New Zealand highlights at the Decanter New World Fine Wine Encounter

As I mentioned earlier, there were six New Zealand producers represented at the recent Decanter New World Fine Wine Encounter. I wrote extensively on my impressions of Marlborough Pinot Noir. Here are some of my other highlights from these producers.

The scenic Gore Bay near Cheviot, New Zealand

Sauvignon Blanc

As Lord of the Rings later did for New Zealand cinema, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is what put New Zealand on the world wine map. Its clean, fresh, forward and fruity style still remains an immensely popular style of wine the world over, and has been the new benchmark for more recently developed Sauvignon Blanc regions (Casablanca in Chile for one) to emulate.

To my palate, however, the classic “Kiwi Sav” with intense guava and gooseberry notes, notable residual sugar, searing acidity and high alcohol is getting a little tiresome. Yes, there are still some well-made wines in this style, and I am prepared to acknowledge a well-made wine that simply isn’t my thing, although has a place in the broader wine spectrum. I do fear that with more producers seeking to cash in on a ‘cash cow’, vines being planted more widely and with less discrimination, coupled with the glut of grapes, a slow-down in world demand for the product and the subsequent drop in price for NZ Sauvignon, the bubble is close to bursting.

This is why I rejoice when I find a Sauvignon Blanc that stands out from the pack.

Saint Clair Family Vineyards showed a series of four sauvignon blancs (all 2010) that demonstrated what could be done with the grape in the right hands. Their entry level “Vicar’s Choice” wine was in the vein of what I would call the typical sterotype: tropical fruit on the nose – almost baked mango – with crisp acidity and sweet entry. Uncomplicated. Their “Estate Selection” wine was leaner with a pleasant green leafyness, although still bolshy and sweet. Moving up to their single vineyard wine, “Pioneer Block 21, Bell Sauvignon Blanc” I started to enjoy the style. Still aromatic and classically tropical on the nose, although with an added savoury character. The palate had more texture and structure, was less obviously sweet, and had minerality showing through. A wine with a long finish. Finally in their selection was the “Wairau Reserve“. Now this was a completely different beast – grassy, herbaceous, minerally and savoury on the nose, with far less fruit. The palate was light, pure, minerally, and relatively restrained. Well balanced, and (rarely for me and sauvignon blanc) enjoyable to drink.

Just as their pinot noir stood out for me, so did the two sauvignon blancs made by Dog Point. Notably, all their grapes are hand picked and bunch pressed. The care taken in the vineyard is echoed in the winery and they have produced two outstanding wines.

Their Sauvignon Blanc 2009 had an appealing delicacy to the nose; there was notable leafyness rather than fruit dominance. A light body with crisp, balanced acid, lean and textured, with some creaminess evident – a result of three months aging on lees. The Section 94 2008 is unusual in New Zealand in that this is an oaked sauvignon blanc: the wine sees 18 months aging in old French barriques. The wine has a lovely nose with woodspice complimenting the primary fruit – mostly gooseberry. There is also an appealing ‘woolly note’ adding to the complexity of the wine. Despite the oak aging it is crisp and taut on the palate, with an appealing minerality and a lemon-tart finish.

The Cheviot Hills – a new wine region…?

Mt Beautiful was unusual at the Decanter New World Fine Wine Encounter in that it was the only New Zealand producer without a Marlborough wine in its portfolio. In fact, this property is situated in the hitherto unknown wine region of the Cheviot Hills. Cheviot is not far from Waipara, but still a distinct region in itself. I was impressed by the uniqueness of the three wines shown at this event. The pioneering owners of the property and Sam Weaver, the winemaker, clearly pay a lot of attention to detail. I will follow the development of this region with interest!

Pinot Noir 2008: A light and bright ruby. Fruit-forward aromas, distinctly in the red fruit camp – cranberry and raspberry. However, there are also wonderful hints of shrubbery, mushroom and just a little white pepper. A rich, creamy body on the palate, red fruit again; moderate acidity, a sweet entry, appealing moderate and well-balanced alcohol levels (12.5%).

Sauvignon Blanc 2008: Certainly a different approach to both Marlborough and Waipara styles. A light straw colour. Aromatic and ‘creamy’ – guava and yogurt spring to mind. Sweet entry on the palate; penetrating minerality with guava fruit; notably less acidic than Marlborough and less ‘limey’ than Waipara.

Riesling 2008: Lime, blossom and riverstone. Subtle petrochemical riesling note. Again, a slight yogurty note to the aroma profile. Off-dry on the palate, crisp acidity, with limes to the fore. An appealing fruit-forward style.

Chardonnay in Marlborough

There were far fewer Marlborough Chardonnays presented at this event than other wine styles. The dominant feature of the wines I tasted was a thin body, with dominant French oak. I feel as though the grape character of the wines didn’t have enough body to support the level of oaking. In general, the oak seemed nicely integrated on the nose, but on the palate, the thick butteryness stood out too much against the lovely tight structure of the wine itself.

Pick of the bunch was (once again) Dog Point Chardonnay 2009 which was aged for 18 months in barriques, 15% of which was new French oak, the rest: used barrels. The oak profile was very similar to that of their oaked sauvignon blanc, mentioned above, although the fruit of the chardonnay was a lot less overt – more tart apples and lemon. High acidity on the palate with a light body, the oak was less buttery than the other wines I tasted (Nautilus Estate, 2009; Saint Clair Pioneer Block 10, 2009) with a creamy lemon finish.

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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