers’ seemingly insatiable love affair with Marlborough ‘Savvy’ – but New Zealand is, clearly, not set up to go big. This is generally an advantage when it comes to communicating a fine wine message and the Land of the Long White Cloud still maintains the highest average price per bottle of any wine-producing country internationally.

But this also means that the quality bar is set very high in New Zealand with wines having to work even harder to get noticed by the more label- and navel-gazing fine wine fraternity. Everyone expects New Zealand to produce wines of extremely high quality. But, again, to play devil’s advocate, where is the greatness? Have Kiwis failed to create the necessary degree of mythology which, lamentably or otherwise, is required to convey a fine wine message? That’s probably not a question for a British wine writer based in China to answer. So what about the truly stand-out wines we experienced on the ground?

In addition to the top wines coming out of Waiheke and strong offerings from the likes of Babich, Villa Maria and Westbrook in Auckland, Nick Nobilo’s Vinoptima was more than memorable. Having sold the Nobilo winery to BRL Hardy in 2000, Nick Nobilo subsequently established an immaculate facility in the Ormond sub-region of Gisborne to produce world-class Gewurztraminer from a range of painstakingly selected clones and rootstocks. In a vertical tasting going back to his inaugural vintage in 2003, we saw the many expressions of a grape that is usually consigned to the ‘lychee, smells of roses, a bit blousy’ camp, one of the first varietals wine lovers tend to spot in blind-tastings.

(Photo: Vinoptima vats and foudres/casks)

(Photo: Nick Nobilo’s Vinoptima)

Nobilo’s purpose-built winery is immaculately set up, reminiscent of the meticulous care in evidence at Jeffrey Grosset’s Clare Valley winery or Paul Draper’s Monte Bello. Vinoptima houses small batch fermenters arranged in a circular shrine and some super-clean looking Alsace foudres (the circular lay-out has, of course, some practical advantages beyond knee-bending veneration). The wines are abundantly age-worthy; not, of course, a test for ‘greatness’ but something only the very best producers of Gewurztraminer achieve. Looking back at my notes, I found very high scores for every vintage produced since 2003 – look out also for the Noble Gewurztraminer produced in 2007. To say these are the best examples of Gewurztraminer outside of Alsace – though true – misses the point: they are great Gewurztraminers by any standards.

A parade of Gewurztraminers at Vinoptima

Equally impressive were Paritua and Ngatarawa (pronounced ‘Na-ta-ra-wa’), both based in Hawkes Bay. We had wound our way down the nominal ‘highway’ from Gisborne to Hawkes Bay, still talking about Nobilo’s realization of ‘great Gewurz’ when we hit upon the charming Art Deco-influenced Napier. Dinner with Ngatarawa revealed a superb, oaked Chardonnay – the 2007 Alwyn Chardonnay – and a subsequent meeting with Paritua, a relatively new winery, saw us tasting the much-accoladed 2007 Paritua Red, a Hawkes Bay blend of stunning complexity that survived very well over the next two days (and one of two car-rides in between).

The Hawkes Bay Winegrowers Association also hosted a regional overview tasting the morning following in Hastings. The main surprise here, as we worked through 40 or so wines, was not only that there are some very savoury, lees-style influenced examples of Sauvignon Blanc to be found in the region – as well as toothsome Riesling and other aromatic varietals – but Gimblett Gravels Merlot (yes, Merlot) is, frankly, gorgeous. We had expected the Syrah and Cabernet blends to be impressive, which they were – see Bilancia, Newton Forrest and Trinity Hill, among other producers – but Merlot from the Gimblett Gravels zone, especially from CJ Pask and Church Road, proved fantastic, with the kind of plush fruit only achieved in Bordeaux’s Right Bank in the very best years. Subsequent tastings at Craggy Range and Te Mata, already established players, confirmed exemplary winemaking, Te Mata’s Bullnose Syrah and Coleraine and Awatea blends and the top wines of Craggy Range without doubt answering to the title of fine.

(Photo: a range of Craggy Range)

In this whistle-stop tour, we also managed to head further south to North Island’s Wairarapa and smaller Martinborough region, hopping over to Blenheim in Marlborough before quickly flying south to Queenstown and taking in a portion of Central Otago (sadly, not managing to head to Canterbury, then unaffected by the forthcoming earthquake, or Nelson, where whites and especially botrytis Riesling and various late harvest wines thrive).

Within a few hobbit footfalls of Peter Jackson’s private residence in Wairarapa lies Matahiwi. Winemaker Jane Cooper produces a wide range of well-crafted wines, but what really stood out were her age-worthy oaked Sauvignon Blancs. If you’re a lover of younger or older examples of Péssac-Léogan or whites of the wider Graves region, then Matahiwi should be up your street. For a mere $23 Kiwi dollars you can find complex, lees-affected and oaked Sauvignon Blanc that will happily live for 5 years or longer from this source.

Of course, some of the more famous names of the region did not disappoint either. Ata Rangi is a well-documented and entirely justified example of a producer specializing in superlative Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The leaner, flintier 2008 Petrie Chardonnay and the more voluptuous 2008 Craighall Chardonnay were superb. Ata Rangi’s Crimson Pinot Noir is an approachable style and the 2008 estate Pinot Noir was sublime, if very young (try from 2013).

There were also some terrific Pinot Noirs, made in a spicy, not overly fruit-driven style, which emerged from a further regional overview tasting, this time blind. I especially liked the Pinots from Murdoch James and Johner, but quality was very high across the broad, not least from established names such as Martinborough Vineyard and Alana. A quick visit to Gladstone the following day made clear this is an important source of some very good Pinot Noir, among other wines.

(Photo: Terrace Heights Estate, Marlborough)

Now, Marlborough… It is not possible to do justice to the diversity of Marlborough in one day or even a few days. Whilst ‘Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’ is synonymous the wine world-over with lifted tropical fruit, some of the grape’s zesty flavours but not too high acidity (and even a touch of residual sugar), the Sauvignon Blancs actually produced in the region are diverse. I’m neither ‘for’ nor ‘against’ any style per se and try to recognize quality winemaking wherever it is found. At an overview tasting hosted by the Marlborough Wine Research Centre, we found a healthy mix of expressions, along with some lovely Riesling (I forgot to mention that Martinborough’s Rieslings were also fascinating).

Our only concern, to get back to Marlborough, was that some producers might be scaling back the inherent aromatic complexity of Sauvignon Blanc – its varietally herbaceous character and naturally high acidity – by introducing more time on lees and some degree of malolactic fermentation, at least in unoaked examples. In other words, it appeared as though there was a danger of masking the character of the grape. The same would apply to New Zealand Pinot Gris, a troubled ‘category’ for marketers, with a plethora of styles emerging. Again, the range of styles is actually exciting, but we did taste some examples in which you wondered why they’d bothered to use Pinot Gris, if, in effect, you could get the same sort of result with Chardonnay (considerable lees-influence, full malolactic, oak ageing etc.).

But I digress. Nor should Marlborough be thought of as merely a ‘Savvy production zone’. On top of the attractive Rieslings, there are gorgeous Pinot Noirs, mainly from the Southern Valleys or close by, not least those from Terrace Heights Estate and its neighbour Seresin, especially Seresin’s Rachel and Leah Pinots, a fully fledged biodynamic operation. Marlborough Pinot Noir, at its best, has a kind of generosity of fruit that is sometimes lacking in Martinborough Pinot; but, again, this is actually a plus on both sides, helping both regions define themselves stylistically, at the very least for all the important international audience.

But, finally, what confronted us as we eventually broke the hole in the clouds over Blenheim and took a quick flight down to Queenstown and Central Otago, the most southerly wine-producing region in the world?

Central Otago is something of an oddity: a very new region in viticultural terms, it is one of the few places in New Zealand where grapes are grown in a continental climate. This far south, it might be wondered, how can Pinot Noir even ripen? Certainly, Central Otago is a compelling area for aromatic whites, especially Rieslings – this is where some of New Zealand’s best Rieslings are to be found. But the ripening of Pinot Noir is aided by the very high degree of UV light occasioned by a hole in the ozone layer overlooking South Island (strong UV is also a factor in Tasmania and even across many parts of South-East Australia).

Having said that, has the Central Otago Pinot bubble burst? Knowing the eventual retail prices of the region’s wines in a number of markets, China not excluded, I was willing to remain sceptical, thinking it would be a good idea to keep asking oneself ‘Just how good really are these Pinots?’ But at a further regional overview tasting, it actually became quite hard to score the wines numerically, as standards were so high. That said, there were some stand-out wines from familiar names such as The Wooing Tree, Waitiri Creek, Felton Road, Mount Difficulty and producers more new to us such as Carrick, Domain Road, Grasshopper, Quartz Reef and Rippon.
Central Otago Riesling is also, as noted, to die for (Mount Difficulty’s and Carrick’s coming out on top on this occasion). In some respects similar to drier German styles, many Rieslings in the region are dry, somewhat akin to Tasmanian Riesling – rather than Clare or Eden Valley Riesling – but with their own hallmark of ripeness and ‘slatey-ness’ (the Felton Road Riesling admits some residual sugar and is stupendous).

Passing by Akarua and Felton Road itself the following morning – and, unfortunately, literally passing by the likes of Mount Difficulty and Mount Edward – the very high standards of Pinot Noir were again in evidence. Wines from Felton Road’s Cornish Point and Calvert vineyards – not to mention the simply stunning Block 3 – make clear that this winery produces some of the finest Pinot Noir on the planet.  Akarua, meanwhile, a relatively new producer is also definitely one to watch (its 2009 Reserve Pinot Noir, although a baby, was brilliant).

(Photo: Felton Road, Bannockburn, Central Otago)

One surprise, though, was that most of the bottling of the region’s wines is done by just two companies. In other words, most Central Otago wineries do not have bottling lines. Fongyee and I wondered if this might make life harder or give the winemaker potentially less control over when wines were bottled. But the arrangement seems to work very well and producers thereby can reduce capital costs. Arguably, it means wineries have to be even more careful in when they rack and, if necessary, fine and filter, although in reality many wines are finished at the bottling facilities in question (which are, in fact, large operations handling wine in tank and barrel rather than bottling lines alone).

Care, consideration and the thirst for greatness seemed as much in evidence in Central Otago as it did elsewhere in New Zealand and in flying back to Auckland before boarding an onward flight to Shanghai (and then on to Beijing) we had ample time to ponder the strong likelihood that New Zealand shall continue to discover greatness in its wines and, of course, in its breathtaking scenery.

~ Edward Ragg


About the Author:

Based in Beijing, Edward Ragg reports on the ever-changing and developing wine industry in China and abroad. Edward Ragg is co-founder, with his wife Fongyee Walker, of Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting, Beijing’s first independent wine consulting company. A former Captain of the Cambridge University Blind-Wine Tasting Team and a Landmark Tutorial Scholar (2010), he has judged at the International Wine Challenge (UK), Shanghai International Wine Challenge, China Wine Challenge, Wine 100 (Shanghai) and was guest international judge at the 2012 McLaren Vale Wine Show. Ragg holds the WSET Diploma and qualifications from The Court of Master Sommeliers and Society of Wine Educators. He is a WSET Educator and WSET Level 3 Assessor. A writer in a number of fields, his books include A Force That Takes (Cinnamon Press, 2013), Wallace Stevens and the Aesthetics of Abstraction (Cambridge University Press, 2010), and Wallace Stevens across the Atlantic – co-edited with Bart Eeckhout – (Palgrave, 2008). He contributes regularly to poetry magazines and wine journals (selections from his poetry can be found in Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam [2012] and the Carcanet anthology New Poetries IV [2007]). He is Associate Professor in English at Tsinghua University and brother to Michael Ragg, MD of Burgundy producer Mischief & Mayhem.


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  2. Wine Wines @ everything! » Blog Archive » New Zealand: In Search of Greatness – Enobytes (blog) December 14, 2010 at 12:21 AM - Reply

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  4. New Zealand: In Search of Greatness | Enobytes Wine Online December 14, 2010 at 4:43 AM - Reply

    […] New Zealand: In Search of Greatness Travel, Wine Add comments (Photo: Waiheke Island) […]

  5. Carmen December 14, 2010 at 9:04 AM - Reply

    I haven’t been to New Zealand but its still on my wish list along with Italy and Spain. Thanks for the wonderful post and pictures.

    • Edward Ragg April 15, 2013 at 10:03 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Carmen. Glad you enjoyed this story. Hope you manage to get to NZ one day!

  6. Julia December 14, 2010 at 3:49 PM - Reply

    I enjoyed your article, but the grammar was shocking! The following sentence is an example. “But, finally, what confronted us as we eventually broke the hole in the clouds over Blenheim and took a quick flight down to Queenstown and Central Otago, the most southerly wine-producing region in the world?” What confronted you? Is this a comment or a question?

  7. Russell Black December 14, 2010 at 5:15 PM - Reply

    I am unsurprised you did not visit Waipara as wine commentators seem to have a blind spot here. I invite you to taste the Black estate 07 pinot noir, trophy winner at london wine and spirit competition or the 01 winner of blue gold at Sydney or any number of wonderful chardonnays, rieslings, gewurzts, pinot gris, sauvis, pinot noirs and others grown and produced here

  8. Becky December 14, 2010 at 5:56 PM - Reply

    Absolutely lovely story Edward. I’ve been to New Zealand twice and I’m heading back again sometime next year. Cloudy Bay happens to produce one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs. And Felton Road – what a beautiful place.

  9. Greg Gordon December 14, 2010 at 7:52 PM - Reply

    I’m intrigued by the Matahiwi age-worthy oaked Sauvignon Blancs. I had no idea NZ made them, and I’m expecting it will be hard to locate them in the states. Great overview of your NZ experiences. Thanks for sharing.

  10. The Best Fine Wines » New Zealand: In Search of Greatness | Enobytes Wine Online December 15, 2010 at 7:56 AM - Reply

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  11. Edward Ragg December 15, 2010 at 7:51 PM - Reply

    Thanks, Carmen, for your comments. Delighted you enjoyed the piece!

  12. Edward Ragg December 15, 2010 at 7:54 PM - Reply

    I’m intrigued, Julia. The sentence is grammatically correct. It’s a question.

  13. Edward Ragg December 15, 2010 at 7:58 PM - Reply

    Thanks, Russell, not least for your thoughtful invitation. We did not purposely avoid Waipara or forget about it! There simply wasn’t time to get us there on this visit. We shall definitely return. In fact, we may be in the region in July of next year.

  14. Edward Ragg December 15, 2010 at 8:03 PM - Reply

    Thanks very much for your response, Becky. I’m delighted the article reminded you of your trips to NZ. I do hope you get a chance to go back!

  15. Edward Ragg December 15, 2010 at 8:06 PM - Reply

    Thanks a lot, Greg. The range of styles New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc now embraces can be a bit bewildering. There are a number of producers experimenting with less fruit-forward wines that are often texturally distinct from the zippy, higher acidity examples (see more lees-influence, some malo, some time in new oak etc.). At least NZ has informative back labels, so the style should be clear!

  16. Robert Giorgione January 6, 2011 at 3:59 PM - Reply

    Great article. Based here in London and having been a top-flight sommelier for the past 13 years, I am a very keen enthusiast and advocate of New Zealand wines. There is some interesting content, including video blogs, articles, reviews, interviews and tasting notes on my website.

  17. coiffeur paris August 25, 2011 at 9:54 AM - Reply

    Salut, je pense que j’ai vu que vous avez visité mon blog donc je suis venu à “renvoyer l’ascenseur”. Je tente de trouver des choses à améliorer mon site! Je suppose que c’est autorisé à utiliser un peu de vos idées!

  18. Nat Williams April 13, 2013 at 7:47 PM - Reply

    Great read!

    I agree with Russell – Waipara is often forgotten yet produces some of the most exemplary wines in New Zealand.
    Another must-try is ALL of the wines from Montford Vineyard, these wines are crafted by C.P Lin, a blind winemaker with the most incredible and highly developed palate and sense of smell. Words cannot describe the elegance and stunningly constructed wines that reflect the amazing terrior of this tiny region.

    • Edward Ragg April 15, 2013 at 10:06 PM - Reply

      Thanks, Nat! Yes, I’ve read about the wines of C. P. Lin, but have not had a chance to taste any of them. We do actually show a range of Waipara wines in our WSET classes here in China; but I should very much like to visit the region one day.

  19. […] First published on US site Enobytes, you can read the full feature here. […]

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